On being a Jew, genetics and other things
A colleague of mine recently cited a statistic from a newspaper article, stating that “20% of all Germans are anti-Semitic”. I pressed him to be more specific, to which he explained that he had read the article to mean that “20% of Germans believe people of the Jewish faith have disproportionate power in business and politics”.
I was more taken aback by his interpretation of (dubious) statement, than the (dubious) statement itself, but this wasn’t the first time I had been confronted in Germany with a somewhat distorted view of what Jews actually are, especially considering the 20th century history of central Europe.
I’ll try to explain this quickly and concisely:
Judaism is a faith. But a Jew is not necessarily someone who practices Judaism. As a matter of fact, a Jew can be an Atheist (like Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, myself and many more). This is because hundreds of years of Jewish history have created not only a rich culture but also markers which, in genetics, serve to define ethnic divisions – and your DNA doesn’t care what you believe in, if anything at all.
I am Ashkenazi Jewish, just like Sigmund Freud, Adam Sandler, Heinrich Heine, Theodore Herzl and Franz Kafka (and most of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Ashkenazi Jews as an ethnic division coalesced at the turn of the first century (during the time of the Roman Empire), subsequently formed communities and around Central and Eastern Europe and are today the largest Jewish ethnic division at around 75% of Jews worldwide.
Here are my 23andMe Ancestry Composition results:
“DNA shows clearly the connections among those who consider themselves to be Ashkenazi Jewish: two Ashkenazi Jewish people are very likely to be “genetic cousins”, sharing long stretches of identical DNA. This sharing reflects the close knit nature of this population.”
In Germany, I often get told that I look “Middle Eastern” or “from Israel”. Ashkenazi Jews, however, have actually little common ancestry with Middle Eastern populations (as far as the last 2000 years are concerned). Genetically, I’m far more likely to be closer to a person of mixed European Ancestry than to a Jew of general Middle Eastern descent, such as Mizrachi Jews, and my genetic connections to any historic Jewish population in what is today Israel are somewhat weak. This fact is hotly debated and politically volatile, as the existence of modern Israel is based on the understanding that the land has historically served as the ancestral home of Jews.
Above: My Middle Eastern ancestry, according to my 23adnMe genetic test results
Does being ethnically Jewish mean anything to me? Not very much. But aside from the religion (which i don’t have) and the genetics (which I do), Ashkenazi Jews have developed a rich and fascinating culture which spans centuries of art, poetry and tradition. This culture is part of my history, but it is not me. I appreciate it for its beauty und diversity, and criticize it for aspects which have not made it into the modern world.
I hope I was able to shed a bit of light on the term “Jew”, however please be aware that I am neither a geneticist nor a rabbi. If you’re interested in the topic, there’s a whole world of information – I suggest you start here.
Note: Being Female, my 23andMe results can only analyze ancestry information via my Mitochondrial DNA. Considering both my grandmothers were Ashkenazi, It is unlikely that my male lineage is different than the above values in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, since no males in my family have done genetic testing, I am unable to verify this assumption.