Friday, October 13, 2006

Judaism: Not A Race

I know that at times it seems as if I define Judaism in the broadest possible terms: religion, culture, ethnicity, nationality. One term I do not use to define Judaism is as a race. I have several reasons for this stance, the least of which is that it irks me when people claim that Jewish in-marriage is equivalent to racism. Although I am tempted, I won’t address the controversy over whether race exists or if it is simply a social construct; the debate over the genetic existence of race does inform my views on the racial status of Judaism, however. Typically, any genetic difference discerned from genetic testing distinguishes groups according to geographic origin (Does Race Exist, Scientific American, December 2003). Genetic analysis studies from Stanford and the University of Utah indicate, “The groups easiest to resolve were those that were widely separated from one another geographically. Such samples maximize the genetic variation among groups.” The authors urge caution in attempting to use this analysis to distinguish between groups whose “ancestors have historically interbred with multiple populations.” Bamshad and Olson use the southern Indian population as an example, but the Diasporic Jewish populations also fall into this category.

Given these set of parameters (that “racial” difference is a function of geographic location, instead of inherent differences between groups to be easily distinguished by differing facial and skin tone characteristics), the genetic variation between Mizrahi* Jews and Ashkenazi** Jews would parallel the genetic variation between Moroccans and Russians (which is to say, not much, but still a slight distinction). Ancestry is relevant for the risk of inheriting certain mutations and diseases, for example, so you should tell your doctor if you are Jewish, but these genetic markers are geographically based, so you would also have to tell your doctor that you’re of Eastern European descent for your background history to have any meaning. To the extent that Jews share diseases that non-Jews don’t tend to inherit, in-breeding and population isolation explain far more than race. The ghettoization of Jews for 1500 years resulted in genetic similarities within geographic regions for the same reason that other groups, isolated geographically by oceans or mountains, share greater genetic similarity within their group. The point of this science lecture is that to the extent that Jews may be described as a group with a common genetic heritage that characterization must be qualified by place of origin.

*Mizrahi are generally Jews from the Arab world and may occasionally be expanded to include Ethiopian Jewry (NB: the term Sephardi is often used incorrectly to describe Mizrahi Jews, when in fact Sephardi indicates Jews from Spain, alone; Sephardi also denotes religious practice, whereas Mizrahi is a an ethnic label.)

**Ashkenazi are European Jews, particularly those with ancestry in Eastern Europe

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