Jewishness: Written in the Body

Representation of DNA Double Helix as seen through an electron microscope, Black background
Representation of DNA Double Helix as seen through an electron microscope, Black background

The bad news is that hostility towards Jews as Jews, otherwise known as antisemitism, exists. The good news is that there are attempts made, at highest places, to combat it. The curious news is that these attempts are very critically received by some Jews. President Trump’s executive order on combating antisemitism was issued on December 11, 2019 and on December 21, 2019 a fiercely critical feature about the order, authored by Professor Judith Butler, a renown philosopher and gender theorist, was published in ‘Foreign Policy’.

What does the executive order say? It is a document written in a legalistic style, certainly not a work in history and sociology of Jews. In this succinct legalistic manner, the order states that Title VI of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, colour, and national origin, could be used against discrimination rooted in antisemitism. It is that simple. The executive order does not define Jews in any way. A visitor from Mars, unaware of any human political debates and lacking any of the existing political biases, would only be able to see clearly that there is some difficulty with applying Title VI to Jews or antisemitism, specifically because Title VI ‘does not cover discrimination based on religion’. It is that difficulty that the executive order seeks to relieve or remove. On this basis, a visitor from Mars could reasonably conclude that either Jews are a religious group for the sake of which Title VI is extended or there is some well-known and hardly-controversial, simply because unstated, ambiguity about who Jews actually are: a religious group (uncovered by Title VI) or a group defined by race, colour, and national origin (covered by Title VI).

Professor Judith Butler is not a visitor from Mars, and so the essay authored by Butler is different from what such a visitor could have written. Trump’s executive order – Butler tells us – seeks to put ‘the slur of dual loyalty into law and attempts to appeal to Jews and to combat anti-Semitism on campuses by denying the vast history of Jewish cultures, practices, and forms of belonging that precede the emergence of the State of Israel and continue to proliferate outside of that framework for understanding Jewish life.’ To put it differently, there is some problem with the executive order’s portrayal of Jewishness as related to…or originating from Israel. To be sure, Professor Butler does not tell us exactly how Jewishness is defined. Rather, the argument is that there are other ‘forms of belonging’ that the executive order denies. These ‘forms of belonging’, the reader learns, are numerous; not being too specific about them, Professor Butler gives their labels as ‘secular, religious and post-national’. The main thing, according to Butler, is that these forms have nothing to do with common origin in Israel. ‘How comes, and is this true?’, I hear you ask.

In the following few paragraphs I will do my best to let you know what the scientific study of Jews has to say on the matter of Jewish ‘forms of belonging’. I will not come back to Trump’s executive order and Professor Butler’s view of it. But you are welcome to do so.

So, who are Jews…? A religious group – people sharing a system of faith? An ethnic group – people with common ancestry? A cultural group – people sharing a language and customs? In short, Jews are all these things, and this has never been a subject of a major lasting controversy. People who study Jews scientifically – demographers, for example – are often required to define Jews in one way or another. This is not a theoretical but a highly practical matter for them. This happens when national censuses or large-scale surveys are launched, and when there is an intention to identify Jews in them. Without such censuses and surveys, we would never know how many Jews exist, let alone what they do, where they live and how they compare to others. Yet to find all this out, one needs to ask ‘the right thing at the right time’, namely, the category ‘Jewish’ should be included in ALL questions asking about religion, ethnicity, or ancestry. This is the best practice from the scientific point of view. None of the opportunities to identify Jews should be spared for fullest count. Calling Jews ‘a religious group’ works. Calling Jews ‘a nation’, an ‘ethnicity’, or such like, works as well. All are correct; none is wrong; the more options are offered to Jews the better. The experience proves that, given several such opportunities to identify themselves, many Jews would use all of them, without seeing the multiplicity of ways as problematic, confusing, or inappropriate. The experience also proves that some Jews, a minority, would strongly prefer one way over the other. Typically, these would be non-religious Jews who feel that defining Jews as an ethnic group, rather than as a religious group, is preferable. Yet, their preference does not extend as far as opposition to other Jews identifying in religious terms.

But enough of words, let us move onto numbers. In a survey of Jews in the USA, conducted in 2013, Pew Research Center found that over 50% of American Jews think that being Jewish involves common ancestry. For comparison: only 15% of American Jews think that being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion and 26% think that it is mainly a matter of culture. The American Jewish pattern of ‘forms of belonging’ is not unique. The emphasis on common ancestry is equally heavy among Jews in Canada, Russia and Israel, where similar questions regarding the essence of Jewishness were asked in the surveys of Jewish populations in these places. Between them, Canada, Israel, Russia and the USA house close to 90% of the global Jewish population. Thus, the ‘forms of belonging’ of vast majority of Jews today are well mapped and, it seems, a very significant share of Jews stick to the story of common ancestry.

