A recent article in Haaretz, with the somewhat misleading title of “DNA links prove Jews are a ‘race,’ says genetics expert,” unveils a line of inquiry that grapples honestly with the matter of genetics and Jews. I’ve written a number of times on the controversial work of Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian who disputes Jewish peoplehood with a highly selective review of evidence and a pronounced anti-Zionist agenda. This article provides a rational and measured counterpoint to Sand’s ideological screed.
As the article acknowledges, this subject is a political bombshell, but it also proves that it can be addressed reasonably. One should not be thrown off by “race” being in the title; the article is in no way “racist” in its analysis. It accepts that genetic differences among populations (historically separated by geography and/or cultural or political factors) are relatively minuscule, but still have a significance in terms of dispositions toward certain diseases, physical appearance and possibly other traits.
Modern racism was based on a faux-scientific mindset in the 19th century which identified nations and ethnic groups as genetically-defined races. This is what shaped Nazi race theory on Jews and other peoples whom they identified as inferior or (in the case of Jews) pernicious and deserving of extermination. It also fueled European colonial expansion and exploitation in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Until very recent years, the overwhelming majority of Jews only married other Jews. This didn’t make Jews a “race,” but it did make them somewhat genetically distinct from other population groups.
Many (perhaps most) Jews have a sense of themselves as a people who are intellectually superior. There is some statistical (and now genetic) evidence for arguing this point, but the factual basis for such a contention is probably more a function of culture plus the social legacy of Jews being a minority group that has had to scramble to make a living because they were denied access to land. There’s the Jewish tradition of Talmudic scholarship and the elevation of learning as a cultural value, and the historical need for Jews to be innovative as businessmen in order to survive.
The tradition of Talmudic scholarship has been secularized into an embrace of academic study for professional degrees and achievement. Hence the disproportionate number of Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize in science and other disciplines. One wonders if these numbers will trend down as American Jews become increasingly assimilated (although this would not happen under anything like laboratory experimental conditions, because cultural assimilation goes hand in hand with intermarriage).
The economic and professional achievements of overseas East Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, et al., must also be driven by their experience as minorities who needed to scramble for a living in business, but they don’t have quite the same cultural affinity for learning as suggested by the Jewish tradition of Talmudic scholarship. In the case of East Asians, this may be compensated by intense family pressures to succeed, even more intense than is true traditionally in Jewish families.
As an amusing footnote on all this, I’ve just been informed of an article in YNet (the English-language website associated with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot) that reports that most families in South Korea actually study the Talmud in Korean, on the theory that Talmud study is the secret to Jewish academic achievement and economic success. This is an overly literal application of the point I’ve just made, that the tradition of Talmud study has promoted a secularized reverence for learning and intellectual rigor that has stood Jews in good stead.
However, considering the ways in which the Jewish state has fallen repeatedly into a pattern of violence and counter-violence in its conflicts with the Palestinians and Hezbollah, I would say that the notion of an inherently superior Jewish intelligence is either wrong or grossly overrated.