Closing The Case: Are The Jews A Race Or A Religion?

“Even if some Jews do believe that they’re white, I think that they’ve been duped. I think that antisemitism has proven itself to be a powerful force in nearly every post of Western civilization where Christianity has a presence. And so even as a Christian, I say continually to my Jewish brothers and sisters: don’t believe the hype about your full scale assimilation and integration into the mainstream. It only takes an event or two for a certain kind of anti-Jewish, antisemitic sensibility to surface in places that you would be surprised. But I’m just thoroughly convinced that America is not the promised land for Jewish brothers and sisters. A lot of Jewish brothers say, “No, that’s not true. We finally—yeah—they said that in Alexandria. You said that in Weimar Germany.” –Professor Cornel West 

Passover. It’s that time of year again where Jews around the world celebrate the freedom of our ancestors, who were slaves in Ancient Egypt. But are the Jews of today the same Jews who were described in the Bible? Are they the true descendants of the Israelites of ancient lore, or rather a conglomerate of converts who chose to inherit the philosphies and customs of a people now lost to history? Very few people seem to know the correct answer to this question, Jews included, although many are confident and even stubborn in their insistence that their view is right.

Jews, for their part, are very shy about the subject of race, because for most of their history (especially for the Ashkenazim), they were treated as a separate race from the host populations they lived amongst. In Europe alone they were denied the basic rights of citizenship and land ownership, and were often forced to live in restricted areas called ghettos until they were eventually kicked out and forced to move elsewhere (this is the origin, you may recognize, of the phrase “wandering Jew.”) It was only following the Enlightment and the establishment of the American Jewish community that Jews were able to sacrifice some of their cultural and customs in order to be accepted as “White,” and thus freed from the constraints of being the discriminated “other.” Even then, however, the former sophisticated society that was Germany turned into a genocidal state that viciously murdered and decimated the Jewish population of Europe by about 66 percent, and the Jewish population of the world by about 40 percent. The reason for this mass genocide, known today as the Holocaust, was racial in character; the Nazis viewed the Jews, whether or not they were religious, as a separate breed from the “White” race of Northern Europe due to their foreign origins. Following these events, it is easy to understand why world Jewry doesn’t like to be viewed as a separate race anymore.

Anti-semites and those with a vested political interest in the destruction of the State of Israel, on the other hand, have now shifted their philosophical outlook on the racial character of the Jews. While not altogether dropping their view of the Jewish people as an alien and unwanted breed, many of these people have decided to attack the very Jewish character of the Jews themselves, claiming that they are a result of mass conversions whether from Europe or from a little known Central Asian kingdom called Khazaria that rose and fell sometime around the rise of the Umayyad Empire. To these doubters and critics, the Jews have no right to have a homeland in the land of Israel, because they are not the genetic heirs to the ancient inhabitants of said land. So, where does the truth lie then? Thankfully, in recent years there have been a number of genetic studies conducted on Jewish (and many other) populations around the world which, in corroboration with historical records and linguistic/cultural analysis have helped to finally shed light on the origins of modern Jewry.

Before we take a look at the genetic data, however, it helps to take a very brief glance at the many different subgroups of Jews that exist today, as well as the manner in which Judaism defines itself. Arising out of the ancient Israelite kingdom of Judea, Judaism (translated from the Hebrew Yahadut as the philosophy of the Judean people) sees itself as a national-ethnic identity. It’s many customs and traditions are in fact the remnants of the legal code that once ruled the theocratic Israelite kingdoms. Although Judaism does accept converts, it does not actively proselytize, and indeed one who was born Jewish but later converted to another religion is still traditionally viewed as a Jew, whereas one who embraces Judaism fully but has not undergone a formal conversion is still viewed as a gentile. In this context, it helps to view the role of conversion in Judaism as a sort of immigration process; Jewish converts, known in the Hebrew Bible as “the strangers who dwell among you,” are immigrants who become absorbed into the Jewish nation.

The ancient Israelite-Jewish nation as a political entity, however, was never really that stable to begin with. Situated at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and the European Mediterranean, Judea was conquered and reconquered by many of the greedy empires of the ancient world. One such major conquest, which occurred during the 6th century before Christianity, resulted in the Babylonian Exile, where a large portion of Ancient Israel’s political and cultural elite as well as a smaller number of commoners were deported to Babylonia (modern day Iraq) by the King Nebuchadnezzar. Years later, many were permitted to return by Cyrus the Great of Persia, however evidence suggests that a great many had become so established in Babylonia that they decided to remain. This marks the historical beginnings of the Iraqi and Iranian Jewish communities that continue to exist, albeit in markedly decreased numbers, to this day.

Those who remained in Judea were later absorbed into the Roman Empire after the conquest of Titus in the first century before the Common Era (i.e. BC). As new subjects of Rome, the Judeans found themselves connected with a vast network that spanned the Mediterranean, and thus as Roman citizens many left their homeland to establish small merchant-trader communities across the coast of the sea. The communities that were established in southern Spain and North Africa would later become the basis of the Sephardic community, whereas the communities of Italy and Northern France, which later spread to Central and then Eastern Europe, became the basis for the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Following the destruction of Jerusalem after the Roman victories in the Jewish Wars and subsequent Bar Kochba revolt (ca. 70 CE and 135 CE respectively), numerous Judeans were foricbly expelled by the Romans and resettled as slaves elsewhere throughout the empire, while others yet fled in order to escape the post-war situation. Once resettled, these new arrivals joined the already extant communities around the Roman Meditteranean, reinforcing their numbers and providing a basis for their subsequent espansion and growth.

