Shlomo Sand en in zijn spoor de Nederlander Jits van Straten kregen al snel een hoop applaus voor het 'weerleggen van de mythe' over het bestaan van en de afstamming van het Joodse volk. DNA onderzoek schijnt hun beweringen echter geheel niet te ondersteunen.
IT'S IN OUR DNA
(Article by Nadav Shragai, Yisrael Hayom, 5.3.10, pp. 18-19B)
The claims presented by Prof. Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People according to which, there was no Jewish People up until the 19th century are gathering popularity in Europe and the Arab world. But opposition to the claim comes from a surprising scientific field. Several DNA researchers have discovered: Not only are Yemenite and Polish Jews brothers but Aaronic priests from various communities descend from the same father. The discoveries in the field of genetics are reassuring and refute racist approaches.
In Europe, Prof. Shlomo Sand's book The Invention of the Jewish People, is a best-selling hit. Sand, an economics history professor at Tel Aviv University, claims, in his book, that up until the second half of the 19th century, "There really was no Jewish People;" that the exodus from Egypt never happened; and that the kingdom of David and Solomon never existed. He even went so far as to claim that the Jewish People were not exiled after the fall of the Second Temple.
The book became a bestseller in Europe, especially in France, where it was on the national bestseller list for 19 straight weeks and received the "Today" prize from a group of columnists. But here the storm began. A French researcher, Eric Marty, severely criticized the book in Le Monde under the headline "Bad Reasons for the Success of a Bestseller." Other researchers, most of them students, attacked Sand, including in a leading article in l'Histoire, and two other researchers, Claude Klein and Mireille Hadas-Lebel, called Sand's book "an invention."
As expected, the book, which claims there was no Jewish People, plays into the hands of those who are struggling against Israel's right to exist, not only in Europe, but in the Arab world as well. From various publications, it arises that there are already contracts for translating the book into 16 languages, including Arabic.
But to academics in a totally different field, Sand's theory seems especially unfounded. Until recently, those who replied to Sand in learned articles have been historians, archaeologists, columnists and of course rabbis. But researchers in the field of genetics are now joining the argument. Recently, there have been scientific developments in this field. The researchers more or less confirm the familiar story of the Jewish People, as well as the underlying assumption which, in one sentence, holds that Jews in the four corners of the Diaspora are indeed one people and the descendants of common forefathers and fore mothers.
Prof. Karl Skorecki is the Director of Medical and Research Development at Ramban Hospital in Haifa and the Director of the Rappaport Family Institute for Research in the Medical Sciences at the Technion. Together with research groups from the US, Russia, the UK, France, Portugal and Estonia, they have in recent years located a series of identical or very similar genetic signatures, i.e. "barcodes", in DNA taken from the blood of Jews in approximately 25 different countries.
These unique genetic markers show considerable genetic closeness between Jews around the world. All of this is in spite of the distances of time and place between them. These "signatures" are common to Jews thousands of miles apart from each other and they are not found among their non-Jewish neighbors, from whom the research group also took DNA samples. Moreover, the research showed that the genetic "barcodes" common to Jews the world over are indeed different from the "barcodes" of their non-Jewish neighbors in the various countries but are identical to the genetic "barcodes" characteristic of residents of the Middle East (Jewish and non-Jewish), such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Whoever desires may find here far-reaching evidence of the origin of the first Hebrew, Abraham, from Mesopotamia, between the Euphrates and the Tigris.
In the DNA samples that were taken from Jews around the world, there is also evidence of assimilation and conversion to Judaism in lesser and greater rates: In some countries, there is considerable intrusion by genetic "barcodes" characteristic of the non-Jewish population and vice-versa. And indeed, Jewish sources tell of large-scale conversion to Judaism. For example, the Book of Esther (8:17) says that, "And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them." Rabbi Yehuda Halevy's book Kuzari tells of Khazars who converted to Judaism 1,300 years ago (although most researchers believe that the story of the Kuzari has no historical basis and that it was written as a literary device for the philosophic discussion in the book).
