Intermountain Jewish News

December 28, 2008

Are the Jews a 'Race'? DNA Researcher in a Controversy

By CHRIS LEPPEK IJN Assistant Editor

Jon Entine calls himself  "the ultimate liberal," and provides personal evidence to support the contention.

He came of age in the 1960s – he’s 55 now – and dropped out of college to work for George McGovern and participate in civil rights marches in Washington, DC.      

He says he still believes in equal rights for all, and takes pride in his own Jewishness not because he is religious (he defines himself as an atheist or agnostic) but because of the way that Jews have traditionally identified with and supported the downtrodden.             

Yet the subjects which Entine has been bold enough to explore and discuss in his two books – Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk about It, and his just-released title, Abraham’s Children: Race Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People – have made him a frequent target of the very liberalism to which he personally subscribes.             

Race, Entine has discovered, remains a very, very touchy issue.             

For arguing that many African Americans are more successful at certain sports than members of other ethnic groups, and for his willingness even to bring up the inflammatory subject of a "Jewish race," Entine has been called everything from a racist to a fundamentalist to a reactionary.            

"I get weary of discussing the race part of it," Entine admitted to the Intermountain Jewish News the morning after he spoke about his book at the JCC’s Leah Cohen Festival of Jewish Books & Authors last week. "And I get weary of being defensive about it."             

Entine, with a background in journalism and academia and currently working as a consultant in business and media ethics, is sensitive to the reasons why Jews might find such racial discussions utterly terrifying. He understands that the collective post-traumatic stress caused by the Holocaust – perpetrated by people who were driven by pseudo-scientific theories of race and genetics – remains a potent and volatile force.        

Nevertheless, he feels that many modern Jews have allowed their trauma to lead to denial, and to render them blind to the scientific truths and practical values only now becoming manifest in genetic research.                 

Some Jews who react negatively against his books fail to distinguish the easily disprovable "poppycock" of so-called scientific racism from the legitimate discoveries of today in the field of DNA research, Entine argues.             

"I understand the reaction," he says, "but I’m a historian and a journalist trying to discuss history. I’m not saying that Jews are a race. I’m saying that ancestry influences who we are. The fact that there are 40 some diseases that are peculiar to Jews at a much higher rate than in any other population, suggest that the proxies for race – ancestry and population – do describe what the Jewish population still is today in large measure."                   

Abraham’s Children, which focuses on Jews, was written with much the same goal in mind as Taboo, which focused on Blacks. Entine says: "To find a language, a lexicon, for discussing what I feel is a perilous phase that we’re facing in discussing human differences."                 

The discussion is perilous because the "politically correct" contention that human beings are 99% the same as each other is fighting tooth and nail against DNA research, which many believe is revealing something else entirely.             

"We are now learning that humans are not a blank slate, that genetics plays a dramatic role in shaping us as individuals, in our behavior, in our capacities, in our disease proclivities," Entine says.                

"It also shapes, to some degree and with a lot of caveats, how we are as groups. These run counter to public beliefs."             

Those beliefs, he adds, are highly cherished by a great many people, including Jews, and understandably so.             

"We want to believe, as the Declaration of Independence says, that all men are created equal. That’s a statement of the need for equal opportunity, but the fact is we are not created equal. Men are faster runners and faster swimmers than women. Someone who is an opera singer did not just get it through training. She got it because she had certain vocal chords that were born that way."             

The theory that many of our strengths, weaknesses, skills and fallibilities may largely be determined by our genetic codes – something over which we have no control – is very disturbing to many people, Entine says.             

"Genetics circumscribe possibility. Even though we recognize it in the examples I just gave, we’re less willing to acknowledge it when it comes to behavior issues. The body yes, the brain no. And that’s where human genome research is going. I really tried hard in Taboo to use sports as a metaphor for discussing human differences, or an entry point to find a vocabulary.                 

"In this book, one, I used my own ancestry, so it was personal to me. I had a parallel opportunity for talking about Jewish history and ancestry, which was a learning experience."                

The author wanted that personal dimension to help him "open up the door to discuss this frankly and constructively."             

Entine means exactly what he says when he uses the phrase "personal." It was the death of his grandmother, mother and aunt from strains of cancer he believes to be attributable to uniquely Jewish genetic mutations that originally steered him toward DNA research. His sister has also fought a similar form of breast cancer and Entine is only too aware that he too carries that same potentially deadly mutation.             

His forays into the rapidly expanding world of DNA knowledge has led him far beyond the personal realm, however. In Abraham’s Children he takes close and fascinating looks at the light such science is shedding on Jewish and biblical history, as well as the complex but fascinating ways that genetics and environment interact to influence human behavior and history.                   

