Are Jews a Race?

In Her Parents’ Families my mother adds only one remark to what she wrote in Her Childhood about her maternal grandfather. “He was an exceptionally good-looking man. Very tall, and by this time, of course, gray. All his sons were exceptionally good-looking men. They were all about six feet tall, some even a bit taller, and all the daughters were beautiful, blond, with blue eyes.” This is not an explicit reference to anything Jewish, but it strikes me each time I read it (my mother, too, had blue eyes, & so do I). Now, while thinking of its implications about Jewhood (& my readings on genetic features this might entail), I google Jews blue eyes, & the first thing to come up is an article titled “DNA links prove Jews are a ‘race,’ says genetics expert” that appeared today [130117] in the English edition of Haaretz. What I read there strengthens my feeling that yes, perhaps the primary “thing” that we Jews are, first of all, is not a religion, a people, a nation, but something we’re most disinclined to accept yet probably need to, together with all the dangers implicit in it (which the article also treats lucidly) − a kind of race, albeit a unique (because culturally interconnected) kind of race.This review of a recent book by the geneticist Harry Orster, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, is written by Jon Entine, author of an earlier book on this subject, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People (2007). I hope to look further into these two books.“Jews,” Entine says Orster notes, “are one of the most distinctive population groups in the world because of our history of endogamy (inmarriage, Jews marrying Jews). The DNA research now concludes that “most Jews have a shared ancestry that traces back to ancient Palestine” & that “about 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females trace their ancestry back to the Middle East.”

So who are the “red-haired Jews, Jews with blue eyes or the black Jews of Africa”? Entine: “Jews throughout history moved around and fooled around, although mixing occurred comparatively infrequently until recent decades [he doesn’t mention the intermarriages with converts, or the rapes by non-Jews (who knows how many of either occurred over the centuries?)]. Although there are identifiable gene variations that are common among Jews, we are not a ‘pure’ race. The time machine of our genes may show that most Jews have a shared ancestry that traces back to ancient Palestine but, like all of humanity, Jews are mutts.”

So say that geneticists prove that the Jews indeed are a race, albeit an impure one. I don’t think that would be enough to define what Jews are: race is obviously not enough. Can any dispersed race be said to have a cultural heritage, or, more precisely, a metacultural heritage, as we might call the Jewish heritage that underlies, connects & supports the multiplicity of Jewish subcultures that use different languages & are always interwoven to varying degrees with the cultures of their host countries, yet are all also always connected to the metaculture & its one language? The mystery only deepens. I return to the feeling that there is something quite unique here in the history of human groupings, a unique form of racial-social-cultural identity that for all its uniqueness is always also connected to a host-cultural identity. & a basic element of this identity is a shared Jewish ancestry, which, like all other shared ancestries, is – to quote Entine again – “ultimately … subsumed by the reality of the common shared ancestry of humankind.”

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