Skorecki, a world-class nephrologist, led research teams to cooperate in their work with Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, who is considered the outstanding demographer of the Jewish People, and with history Prof. Theodore Parfitt from the University of London. With their assistance, the geneticists tried to understand the historical significance of their findings. One of the main historical insights raised by the genetic findings among Ashkenazi Jews was that European Jewry originated in the Middle East.
It is interesting that similar findings were received in a different genetic study issued several years ago by the US National Academy of Sciences.* The genetic "fingerprints" or "barcodes" of Jewish maternal and paternal lines, as found in DNA samples taken from the blood of European Jews, moved apart as far back as 1,300 years ago.
This specific research, which was coordinated by Doron Behar, under Skorecki's guidance, showed that the approximately 3.5 million Ashkenazi Jews are the descendants of four ancestral women. The findings raised by the genetic study of Ashkenazi Jews apparently match the history that we are familiar with: Ashkenazi Jewry originates from Jews who migrated from the Land of Israel to Italy in the first and second centuries; later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, they migrated to central Europe and spread throughout the continent, until reaching approximately ten million people on the eve of World War II.
Can the genetic research refute the claims of those who deny the Jewish exile, such as, for example, those Palestinians who call on Jews who came to Israel from eastern Europe to return to their countries of origin?
Prof. Skorecki says that the genetic research does not deal with this but adds that, "The findings show us that the DNA 'barcodes' among European Jews are not the 'barcodes' characteristic of the non-Jewish European populations but of those characteristic of the residents of the Middle East, which can certainly assist in strengthening the claim that there was an exile."
Skorecki, who is considered among the leading experts around the world in the genetic research of the Jewish People, became interested in the field by coincidence approximately 17 years ago, after returning to Canada from a year's sabbatical at the Weizmann Institute. One day it occurred to him that among the Aaronic priests ["cohanim"] at his synagogue were tall men with blond hair, alongside darker men of lower stature, and all recited the same blessing by virtue of the tradition that they are descended from Aaron the priest ["cohen"].
The scientist asked himself if it was possible to check the claim that the priestly lineage was "pure" and if there was a genetic basis for the claim that all these men should be considered Aaronic priests today by virtue of the tradition passed from father to son that they are indeed the descendants of one father, Aaron the priest. The research question that Skorecki sought to crack touched on one of the main genetic parameters for considering the preservation of the ancestral Jewish people. According to the book of Exodus, the status of the priesthood began to coalesce in the time of Moses, during the period of wandering in the desert. The sons of Levy were set apart for sacred tasks and one family among them, that of Aaron, received the right of the priesthood, which has apparently passed from father to son ever since. Priests were demarcated from the rest of the people in their lifestyle as well. They were inter alia barred from marrying divorcees or converts. Later sources speak of thousands of priests who served in the Temple over the years, in permanent watches of 24 groups.
Josephus Flavius attests that this meticulousness was also upheld during his time. The Babylonian Talmud tells of 18 High Priests who served during the First Temple period and of 300 during the Second Temple period Skorecki and his colleagues tested DNA from 68 Aaronic priests, and from another 120 Jews who were not Aaronic priests. The samples were taken from Israel, Britain and Canada. They were tested on a certain part of the Y chromosome that only men carry and is passed on from father to son. The findings, published in the distinguished periodical Nature,** caused waves. It was clear that, despite the geographical dispersion over two thousand years, the genetic identity of the priestly dynasty remained intact. If that was not enough, the research determines that all of the Aaronic priests originated from one biological father who lived 3,200 years ago, at about the period in which, according to tradition, Aaron the priest lived, during the period of the Tabernacle, according to Jewish custom.
That is not all: The Aaronic priest research also showed that Ashkenazi Jews and Jews of eastern descent, who separated into two communities about 1,000 years ago, are indisputable genetic relatives and are genetically related to each other many times more than they are to the peoples among which they lived. Simply put: A Jew from Yemen is genetically closer to a Jew from France than he is to his neighbor in Yemen. A few months ago the scientists repeated the research, in a more comprehensive study. Once again the findings were validated and even found four Aaronic priest sub-branches that the technology available to the researchers 13 years earlier could not have discovered.
