Defining Jews, Defining a Nation: Can Genetics Save Israel?

How studies of Jewish DNA could help answer a question that's at the heart of some of Israeli society's biggest problems: Who counts as a Jew?

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Herzliya, a broad-beached ocean-side resort 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, is booming with construction -- big hotels going up on the bluffs and expensive new bungalows on the bougainvillea-laden streets. Herzliya was named for Theodor Herzl, the 19th-century Zionist visionary whose dream to see the Jewish people resettled in their homeland triumphantly came to pass.

From across the Atlantic, Israel looks to be a liberal and fully modern Western state, albeit one with a terrific burr under its saddle, the Palestinian problem. Until you come here, you don't sense the second conflict, just as severe for Israelis, over the religious character of the nation. The essential question is, Who is a Jew? The issue is driven by the religious right, which has never been stronger in Israel. All new citizens must prove they are Jewish in order to get married, for example. So the question of who qualifies and who doesn't could define not just the country's identity but its demographic future. Is a person Jewish because of blood or because of culture? Must Jewish identity follow the biological pathway of descent, like those tongue-twisting names in the Hebrew Bible connected by begat, or can Jewishness be acquired merely by espousing the faith?

"I don't need a rabbi to tell me who's Jewish!"

The implications of the debate matter for more than just Jewish Israelis. Allowing for biological yardsticks of Jewish ancestry begs a question about the blood origins of the Palestinians in their midst. On the family tree of humanity the two peoples are surprisingly close, or so says science.

Last June, some two dozen Israeli and American geneticists met at the Dan Accadia Hotel in Herzliya. Although the purpose of the two-day conference was to discuss the latest findings about the DNA of the world's populations, the focus soon narrowed to the genetics of Jews. Jewish DNA, with its tracks of ancient migrations and rare genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, was the material the scientists knew best. The 20-minute presentations were hurried and dense. As the scientists took the podium, each made quips about their tribe's DNA. "Somebody should do a genomic study about why Jews eat so much," said one, in a nod to the food the hotel had lavishly laid on. "In Jews," said another, "there's probably a stop codon [a unit of DNA that tells a cell to stop making a protein] in the human gene for smell. That's why we can eat gefilte fish."

On the afternoon of the second day, the participants edged away from science to ask if genetics might help resolve the identity issues paining Israel. One of the conference organizers, the Israeli Karl Skorecki, said that the meeting had been evading the subject for two days. "I believe Jewishness is metaphysical, cultural, unrelated to DNA."

"But some others," he went on, "such as politicians, journalists, genealogists, and professors of French theater, have jumped ahead of us scientists. Why have we been so reticent over the years?"

By "French theater," Skorecki was taking a swipe at his compatriot Shlomo Sand, a professor of contemporary history. Sand was not in attendance, but his work was a presence at the conference nonetheless. He was the author of The Invention of the Jewish People, a 2009 best-seller in Israel and France and point of controversy in the U.S. On the one hand, Sand agreed with most scientists that Jewishness was a cultural, not a biological, construct. On the other, he attacked the "myth" of Israel's blood connection to the Biblical founders, and he disputed recent genetic findings that tie Jews' origins to the Middle East. Earlier, when the American scientist Harry Ostrer had declared, as he did again at the conference, that markers on the DNA reveal "a biological basis for Jewishness," Shlomo Sand had retorted, "It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity: Hitler would certainly have been very pleased!"

That afternoon at the hotel, Skorecki and Ostrer led a panel discussion on "The Genetics of Being Jewish." Unlike the prior sessions, all in English, the discussion was conducted in two languages, with English permitted for those who didn't speak Hebrew and headphones provided for those in the audience who wanted a running English translation. Four non-geneticists from Israel -- a Member of the Knesset, an Orthodox rabbi, a Nobel chemist, and a prominent journalist -- came up and joined the scientists. The Israelis waved their arms and boomed their opinions in Hebrew, their explosive pharyngeal consonants causing the scientists to shrink back a bit in their chairs. These politically minded men had little to say about the genetics of Jewishness. Rather, they missed the muscular old days when a Jew could be known simply by his or her desire to come to Zion and serve the state. "I don't need a rabbi to tell me who's Jewish," said the journalist Dan Margalit, thumping his chest.

Under the Law of Return, any Jew in the world may make aliyah and claim citizenship in Israel. The law extends the right to spouses and offspring of Jews who may not be Jewish themselves. However, if an immigrant wishes to marry, he or she may face obstacles. There is no civil marriage in Israel; the institution is controlled by a religious authority, the Rabbinate. According to halacha, ancient Jewish law, either the applicant's mother must be demonstrably Jewish (the blood connection) or else the applicant must have converted to Judaism in a verifiably Orthodox ceremony (the cultural test). If unable to satisfy the authorities, immigrants may get married outside the country, and the state will accept the union. Secular Israelis who resent the strictures go abroad by choice, nearby Cyprus often providing their version of the Las Vegas wedding.

Levy-Lahad reminded her colleagues that attempts to define Jews scientifically have a bad history.

Then the panel and the audience were asked to comment on a case study, a real one. An Eastern European woman who was a 12-year resident of Israel had documents affirming that her paternal grandfather was Jewish, but no proof of Jewishness on her mother's side save her own testimony. To bolster her claim for a marriage license, the woman went to a commercial gene-testing service and had her DNA analyzed, specifically her mitochondrial DNA. This part of the human genome is inherited strictly through the mother's line. She turned out to carry a genetic marker associated with Ashkenazi Jews, 1.5 million of whom carry it. Scientists had traced the marker to what they believe to be a founding lineage of the Jewish people in the Middle East. Should the religious authority take the biological evidence into account? Should the rabbi in charge give the woman a pass on the requirement for conversion?

Presented by

Jeff Wheelwright, longtime science editor for Life magazine, is the author of The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess.

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