Does this mean that Jews believe in some sort of fairy tale? Ancient, honourable, breathtakingly beautiful – but a fairy tale, nevertheless? Not at all. Common ancestry of Jews is a fact. Jews, as a tribe, a nation, originated in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago, give or take a few. Midway through their existence they started spreading into Europe, mainly via Italy and Greece. As they moved into Europe and established new communities, they mixed with non-Jews. Mixing with non-Jews happened pretty much everywhere and was moderate in scope; nowhere it led to the erasure of the Middle Eastern ancestry at a communal level. In the net outcome, in each Jewish community, most members continued to share ancestry rooted in the Middle East. Who says? The modern studies in population genetics! And even those with the most superficial knowledge of the independent historical account of Jewish origins, contained in the Torah, would be able to notice how well they ‘sync’ with the findings of population genetics.

Genetic ancestry testing is the forefront of today’s population science and, progressively, historical science as well. Its activities and methods are better known today thanks to the burgeoning commercial ancestry testing in the US and Europe. “MyHeritage” and “Ancestry” are examples of the well-known trademarks in this area. They rose in response to the existential curiosity: many people across the globe, Jews and non-Jews alike, consider questions of ancestry foundational to who they are. “MyHeritage”, “Ancestry” and other companies operating in this area offer their clients a ‘diagnosis’ of ethnic ancestry in exchange for a modest fee. How is this done? By providing a client with a kit containing two small glass tubes and detailed instructions. Two small tubes are containers where a client is asked to deposit two samples of their saliva. Then the kit is sealed and sent to the lab. The results are typically ready in two months or so. “You are 90% Ashkenazi Jewish, 5% Middle Eastern and 5% Baltic” is the style in which results are reported. It is important not to overinterpret the results when one receives them. Large percentages (e.g. 90% Ashkenazi Jewish, or 50% Ashkenazi Jewish/40% Balkan) give a firm indication of ancestry; small percentages (e.g. 5% Baltic) may or may not indicate the presence of some Baltic ancestors, they could represent ‘noise’, the fact that testing is still imperfect and cannot classify all parts of the individual genome in an absolutely meaningful way.

None of this would be possible without prior knowledge of distinct genetic profiles that different groups of people, often calling themselves ‘nations’, possess. To put it differently, there is such a thing as an Italian genetic profile, a Greek genetic profile, a Balkan genetic profile. And there is such a thing as a Jewish genetic profile, and, in truth, there are several versions of it. Ashkenazi Jewish is one of them, Sephardi Jewish is another, and there are others. This ‘Jewish genetic profile’ is the concrete, rock solid, scientific manifestation of what is conversationally labelled as ‘ancestry’. Genetically, people identifying as Jews are more similar to each other than they are to others, on average. Different subgroups of Jews, e.g. Ashkenazi and Sephardi, separated by geography and centuries of lack of contact, are genetically closer to each other than to the respective non-Jewish populations that had been hosting them for centuries. Genetically, Jews are closer to some nations of Europe (e.g. Italians) than they are to others (e.g. Nordic nations) simply because they dwelled on the Italian territory for longer and mixed with Italians more intensely. Genetically, Jews are also rather close to the contemporary nations of the Levant. That genetic closeness could arise from one thing only – common ancestry.

‘Questions of blood are the most intractable of all’ – humorously noted Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece of the Russian literature. He wrote this in the early 20th century. Much has changed since then. In the meantime, population geneticists mapped the humanity creating ethnic genetic profiles. They are not completely done yet, the work is still in progress, but one thing is clear already now: in a short while we will have full understanding of how right or wrong were sociologists and historians insisting on the ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ national identities. The concept of ‘invented’ – fictional, artificial, fanciful – identities is something that numerous cohorts of university-educated individuals all over the globe were schooled in. It was completely mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s and anyone educated in social sciences in the West at that time would have had a generous helping of this. It is easy to talk when nobody can prove you wrong. But when genetic science can expose physical foundations of ethnicities and nations-that is something else. My prophetic soul foretells that many tomes in history and sociology will have to be re-written pretty soon.

About the Author
The author is a demographer and a statistician, born in the USSR - a world that no longer exists - and educated in Israel and Britain. The author holds a PhD in Social Statistics and Demography. To date he has served in senior analytical roles in the Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel) and RAND Europe (Cambridge, UK). He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (London, UK). He has published widely on Jewish , Israeli and European demography and social statistics. The author's favourite topics are demographic and social puzzles involving Jews and people that surround them-why do Jews live so long? why do Muslim Arabs in Israel have so many children? why do women-globally- live longer than men? Is there a link between the classic old-fashioned antisemitism and today's antizionism? These are just a few examples of questions that motivated some of his work and on which he has written extensively.
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