Are Jews white?

By Razib Khan | July 21, 2012 10:03 pm

A little over two years ago I put up some posts on Jewish genetics due to the publication of some really exciting research. Looking at the referrals I noticed two trends which together were relatively bizarre. People would look at the same PCA plot and conclude that:

  • Ashkenazi Jews are white
  • Ashkenazi Jews are non-white

First, some context. Most of these referrals were from websites with white nationalist or quasi-white nationalist sympathies. The non-Jews of this set tended toward the position that Jews were non-white, while the Jews felt that the genetic results vindicated the whiteness of Jews. In some cases the links were from Jews who were not necessarily white nationalists, but were also keen on making it clear that European Jews were not “schwartza”.

To me the whole issue was bizarre, and it entailed that I monitor the comments of those posts pretty strictly. But I believe that a much milder version of the question crops up whenever people ask if European Jews are more European or Middle Eastern. The main conundrum in the whole framing of the question is that both European and Middle Eastern are highly heterogeneous constructions, and there isn’t a very good demarcation of which populations are which on the liminal margin. In contrast, the difference between East Asians or Sub-Saharan Africans and West Eurasians is more clear and distinct. “In-between” populations such as Uyghurs and Ethiopians seem to be relatively recent admixtures, suggesting that these three geographical races have had very low gene flow for long periods of time. Not so between Europeans and Middle Easterners.

Because of this issue it is very easy to “prove” that Jews are or are not white through a facile selection biasing of the results. When you have groups which overlap, or are ill-defined, does it surprise that the science itself produces results which are somewhat ill-defined and easily subject to disputation?

Here are two results from The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people. First, let’s look a PCA, where the first (vertical) component explains the largest proportion of the variance, and the second component (horizontal) the second largest component of the variance:

Now let’s look at a table which shows “allele sharing distance” between two pairs of populations. I’ve taken the results from the supplements, and limited the population set. Additionally, I’ve taken the value, and standardized it so that the smallest distance (Iraqi Jew to Iraqi Jew) is set to 0, and larger values indicate greater difference in allele values across two populations.*

Population Ashk J Seph J Iraq J
Ashk J 6.7
Seph J 14.6 14.7
Iraq J 23.1 20.1 0.0
Yemen J 29.0 25.5 23.3
Druze 25.4 23.4 23.1
Palestinian 31.7 29.2 29.3
Armenian 17.2 16.4 16.8
Turkey 23.4 23.1 23.0
Iran 30.8 30.0 27.6
Syria 31.2 29.7 28.9
Yemen 60.1 57.2 56.8
Cyprus 16.1 14.6 16.3
Russia 26.7 30.9 38.4
France 18.6 21.0 29.7
Sardinia 16.8 16.0 25.1
Tuscan 15.5 15.7 21.2
Lithuanian 23.5 28.3 37.1
Spain 17.7 18.9 27.1

 

Are there clear conclusions you can derive from this? If you have an ideological ax to grind you almost certainly can. Overall a major issue here is that we’re often looking at summaries, when some of these populations have undergone recent admixture. The Turks, Yemenis, Russians, and Palestinians, all have non-West Eurasian admixture (East Eurasian in the case of Turks and Russians, African in the case of Yemenis and Palestinians). This is going to elevate their distance from Ashkenazi Jews. I suspect that the Russian value would be the same as the Lithuanian if you only compared West Eurasian ancestry to West Eurasian ancestry. But this is recent admixture. I suspect ancient admixture matters too. In relation to Sardinians and North Italians the Tuscan populations seems particularly enriched in a “West Asian” element. Though I do not discount the ASD value being so low between Ashkehani Jews and Tuscans being a function of ancient Italian admixture with Western Jews, I think it may be that this West Asian admixture brings this group closer to Jews, and so may predate real admixture between Jews and non-Jews (because Jews did not exist when this West Asian element became prominent in Italy!).

I could say a lot more. This is complicated and not cut & dried. But I think the different statistics are not showing us whether Jews are white or not, because that’s not fundamentally a question which relies purely on genetics. Being white is not totally uncoupled from genetics. Someone of Chinese of African appearance could never be white. Genetics is a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition of whiteness. So, for example, Middle Eastern non-Muslim populations regularly assimilate to whiteness, while Muslims do not. To my knowledge no one thought of Jacques Derrida as a non-white intellectual, despite his Algerian Sephardic Jewish background. But if Jacques Derrida had converted to Islam, and passed himself off as an Algerian Arab or Berber, he would have become non-white.

By this criterion it is obvious to me that Ashkenazi Jews are white. They have been part of the culture of the West since the late 19th century. But note my qualification. Jews as Jews were not part of Western culture between the years 500 and 1850. Those Jews who impacted Western culture left their Jewishness behind, whether as converts to Christianity (e.g., Karl Marx was a Jew who was raised as a Christian), or as cosmopolitan individualists (e.g., Spinoza).** Arguably the Jewish Enlightenment, and the rise of Reform Judaism, were both necessary preconditions for the inclusion of self-conscious Jews as Westerners, and racially as white Westerners.*** This is not a fact which many Jewish white nationalists or their fellow travelers are particular keen to hear from my personal experience.

Addendum: Please be aware though that I’m not accusing every person who has asked whether Jews are white/European of being racist/racialist. I have noticed that in the areas of the web where stupid ignorant people ask questions and are answered by stupid ignorant people, such as Answers, these questions often crop up. Most of these people aren’t racist, they’re just stupid.

Note: Comments are closed on this post because I’m not excited about hosting a shouting match between creepy Nazi white nationalists and weirdo Jewish white nationalists. Also, I’m 99% sure that 99% of the comments are not going to be published because of the high dullness quotient.

* What I did was divide the distance by the Iraqi Jew-Iraqi Jew value, getting a ratio, and then subtracted 1. Then I multiplied the result by 1000.

** Moses Mendelssohn was sui generis, and most of his of children left Judaism. His last Jewish descendant died in the late 19th century.

*** White Westerners because many Middle Eastern peoples consider themselves white, as opposed to black Africans and South Asians.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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