Yigal Shafran is a Professor of Science and Jewish Law at the Bar-Ilan University School of Education. He is also a rabbi and a lecturer on medical ethics at the Technion and heads the Chief Rabbinate's Department of Medicine and Jewish Law. Shafran was required more than once for Skorecki's research. He says that, according to Jewish law, genetic studies do not constitute proof, but rather support for additional findings. Therefore, it is not possible, for example, to prove mamzerut status through genetic testing. Despite this, under financial law, Jewish Law relies on genetics. For example, when a father asks for an exemption from making support payments for a child under the claim that he is not the real father, and the genetic test supports this - he is exempt from payments.
British social science researcher Dr. Charles Murray claimed in the past that the IQ of the Jews is 7-15% higher than the general average. Skorecki clarifies in this regard: "In our research we only test DNA segments called neutrals. There are 'genetic barcodes' that indicate tendencies toward diseases, and there are 'barcodes' that indicate behavioral tendencies, for example a tendency toward violence, but our team did not deal with them at all."
"We are not enslaved to our genes," emphasizes Skorecki, "Genetics is merely a tool that, only when combined with additional means such as linguistics, archeology and history, helps us to gain insights into humanity's past, and in our case on the history of the Jewish People. These studies can, however, indicate a group of Jews from various places in the world who share a common origin and mutual genetic 'barcodes', but the historical-political issues, like those of the Jews and Palestinians, I will not try to settle, and will leave that to the historians. My opinion is that while it is important to know from whence you came, it is more important to know where you are going."
That is perhaps the reason why Skorecki refuses to relate directly to claims raised by historians such as Sand, even though his opinion on the matter is rather clear. Even Prof. Batsheva Bona-Tamir, a genetic pioneer in Israel, speaks in the same vein. Bona-Tamir founded the National Laboratory for the Genetics of Israeli Populations at Tel-Aviv University, where DNA examples are kept at -190 C. She also warns against, "interest-guided categorical characteristics which depart from the realm of research, or the misguided use of research in any such direction."
Does the genetic research of the Jewish people play into the hands of those who accused us in the past of condescension and pretensions to racial superiority? "Paradoxically," Prof. Skorecki emphasizes, "DNA research actually disproves any basis for racist thinking. DNA research can indicate a genetic affinity between people, and it does indicate significant genetic links between Jews around the world, just as it shows that the Druze are a type of 'genetic nature reserve', who have not intermingled with other peoples. Genetic research has discovered, inter alia, that the American Indians are actually from Siberia. In any case, DNA does not define people as a race, because it does not define attributes, character, behavior and heritage or tradition. As a rule, genetics teaches us that all of humanity is one family, from one stock, with 99.9% similarity to each other, and that this similarity is indeed common to the human race, but here it begins and ends. Whoever uses genetic studies of the Jewish people, based on one agenda or another, in order to describe a people-race, is distorting reality."
Despite these things, the genetics, which doctors make use of in order to characterize a tendency toward diseases in communities and various groups, and which the police utilize to identify suspects in crime, or their victims is gradually becoming a tool in deciphering and monitoring historic processes.
Thus, for example, a research group from the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, in cooperation with New York University, turned to the public a few months ago and requested anonymous blood donations in the framework of the Jewish HapMap Project, which is intended to map the wanderings of the Jewish People. Here as well it would be done by deciphering donor DNA of Jews from different communities. The existence of the Jewish People however is characterized mainly by common heritage, religion, history, experiences and territory, but more than a few scientists are anxiously awaiting historical discoveries as a result of developments in the genetic field.
* "Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, June 2000
** "Y chromosomes of Jewish priests," Nature, vol. 385, 2.1.97 "Origins of Old Testament priests," Nature, vol. 394, 9.7.98
(See summary here.)