- The Good Stuff
- Contact Us
Written by Joseph Dunsay. After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. Find more Jewrotica writing by Joseph here.
Biologists have debated how to racially classify Jews for more than a century. In his Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that Jews belong to a Semitic stock that is separate from Europeans and Indians. Modern biologist discovered that the Jews of India mixed their DNA extensively with the DNA of Indian gentiles and that Ashkenazi Jews reside among the gentile residents of Israel, Italy, and Turkey on a genetic map. A research project with a small sample size spurred objections when the researchers concluded that Ashkenazi Jews originated from Turkey.
Much of the controversy surrounding genetic studies of Jews relates to the perceived unity or disunity of the Jewish people. It is relatively easy to understand the genetic center of a population. Interpreting the genetic variance within a population requires more abstract thought. Genetic variance is related to the genetic distance between the average person and the center of the population. A population that has interbred extensively with other populations in the past will have more genetic variance. So will a population that was broken into geographically isolated subpopulations for centuries.
Jews have traditionally maintained tribal unity regardless of genetic diversity by adhering to matrilineal descent. This policy makes it possible for very religious Israeli Jewish couples to be certain that a baby is Jewish even if the infant was conceived with help from a sperm bank that imports non-Jewish sperm. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that someone is born a member of the tribe if he has at least one Jewish parent and receives an exclusively Jewish upbringing that includes public affirmations of his Jewish identity. All streams of Judaism agree that DNA does not make someone more Jewish or less Jewish than anyone else.
Americans have embraced a significant shift regarding ancestry and Jewish identity in recent years. Experts were dismayed by the 58% intermarriage rate among American Jews and other signs of assimilation in 2013. Three years later, interfaith couples were a mainstream part of American Judaism. A conference devoted to interfaith families urged Jewish institutions to reach out to them, and a report on Boston’s Jews gives credit to intermarriage, along with immigration from Israel, for growth in the Jewish population.
The strong Jewish identity felt by Jews with gentile ancestors demonstrates how ethnicity and race can transcend biology. Conversions and mixed marriages make it impossible for biologists to draw clear lines between populations. Like sugar molecules leaking out of a submerged cloth sack, there will always be individuals who are near a population but outside its genetic boundary. The boundaries themselves change as racial views evolve. For example, the 2020 USA Census will have racial boxes for “Hispanic” and “Middle Eastern and North African” for the first time. Whether an American Jew checks the box for MENA or mixed-race on the his forms is something for secular leaders to worry about. Jews know that their connection to one another transcends DNA.