7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Is Jewishness best defined by religion, culture or race? For most of the past century, it been believed that Jewishness is formed by culture and religion, but not by genes. Harry Ostrer argues otherwise.
The Professor of Pathology and Genetics at Einstein College of Medicine, Ostrer published a scientific article in 2010 demonstrating a biological basis for Jewishness. New techniques in genetic analysis reveal the Jewish genome shares DNA threads. “This degree of shared genetic segments is greater among Jews than between Jews and non-Jews.”
Not everyone welcomes this news. To those who question his motives, even if not his findings, Ostrer explains that his purpose is to understand Jewish disease susceptibilities, and to understand Jewish origins and migrations. Since Ostrer is Jewish, he has an interest in constructing a sophisticated family tree.
As far as the debate about what constitutes a race and whether race exists, Ostrer prefers the term “cluster” to the more inflammatory term. He explains genetic similarity of clusters by citing a consensus view from the journal Genome Biology (2002) by N. Risch and his co-authors:
“Probably the best way to examine the issue of genetic sub-grouping is through the lens of human evolution. If the human population mated at random, there would be no issue of genetic sub-grouping because the chance of any individual carrying a specific gene would be evenly distributed around the world. For a variety of reasons, however, including geography, sociology, and culture, humans have not and do not currently mate randomly, either on a global level or within countries such as the US.”
In short, Ostrer writes, “Genetic differentiation is enhanced by geographic separation and by inbreeding (endogamy) over extended periods of time and is reduced by mating between populations.”
Most contemporary Jewish populations are descendants of one of three groups:
1. Middle Eastern (or Mirrahi) Jews who lived in contemporary Israel and Palestine as well as Iran, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula. They are descendants of the Jews carried into captivity in Babylon (in present day Iraq) in 586 B.C.E.
2. Sephardic Jews who resided in Spain and Portugal until they were expelled around 1500 and migrated to North Africa, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.
3. The Ashkenazi Jews who moved north of the Alps probably from Italy during the first millennium A.D. They moved into Germanic states and developed Yiddish. During the 12th & 13th centuries they were expelled from Western Europe and moved to Poland and Lithuania. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the U.S., Canada, South America, South Africa, Australia and the UK.
Ostrer explains that a Y-chromosomal pattern among Jews demonstrates they are descendants of people who once lived in the Middle East. “The study of Jews is occurring against the backdrop of worldwide efforts to use Y-chromosomal and mitrochondrial lineages as a basis for understanding the deep ancestry of all major human populations.”
Genetic analysis indicates that European Jews had a mixture with European populations of 5-8 percent. The presence of European lineages is the major difference between Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews. The genetic analysis of contemporary Jewish populations points to origins in the Middle East, with Diaspora populations having specific founders, and with some of those populations having greater admixture than others.
The science of human genomics – the study of entire genomes – has recently mapped and sequenced the content of the human genome. Differences throughout the entire genome, not just Y chromosomal and mitrochondrial, were identified. A good book on this topic, also reviewed on Amazon by this reviewer, is DNA USA (2012) by Brian Sykes. Goldstein et al (2009) found they could perfectly distinguish Ashkenazi Jewish Americans from European Americans with 100 percent accuracy.
Ostrer launched the Jewish HapMap Project in NY City, the second largest Jewish city in the world. This project demonstrated that Jewish populations from the major Diaspora groups – Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi – form a distinctive population cluster that is closely related to Semitic and European populations. Within this larger Jewish cluster, each of the populations formed its own subcluster. Each group demonstrated Semitic ancestry and had variable degrees of admixture with Europeans. The genetic split between the Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern groups occurred about 2,500 years ago. “Overall the typical degree of sharing (among Jewish communities) was what might be expected for fourth and fifth cousins; this, indeed is the degree of relatedness within Jewish communities.”
Not one to shy away from controversy, Ostrer also addresses genetic susceptibility to certain diseases and whether intelligence is derived by inheritance. The fact is that Ashkenazi Jews test higher on IQ tests than any other American ethnic group. Jews won 29 percent of the Nobel Prizes in four categories during the second half of the 20th Century. Ostrer suggests that culture alone does not account for these facts. As Charles Murray puts it, Jews are not only nurtured to be smart, but also bred to be smart.
The recognition of Jewish susceptibility to certain diseases specific to Diaspora Jewish groups was popularized by Chaim Sheba, an Israeli geneticist. Some 40 diseases – including Tay-Saks, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, Mucolipidosis IV, as well as breast and ovarian cancer -- have been found disproportionately among Jewish populations. Sheba established the notion that these diseases served as genetic markers for the particular populations that had been relatively isolated genetically.
Ostrer explains that currently Ashkenazi Jews are screened for Tay-Sachs and 16 other conditions; there are now more infants born with Tay-Sachs among gentiles than among Jews. New cases of Ty-Sachs have dropped by 90 percent due to screening programs to identify carriers of Tay-Sachs and due to pregnancy testing to detect fetuses with the disease. In short, via genetic screening, the prevention of marriage by Tay-Sachs carriers and the like, “contemporary Jewry is transforming the genetic makeup of future Jewry.” A century ago, this would’ve been called eugenics.
