Chicago Sun Times

January 6, 2008 Sunday
Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People
Reviewed by: Howard Wolinsky

DNA testing uncovers people's origins, but will it resurrect racism?
Traditionally, Jews were born — the children of Jewish mothers; or they were made — through conversion. Now there's a third path to being Jewish: DNA testing.

Some folks, including descendants of people who came to the New World to escape the Spanish Inquisition and members of the Lemba tribe from South Africa, are finding Jewish roots based on their DNA. In Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (Grand Central, 432 pages, $27.99), author Jon Entine, himself a secular Jew and former news producer for NBC and ABC, showcases genetic genealogy, the use of DNA to uncover one's origins, as well as genetic diseases.

Entine follows the spiral helix of Judaism in America's Southwest, Africa, Israel, India and China, exploring the impact of this research.

DNA searches can help satisfy the human drive to understand identity. But Entine raises questions about how it could go wrong: "Are we unwittingly 'biologizing race' and resurrecting racism? Will the medical benefits and the knowledge of human history that flow from this research be sacrificed to identity politics?"

Previously, in his 2001 book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, Entine made the politically correct squirm, asking whether African Americans dominate sports because of their genes. In similar fashion in Abraham's Children, he wonders if genes have helped Jews, despite their small numbers and in the face of prejudice, become overachievers in science, medicine, finance, law, literature and music. "Once the intellectual doormats of Europe, Jews are now widely thought to be the smartest people on earth," Entine writes.

Despite a balanced discussion, Jews preferring a lower profile will squirm. In the years ahead, genetic testing to uncover disease risks and genetic genealogy are expected to become more popular. As a result, people will become more aware of their roots, back to mother Africa or ancient Judea, or wherever. Abraham's Children can help Jew or non-Jew alike understand this new promised land of DNA and the thorny issues it will raise.