The Chosen Genes: The Story of Jewish Origins, Once the Province of Historians and Religion Scholars, Is Now Being Told by DNA
Adolf Hitler would not have been particularly proud of him, Harry Ostrer says, though he, like the architect of the Holocaust, has developed systematic ways to separate Jews from non-Jews.
The powerful genetic markers of Jewish ancestry that Ostrer has found don’t imply racial inferiority, yet when the population geneticist first published his findings two years ago, one historian told Science magazine that “Hitler would certainly have been very pleased.”
“That comment really bugged me,” says Ostrer, a professor of genetics here at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and a Jew himself. It came from Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University whose 2009 book, The Invention of the Jews (Verso Books), argued that Jews arose from converting many local communities in Europe and elsewhere. His argument is contradicted by Ostrer’s work, which shows that geographically and culturally distant Jews still have more genes in common than they do with non-Jews around them, and that those genes can be traced back to the Levant, an area including modern-day Israel.
“It shows we share in a biological tapestry, and are connected by these genetic threads,” Ostrer says. “Bringing up Hitler was overheated and misconstrues my work.” Sand, however, remains an implacable opponent today. “It is a shame for somebody who defines himself as a Jew to look for a Jewish gene,” he writes in an e-mail.
That reaction isn’t the only misconstruction of this fraught topic, Ostrer says. The DNA that he found also tightly linked Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, two prominent culturally and geographically distinct groups; commenters immediately began to say this showed the groups were not separate at all. “And that wasn’t what I was saying either,” Ostrer says. Also, the deeply rooted Middle Eastern markers could be used to support Zionist territorial claims—except, Ostrer points out, the same markers can be found in Palestinians as well.