There is a widespread belief in the USA and other western countries that Jews constitute a religion rather than a group with common genetic heritage. Genomics challenges that belief as out of date. Evidence for biological Jewishness raises the question of whether Jewish should become a category in the U.S. Census.
Genetics should not replace Jewish law and culture, Ostrer writes, “but it will take its place in the formation of group identity alongside shared spirituality, shared social values, and a shared cultural legacy.” ###
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Matthew William Cohen
- Published on Amazon.com
I was very much satisfied reading Harry Ostrers book. I have followed much of his work on FamilytreeDNA and his DNA studies on Ashkenazi Jews.
The book covered pretty much everything I had expected. I fully understood the testing that was being utilized and as a result, have a much deeper appreciation on the history and background behind population genetics and genetic diseases.
The book covers the history of anthropology on Jews and the original dismissal of Jews being one people before genetic testing was available, yet society could still pick out a Jewish person from 1,000 people.
The book does go further into history, I felt some of the history may have been slightly weak, however, Harry Ostrer does state that he was relying on resources for the history of the Jewish people. Harry Ostrer does mention the Khazar theory and that it appears genetics have widely disproven this theory, he also explains the Rhineland Theory and that Jewish people do not appear to actually be descendants of just one specific people but rather a tapestry of various ethnic groups over time with Southern European converts, and also mention regarding later conversion of Idumean people during the Hasmonean empire which Idumeans were force converted to Judaism.
Genetic data seems to cover early work on population clustering and subclade origins, it explains how frequency and length would identify ancestral haplogroups which was more consistent with distant ancestry than blood tests. Over time, haplogroups identified a core ancestor but not necessary evidence that a population group came recently from those same ancestors, a perfect example of this was neolithic migration of people who came from the Middle East to Europe prior to the existence of the Semitic peoples and would share the same haplogroups, this is where single nucleotide polymorphisms and subclades start to show recent mutations that indicate common origins of those populations.
Harry Ostrer also covers the Cohen Modal Haplotype admitting the early 6 marker test was not reliable as non Jews and even other groups such as the Lemba in South Africa were showing these same 6 markers using Short Tandem Repeat tests in the J1 group, so while it may not indicate one is a descendant of Cohens or even a Jew, it could be used to prove a connection to the middle east perhaps to the Semitic speaking populations, however the dating/time is a problem, as a result, Ostrer explains the newer 12 marker tests that generally show up in individuals with a known Jewish ancestor from the paternal line. Ostrer also indicates that the CMH shouldn't be used to specifically rely on Jewish ancestry or even Cohen ancestry, but it is a good indicator for those who already have some sort of oral history, and I did like the way it was presented in the book.
Harry Ostrer further covers Jewish intelligence, the section seemed slightly out of place, but Harry Ostrer does mention that there is still ongoing debate regarding genetic influence of intelligence or if it is a result of other factors such as wealth, urbanization, education, etc.
Medical studies were quite interesting which shows evidence how genetic screening has practically eliminated Tay-Sachs from the Ashkenazi population and that it is actually more common in Non Jews now than it is Jews. Other mentions are Gauchers disease and other genetic diseases that seem to be found in different Jewish populations not found in the Ashkenazi population.
Overall, the book was a pleasure to read, I felt that it refined my knowledge on the subject and that I had a better understanding on bottle neck populations and population clustering compared to before. The book by no means is pro Zionist or Anti-Semitic or even Pro Khazar/Anti Khazar. Infact, the book does quite the opposite as Harry Ostrer mentions that he refused to be influenced in some sort of political role to promote a concept of Jews being a single ethnicity/race or that they did not have any Hebrew origins. Harry Ostrer seems to promote a message of science, and I firmly believe this is why his book has been misunderstood by both sides of the spectrum. On one hand, you have the religious Jews who in some cases do not want to acknowledge that Jews are a race or a ethnicity but rather a religion, Harry Ostrer does mention that American Jews are the few people who do not want to be seen as a race which is understandable considering how Hitler alienated Jews in Nazi Germany and treated them as inferior, but does not warrant an excuse why scientific genetic studies should not be used to encourage and promote scientific studies.
On the other hand, the non religious, or perhaps those who are politically opposed to Israel or even perhaps anti-semitic may feel that Harry Ostrer is politically promoting Zionism or perhaps that the Jews are identifying themselves superior genetically, in other cases, individuals who oppose the historical context of Israel or the Jews even descending from the Israelite people may also feel that Harry Ostrer is promoting a very one dimensional view on the Jewish people.
From the viewpoint of Harry Ostrer, it appears once again that he states in his book that this is not the focus, and even goes on to state that Israels law of return does not use genetics/DNA to allow citizenship and that even converts to Judaism are able to "return" to the state. Harry Ostrer seems more keen on identifying a signature common in Jews to a core ancestor that bottlenecked and had mixed with other populations that separates them genetically.
From a personal viewpoint, I have used genetic testing from both FamilytreeDNA and 23andme and have learned a lot about my mixed Ashkenazi/Sephardic ancestry and my Kohanim paternal ancestors. I have also learned about genetic diseases that my family has inherited as a result. I cannot recommend this book enough to those who are also involved in genealogical testing and I feel Harry Ostrer did a great job despite minimal complaints on a few topics. 5 stars for a wonderful book.