The simplistic view often expressed – that an individual’s traits are primarily governed either by environmental and cultural forces, or by genetic inheritance – is a black-and-white scenario that misses the mark, Entine argues. Researchers are becoming increasingly convinced that nearly all human traits develop as the result of interplay between genetic and environmental factors.             

"No scientist or science journalist talks in terms of nature versus nurture. That’s a popular paradigm for discussing human differences."             

He provides this example to illustrate his point. Some 90% of human beings are born with a recently identified gene mutation which appears with equal frequency among all racial and ethnic groups. A person with this mutation who is breastfed while an infant will, on average, score seven points higher on IQ tests than a person who is not breastfed, or who does not have the genetic mutation. Entine then couples that genetic data with this cultural data: In the US, some 70% of whites breastfeed, while only some 30% of blacks do.             

This mutation is not only a potentially valuable answer to questions about IQ differences between different ethnic groups, but a perfect example of how genes and culture may interact to produce a specific effect.             

"You can’t separate environmental and genetic differences," Entine says. "Most genetic differences are the result of gene-gene interactions triggered by environmental and cultural influence.             

"So I react against genetic reductionism in the same way I react against environmental fundamentalism. People who say it’s all culture or all environment know it’s not true. It becomes an ideological or political posture to support this kind of hope that we’re all the same. But we’re not, and science is showing that we’re not."                   

Speaking of IQ, Entine says one of the biggest surprises he encountered in his research resulted in one of his book’s most controversial theories – the possibility that genetics make Ashkenazi Jews smarter than other groups.             

"When I started the book, any debate about Jewish IQ was totally speculative," he says. "I mean, I know Jews have higher IQ – test scores are test scores, they are what they are – but there was no science about it. Now there’s preliminary science developing in that area which is more than speculation. It’s empirical science, but it’s very sketchy, early empirical science. I’m sure there will be a lot of twists and turns in that debate that might reverse or somewhat change those viewpoints."             

The preliminary evidence in question, which strikes Entine (and, he says, many geneticists) as highly plausible, links various Jewish neurological brain diseases and so-called "DNA repair" diseases like breast cancer, with higher intelligence. Those diseases are all a result of neurological programming -- which may coincide with proclivities toward higher intelligence.             

Here, too, however, cultural forces play a pivotal role. Abraham’s Children goes into considerable detail explaining how Ashkenazi social and family structures in medieval Europe may have contributed to significant genetic differences between Ashkenazim and gentiles and Sephardic Jews – differences that have persisted to modern times.             

"That’s genetics at work. Positive selection means there are cultural and environmental reinforcements to cause genes to spread. There’s no separation between genetics and culture. It’s a false argument, a straw man argument, either way. They reinforce each other."             

Any talk of such things as inherently higher Jewish intelligence leads logically to talk of a Jewish "race," a term that most Jews have virtually forbidden in the post-Nazi era.          

Entine himself doesn’t use the term Jewish race, he says, because the whole concept of race is itself unclear, contentious and somewhat arbitrary. Some scholars insist there are only three true human races, while others have identified more than 100.           

While Entine prefers to use the term "population" to describe a largely unique ethnic grouping, he notes that Jews themselves long regarded themselves as a unique race.            

"You cannot talk about Jewish history without talking about the concept of the Jewish race," he says. "The Jews have been around since 4,000 BCE and up until 70 years ago they considered themselves a race. So how can you talk about a people that consider themselves a race, that were considered by everyone around them to be a race, and not discuss that history? You can’t pretend it didn’t exist."             

It is, he concedes, a highly loaded word.             

"Does the word race carry meanings that are controversial? Absolutely. That’s what the title of the book conjures up and to the degree that it turns people off and discourages them from reading about Jewish history, I’m saddened by that. I guess I get sad also that people can be so resistant to just thinking openly and clearly about this. Why do people who are supposedly so smart – especially Jews – feel that they have to put things in ideological boxes?"             

In essence, Entine contends, such words as "race" and "ethnicity" tend to reduce a significant idea into needlessly inflamed semantic terms.             

"The concept is that evolution has impacted different groups of people in different ways," he summarizes. "The edges are very fuzzy. They overlap, but the question is, are they meaningful? In some cases they’re not, but they are meaningful when it comes to disease differences. If you go in for a breast cancer test, the doctor wants to know if you’re an Ashkenazi Jew. That combined with your family history is very telling and they want to know that information. So you should not tell them for political correctness?                 

"The issue of how important it is on issues of IQ is a huge debate. Obviously, IQ is a lot more complex than bone marrow, so you have to be much more careful in those areas, but the implications of it are great. The real concern is going forward and discussing those implications.                 