Judea, for its part, had now been renamed Palestina after the Filistines, a Greek-speaking seafaring people who had once been arch rivals of the ancient Israelites, battling them from their settlements on the coastal Gaza Strip. This renaming was done as an insult to the defeated Jewish fighters by the Roman government, which also destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and banned Jews from entering the city. Nevertheless, a majority of Jews still remained in the Galilee area of ancient Israel-Judea, and others yet settled nearby in the regions of Lebanon, Syria, and Alexandria, Egypt, reinforcing the already present Jewish enclaves in these regions and forming the basis for the Mizrahi-Sephardic Jewish communities that would later develop and live under Arab and Islamic rule.

Moving on from the history, we can now take a look at the genetic evidence, which has been slowly compiled over the course of the last twenty or so years by leading American, Israeli, and British geneticists. (Note: I am only doing a brief summary here, and anyone who is interested in further analysis should consider looking into Dr. Harry Ostrer’s “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.”) From the get go, these studies established that all of the various Jewish communities of Eurasia, from the Iraqi and Iranian Jews to the Sephardic Jews of the Mediterranean and North Africa to the Levantine Jews of Lebanon and Syria, and (initially surprising to many) the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe shared a substantial amount of their DNA. Paternally speaking, all of these communities inherited a majority of their male lineage from the same Middle-Eastern people who gave rise to the modern Palestinians, Syrians and other natives of the Fertile Crescent. Maternally, however, these various Jewish communities differed more, with recent studies suggesting that many of these communities were in fact established by Israelite/Judean men who, along with a small number of Israelite women, took wives from local populations, converted them, and then started communities which later spread. The genetic studies do not, however, seem to show any evidence that these conversions continued but rather they were a one time event that for the most part stopped following the acquisiton of wives and the establishment of Jewish enclaves.

As a whole, the scientists involved in these studies noted that when clustered together and compared with world populations, most Jews (Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi) showed more genetic affinity to each other than they do to the communities of gentiles they live amongst. Furthermore, when compared to Europe, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews show similarities with Greeks and Italians, a phenomenon which is more or less absent from the Iranian and Iraqi Jewish communities, reflecting both a certain level of mixing that likely occurred during the Roman conquest of ancient Judea, as well as a percentage of Jewish and Arab DNA that entered the Italian and Greek gene pools as well as a result of their historical connection to the greater Mediterranean region. Outside of these communities, however, the much smaller Ethiopian Jewish and Beta Israel Jewish communities of Africa seemed to be more religious rather than ethnically Jewish in nature, resembling the Christian and Muslim neighbors they live near genetically rather than showing any substantial Levantine DNA.

On a last note, no real evidence emerged showing any substantial contribution of “Khazar” DNA to any of the Jewish communities, refuting this long standing historical myth. Even more interesting, while Jews of all denominations and Palestinian Arabs shared a substantial amount of their DNA, it was also observed that Jews were in many ways more closely related to the other non-Arab inhabitants of the region, such as Kurds, Armenians, and Druze. A variety of factors help to explain, at least in part, what accounts for this phenomenon. Mainly, after the Jewish population left their historic homeland, a majority of the people in the Middle-East, including what later became the Palestinians, were conquered by the armies of Islam which arose out of the Arabian peninsula. As a result, the Arabs brought both their language and their genetics, adding a degree of homogeneity to Arab-speaking Muslims throughout the region. This theory is supported to a degree by the observation that Arab-speaking peoples as far away as Morocco, Syria, and Yemen share a good degree of their genetics, which the Kurds, Armenians, and Druze do not. Furthermore, an influx of genes from Sub-Saharan Africa and the various Turkic and Mongoloid conquests that defined the later Middle-East have also helped to differentiate the Arabs slightly from their Jewish cousins. This has caused many in the field of population genetics to postulate that the original peoples of the Middle-East may have been far more genetically close to Mediterranean Europeans than they are now.

In summary, the Jewish communities of today, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Mizrahi, do share a substantial genetic origin that points to a parent Middle-Eastern Israelite population which later mixed and mingled to a degree with other various Eurasian populations, specifically with regards to maternal descent, while still retaining their genetic profile as a people with origins from the Near East. Although the word race is not scientific at all, the Jews do fit under this category as defined by society, since scientists can predict with accuracy whether or not a person is of Jewish descent by looking at their genetic profile (see 23andMe). Having said that, a more appropriate term to use would be nationality or ethnicity, and like all other peoples of the world, the Jews are not a “pure” race as they have had much contact with others as a result of their history. Nonetheless, they remain a people both in their genetics and in their culture, preserving their identity through centuries of hardship and exile. It is true that for many these realities prove troubling, as they can be used as a justification for racists that the Jews are indeed the “other.” For others yet, who seek to delegitimize the State of Israel, nothing can be accepted that points to the Zionist movement having any basis in reality. My point here, however, is not to address either of these concerns, which deserve articles of their own. Rather, it is to present the facts, as they are, which cannot be hidden no matter how uncomfortable they may make some people. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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