Who Cares Where Ashkenazi Jews Come From?
Why does anyone care where Ashkenazi Jews come from? And who exactly are the ones doing the caring? Medical researchers care. Historians care. Population geographers care. Genealogists care. Antisemites care. And Jews care. Did I leave anyone out?
The Question is NOT: “Where do Ashkenazi Jews Come From?”
Ashkenazi Jews come from Judea. The question to ask really is: What is the genetic composition of the DNA of today’s Ashkenazi Jews?
Just to show a bit of the confusion inherent in studying the contemporary genetic make-up of Ashkenazi Jews, let’s look at a map H.G. Wells put together for his book, Outline of History, published in 1920. The map shows only some of the migrations that happened between the years 1 and 700 CE. That’s only a small fraction of human history and a fraction of the time since Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar) walked the Earth. Looking at this map shows us, right off the bat, that there is no such thing as a pure ethnicity. Every last person on earth will be part something and part something else and part something else, and . . .
Why Does Medical Science Care About the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews?
Genetic testing for disease vulnerability among particular population groups is becoming more and more sophisticated as the science develops. The goal is personalized medicine whereby DNA testing can tell medical teams which individuals are more likely to get a particular disease, what measures are most likely to help prevent them from getting sick, what treatments are most likely to help them heal if they do contract the disease, how to tell when a medical strategy is not working, and more.
According to Jane Evans of the University of Manitoba, understanding population genetics is important for this endeavour.
Genetically transmitted diseases are caused by a mutation that occurred at some point of a population’s history and was passed down through the generations. Medical population genetics, in part, then, attempts to identify the location of the founding mutation, the time and place in history when the genetic mutation that can cause a particular disease first occurred. By knowing that, research can try to uncover those factors that allowed one population to exhibit resistance to the disease while another was more susceptible. This differential response among population groups could result from natural biological resistance/susceptibility, dietary differences, or behaviours that prevent or promote disease expression.
Attention to ancestral background will help assess the probability of genetic disease.
According to Israeli researchers Ostrer and Skorecki, “Ashkenazi Jews are America’s largest genetic isolate” and therefore have been a fruitful population for medical geneticists to study.
Importantly, the population genetic architecture of Jews helps to explain the observed patterns of health and disease-relevant mutations and phenotypes which continue to be carefully studied and catalogued, and represent an important resource for human medical genetics research.
Given this purpose, I think it wise to explore all possible avenues by which the Jews of ancient times may have found themselves in eastern Europe. This will open up for us all potential contributors to our contemporary Ashkenazi Jewish DNA, and that will deepen our understanding of our own disease vulnerabilities. Do we really want to hamper that research?
How Do Antisemites Use Science Against Ashkenazi Jews?
Antisemites have latched onto a 2013 study in which Eran Elhaik states that, while Ashkenazi Jews originate in the Levant, we have a large proportion of ancient Khazari genetic materials in our DNA. It is impossible at the current stage of technological know-how to know how true that may be. Somehow both the antisemites and professional peers critical of his work decided that Elhaik was saying Ashkenazi Jews are not rooted in Israel. The antisemites use that to deny our rightful claim of indigenous status here and Elhaik’s opponents feel they have to dissociate themselves from the Khazar theory. Yet he wrote:
We conclude that the genome of European Jews is a tapestry of ancient populations including Judaized Khazars, Greco–Roman Jews, Mesopotamian Jews, and Judeans and that their population structure was formed in the Caucasus and the banks of the Volga with roots stretching to Canaan and the banks of the Jordan. [emphasis added]
I suggest that you use the above quote from Elhaik to counter anyone you might find who tries to use the Khazari theory to say Ashkenazi Jews are not indigenous to Israel. I did — and it finally shut up the man calling me all sorts of names.
We still know so little; therefore, splitting the field into competitive theories that pit the “Rhineland’ers” against the “Khazari’s” seems counterproductive. Besides, we Jews brought back home to Israel different languages, foods, music, and clothing we picked up in the Diaspora. Why is it so difficult to accept that we also brought different genes?
Many People Want to Know What’s in Their Genes
Dr. Elhaik’s video talks about how scientists can help individuals understand where they come from generations ago. The DNA data is used in a slightly different way by genealogists, who apply it to help people reconstruct more accurate and more detailed family trees. They find it can help them break down brick walls in their research that held them back from unlocking some family relationships. Individual DNA data has also led some non-Jews to discover Jewish roots in their family histories.
Scientists, and in fact all of us, need to remain curious and to be open to exploring all new research findings. It cannot help but be fascinating. I, for one, have no objection to discovering that my Ashkenazi roots partly lay in Persia and later combined with converted Khazarians – it actually seems quite an exotic history to have had. Likewise, I have no objection to discovering that my Ashkenazi roots partly lay in Greece and Rome and the converts that were added there to our DNA. Do I have a Spartan in me, or perhaps a Roman gladiator? Or maybe all of the above?
It is this exact fascination with finding one’s roots that have made DNA testing and genealogical sites on the Internet so popular. Let’s not turn it into a new battleground while scientists are still working on improving the techniques that will give us more accurate answers than are possible today.
The debunking and dismissal of Eran Elhaik is not a Jewish thing. The genetic genealogy community across the board – Jews and non-Jews – do not appear to take his work seriously. “Unwarranted” and “hyperbolic” are typical of the moderated language that I have seen. (You should hear what they when speaking!)
Thanks for coming over to read my post. I wonder if you have also read the one where I more specifically relate to the debate about his work.
No but I looked now. If you want to discuss DNA in contexts other than what you mentioned, my phone number is in the book. Or you can get it from our mutual friend.
I am interested because my son died of Tay sachs disease in 1975. He was 6 years old, it is been on my mind all those years because we did not know about Tay sachs back then. Now I know and was surprised to find out about my Jewish heritage thru DNA.
I am so sorry about your son. What an awful way to find out you are a member of the tribe.