Consummate dilettantism!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jews, Genetics, and History

Who are the Jews? It is a simple question. It is less simple to answer properly. I will attempt to do so now.

The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) records the history of a pre-Jewish tribe of Semitic nomads (by Semitic I mean, very roughly, "Middle-Eastern") generally referred to as the Hebrews. (It is important to remember that racially, these Hebrews were not European -- they had more in common with contemporary Palestinians and the Lebanese. According to the Bible, their ancestor was Abraham, who compelled by God left the ancient city of Ur in Iraq for Canaan.) It contains 24 books. The first five, whose original stories are probably older than history and whose basic text first began to be written down around 1000 BC, are extremely ancient. Religious Jews, unlike Christians, believe these 24 books to be not only divinely inspired but also divinely authored. To them, every single letter was spoken to Moses by God Himself on Mount Sinai, and every single letter has survived to this day. This position is patently false according to modern scholarship. It is also belied by a simple reading of the text itself, which differs stylistically from book to book and which itself hardly suggests Mosaic authorship! Indeed, it greatly undermines it at Deuteronomy 34.5, requiring an absurdly contortionistic effort by the Rabbis to deny the obvious. It is generally agreed that the full text of the Old Testament was compiled by 200 AD.

I will not discuss the Biblical stories now (I do recommend reading them if you are not familiar), but it will suffice to say that this nomadic tribe (traditionally, fresh from enslavement in Egypt) conquered Canaan/Palestine (what we now know as Israel), an area possibly including parts of present-day Lebanon. Infighting (described more or less accurately by the other 19 books of the Bible) among member tribes of the Kingdom of Israel was common, and by 700 BC the Assyrians had carved out a nice chunk of northern Israel. The Southern Kingdom (whose capital was Jerusalem) survived until it was captured by the Babylonians in 586 BC. A massive population transfer ensued, and the Jews did not return to Israel until 539 BC, after Persia had conquered Babylon. Thereafter, the Bible became the central Jewish document and biblical prophecy began to wane. The Macedonians under Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in 331, effectively gaining control over Israel. Their attempt to "Hellenize" the Jews lead to the Maccabean revolt in 168 BC (commemorated by the modern Jewish holiday of Hanukkah). Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 63 BC (who called the area "Iudaea"), but the Jews rebelled ceaselessly. Nevertheless, the Roman/Byzantine empire held onto the region until 640 AD (!), at which time the Arabs captured the region. It changed (mostly Muslim) hands many times over the ensuing centuries, until it was captured by the British in 1917 and became an independent state in 1948.

But it is important to remember that under Roman (Pagan or Christian) and Muslim rule many Jews found the region inhospitable (Judaism was often banned) and left for other places. For almost two millennia, Rabbinic Judaism outside of Israel remained firmly in vogue; in place of temple sacrifices well-codified prayers were offered, and European Jewish schooling centralized into the institution known as the shul. Astoundingly voluminous commentaries on the Bible and commentaries on those commentaries and, remarkably, commentaries on those commentaries were written. A very rich and distinct Ashkenazic Jewish culture came into its own, producing an awesome lineage (whose members include such secular figures as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Milton Friedman, and Leon Trotsky).

(To impress upon you the uniqueness of the culture, consider this passage from a New Republic article written by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker:
The appearance of an advantage in average intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews is easier to establish than its causes. Jews are remarkably over-represented in benchmarks of brainpower. Though never exceeding 3 percent of the American population, Jews account for 37 percent of the winners of the U.S. National Medal of Science, 25 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in literature, 40 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, and so on. On the world stage, we find that 54 percent of the world chess champions have had one or two Jewish parents.

Does this mean that Jews are a nation of meinsteins? It does not. Their average IQ has been measured at 108 to 115, one-half to one standard deviation above the mean. But statisticians have long known that a moderate difference in the means of two distributions translates into a large difference at the tails. In the simplest case, if we have two groups of the same size, and the average of Group A exceeds the average of Group B by fifteen IQ points (one standard deviation), then among people with an IQ of 115 or higher the As will outnumber the Bs by a ratio of three to one, but among people with an IQ of 160 or higher the As will outnumber the Bs by a ratio of forty-two to one. Even if Group A was a fraction of the size of Group B to begin with, it would contribute a substantial proportion of the people who had the highest scores.
Why is this the case? That is beyond the purview of this post, but the article explores the issue.)

There are two lines of Jewish descent in what is known as the Jewish diaspora: The Sephardi line and the Ashkenazi line. "Sephardi" refers to those Jews who remained in the Middle East (or in areas under the control of the Muslim caliphate) -- it covers, among others, Spanish, North African, Persian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian Jews. "Ashkenazi" refers to European Jews. Racially, they are somewhat similar to gentile European populations. (And yet quite distinct -- see below.)

But the obvious question remains: How do Ashkenazi Jews today look almost indistinguishably Caucasian, remain genetically distinct, and yet derive from the Middle East? It's an immensely complex question, but what prompted this post was an interesting article about precisely that by Commentary's Hillel Halkkin. See this as well.

I should also note that Jews are not necessarily Israeli and that they do not necessarily have any connection whatever with the modern state of Israel or its culture. To give but one example, my father's family hails from Lithuania and Hungary, and my mother's, ultimately, from Poland and Russia. (But I cannot establish this with certainty, as my family has been in America for quite a long time.) I have utterly no cultural ties to modern Eastern Europe; I have never visited and probably never will. When people suggest that I am Israeli because I am Jewish, I cringe -- I have never been to Israel, let alone the Middle East. I am Jewish and American, and in spirit only Jewish and American.

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