"Out of that, we’re going to come out with a different understanding of what it means to be human. The way we handle education policy, health policy, issues like insurance – these are all going to be dramatically changed by a deeper understanding of human differences. I think we hurt the very people that can be helped by not recognizing this."                   

As important as such weighty issues are, Entine admits that the best part of writing Abraham’s Children was the opportunity it gave him to delve into the dark, often mysterious, corridors of Jewish history.             

"It’s fantastic," he says. "It’s interesting. It makes me proud of my ancestry as Jew. I’m enough of a chauvinist in a positive way to find great pride in seeing Jewish connections across the world."             

Working in conjunction with anthropology, archaeology and Biblical study, Entine says, genetic research is increasingly becoming a valuable tool for allowing us glimpses beyond the veils of time.             

The existence of Aaron – the brother of Moses and a pivotal figure in the Exodus – has been partially confirmed by genetics. Geneticist Michael Hammer (who introduced Entine in Phoenix, just after his Denver visit) has identified genetic evidence of the priestly (kohanim) clan through paternal genetic markers that stretch back to an initial paternal figure, identified by the Bible as Aaron.             

The rich folkloric tradition of the Lost Tribes of Israel is another field where genetics is pointing in interesting directions, Entine says. Genetic study of the Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe – a people who practice millennia-old Jewish rituals and traditions and consider themselves a Lost Tribe – show undeniable Jewish genetic markers, probably traceable to a first century exodus by Yemenite Jews. The Lemba account, long mocked by anthropologists, is at least partially backed up by genetic research.             

On the other hand, DNA evidence does not back up the claims of the Beta Israel, the Falashas of Ethiopia, who claim to be descended from the Queen of Sheba at the time of Solomon, Entine adds. Genetic research today, coupled with other scientific data, strongly suggests that the Beta Israel are descendents of converts to Judaism. Although they have been practicing Judaism since before there were Ashkenazi Jews, they are not genetic Jews, but genetic Africans.             

On yet another hand, some of the crypto Jews of Mexico and the southwestern US have genetic mutations suggesting Jewish ancestry. Initially identified through a cancer gene mutation among Hispanics in Colorado’s San Luis Valley (and discussed in depth in the IJN L’Chaim magazine, Sept. 10, 2004), this evidence backs up historical claims that the crypto Jews may have descended from Jews expelled from Europe during the Spanish Inquisition. The persistence of rituals and customs that resemble Jewish practices has long fascinated anthropologists and historians studying such Hispanic populations, but even with the newly revealed genetic evidence, Entine advocates a dose of cautious skepticism.             

"I don’t think there’s any question that the mutations that showed up in the San Luis Valley populations originated with a Jew," Entine says, "but that doesn’t necessarily confirm their crypto Jewish ancestry. It’s not a cut and dried case. Like the Lemba, I would be very wary of basing it on speculative anthropological evidence."                   

That cautionary tone should be applied to any historical area to which genetic research is applied, the author advises.              

"I love DNA in that it opens up almost a romantic way of looking at our past," says Entine, but adds the warning that drawing quick genetic conclusions can be misleading. As the genetic lines go back in time, the relative influence of ancestors diminishes with their distance.             

"So Jews didn’t build the Great Zimbabwe [ancient ruins of a great African city]. Black Africans – who have Jewish ancestry on one of their lines – built the Great Zimbabwe. There is no real controversy there. The controversy is created by the romance we impute to the paternal line. It’s like surnames, which represent only one line of our ancestors. We exaggerate. We want to make more of it than it is."             

DNA, Entine says, "is part of a puzzle . . . a tool that can be used along with other things."             

One must be similarly hesitant to seek to prove or disprove biblical accounts based strictly on genetic indications.             

Evangelicals Christians, he says, tend to love the Lost Tribe stories and are eager for genetic and other scientific evidence that buttress biblical prophesies and accounts that are theologically important to them. Entine has been the guest on several evangelical radio programs – including several which hold to creationist ideas. His hosts are fascinated by his genetic research on Jews, but have requested that he speak of no history before 5,700 years ago, which is when creationists believe the world was made by G-d. Entine says he complies, with the qualification that if someone were to ask him a question about it he would have to answer honestly.           

In sum, while Entine believes that "there is genetic witness to some of the historical accuracy of the Bible," the evidence uncovered so far has not moved him from his agnostic reaction to Scripture. Entine says that DNA will never provide the sort of definitive biblical answers that believers and atheists might demand of it.             

"All DNA does is show how little we actually can know of that period," he says. "DNA can’t speak to many aspects of the Bible. It can only speak to broad ancestral trends. It does help us understand the history of Jews, the formation of Ashkenazi Jewry, the shattering of Sephardic Jewry. It’s a new prism for looking at Jewish ancestry and that is the attraction."