This morning in Slate I encountered a rather peculiar piece, The Original Jewish Genius: How the Gaon of Vilna helps explain Jewish intellectual achievement. The reason I found this piece peculiar is that it strikes me as something of a rewriting of the conventional historical narrative for anyone who is not what we today term an Orthodox Jew. The Gaon of Vilna may have been a luminescent mind, but a figure such as Moses Mendelssohn, also an Ashkenazi Jew of approximately the same period, is much more the spiritual ancestor of the typical modern Jewish intellectual, who synthesizes their cultural identity within the broader currents dominant in the gentile milieu.
The Gaon of Vilna was the culmination of over 1,000 years of Rabbinal Judaism, an intellectual tradition which had marginal impact on the gentile world, as Christianity and Islam sealed off the Jews from the outside in the centuries after the Babylonian Talmud came into being. The Lithuanian Mitnagdim who looked to the Gaon ultimately became foes of the Jewish Enlightenment, which witnessed the emergence of identified Jews as prominent figures in Western civilization for the first time in 2,000 years (since Josephus and the Jewish courtiers who were familiars with the Julio-Claudians). In short the Gaon of Vilna is rightly a marginal figure from a gentile perspective, no matter his parochial brilliance.
In light of the previous post you know that I was going to post on the new paper in PNAS, North African Jewish and non-Jewish populations form distinctive, orthogonal clusters. Additionally, the press people at Albert Einstein did reach out to me. That doesn’t mean I’ll blog a paper, but it does mean that I’ll give it an extra look. If the authors or people associated with the paper care to have their work publicized, and reach out to humble bloggers, then that’s all good in my book. Also, I suppose over the past two years I’ve become a locus of “Jewnetics” commentary.
In some ways this is the Golden Age of Jewnetics, though we are approaching the epoch of silver. There has to be diminishing marginal returns at some point, and I think the 2010 papers which I reviewed earlier really established the broad outlines of the scientific genealogy of the Jewish people. But just because the broad outlines are established doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to say on specific aspects which haven’t been deeply explored. Some of the commentary on this weblog around the 2010 papers revolved in great deal on the origins of the Jews of North Africa.
The question is simple: how much of the ancestry of the Jews of North Africa derives from the original Jews of antiquity who settled this region, how much derives from indigenous peoples of North Africa, and now much derives from the Sephardic migration out of Iberia ~500 years ago? To recap, one of the major historical processes affecting the Mediterranean Jewry after 1500 was the expansion of a network of Spanish Jews who were expelled from their homeland (unless they converted to Christianity) to the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean (with some going to Italy and Western Europe). This resulted in the development of a “Sephardic international,” which was overlain upon an indigenous Jewish substrate which preceded the migrants. So, for example in Greece and Syria there are historically attested differences between the Sephardic Jews who arrived after 1500 and the Jewish communities which preceded them. The same was true of North Africa. But a major complication within this picture is that by and large culturally the Sephardic Jews won. The Sephardic identity superseded and absorbed that of most Jewish communities which had long standing roots in a particular region (e.g., Romaniotes).
In the case of North Africa there are myths which are promoted by some because of legends about Berber tribes which were Judaized. Though there is legitimate academic skepticism about the Jewish identity of Kahina, the Berber queen, it does stand to reason that if the Jewish communities of North Africa date back to Roman antiquity they would possibly have some indigenous ancestry (as well as Latin and Punic). The extent of this ancestry would be a function of the demographic, as opposed to cultural, influence of the Sephardic Jewry.
For a Jewish genetics researcher, being told in print that ‘Hitler would certainly have been very pleased’ by your work can’t be pleasant. But that’s what happened in 2010 to Harry Ostrer, a geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, when he and his colleagues published a study showing that Jews in three different geographical areas had certain collections of genes that made them more biologically similar to one another than they were to non-Jews in the same regions. The work also showed that Jews around the world could trace their ancestry to a group of people who lived in the Middle East 2,000 years ago; that meant, however, that certain genetic signatures could be used to identify Jews, indicating that Jews share a common biological identity beyond their religious affiliation—which is what inspired the Hitler crack.
I don’t plan on reading Legacy because I already read the paper which it is based on, Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry. It is now open access, so you can read it too. As implied in the article in The Tablet the biggest finding in this paper is that most of the world’s Jewry seem to share tracts of the genome which are ‘identical by descent’ (IBD). You don’t have to be a geneticist to intuit that being IBD implies relatively recent and elevated shared descent from a common set of ancestors. In particular the authors were looking for segments of the genome where individuals shared the same sequence of genetic markers. Very long sequences indicate a relatively recent common ancestor, while many short ones suggest more distant but numerous common ancestors.
A few people have pointed me to the paper, Implications for health and disease in the genetic signature of the Ashkenazi Jewish population. You should check it out if you don’t have academic access to papers, it’s not gated. Rather, I want to focus on a methodological issue.
In the genetics reader survey only 20 percent of you agreed that you understood how to read an ADMIXTURE plot. After looking at some of the results in this paper I have a lot of sympathy. Understanding what’s going on requires more prior information than is often present in the legends of the figures.
It is known that to a first approximation Ashkenazi Jews, that is, the Jews of Europe, can be understood as an admixture between a European population and a Middle Eastern one. But Ashkenazi Jews also exhibit their own genetic distinctiveness, probably due to long term endogamy. This shows up in various genetic statistics. In this paper the authors show that Ashkenazi form their own cluster in both PCA and ADMIXTURE, two ways in which to ascertain population structure. Below I’ve reedited and highlighted some populations of note in one of their ADMIXTURE plots. It’s rather informative of the bigger problem with interpreting these sorts of results in the absence of context.
 Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years.
 In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.
Most Americans are aware of the term “Assyria,” if they are, through the Bible. The above quotation is of some interest because it alludes to the scattering of the ten northern tribes of Israel during their conquest and assimilation into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Neo because the Assyrian polity, based around a cluster of cities in the upper Tigris valley in northern Mesopotamia, pre-dates what is described in the Hebrew Bible by nearly 1,000 years. During the first half of the first millennium before Christ they were arguably the most antique society with a coherent self-conception still flourishing aside from their Babylonian cousins to the south and the Egyptians (other groups like the Hittites who may have been rivals in antiquity had disappeared in the late Bronze Age). The period of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in particular under Ashurbanipal, was arguably the apogee of the tradition of statecraft which matured during the long simmer of civilization after the invention of literacy and the end of the Bronze Age. The Neo-Assyrian Empire marked the transition from cuneiform to the alphabet, from chariots to cavalry. Assyria’s political evisceration by its vassals and enemies was inevitable, as a agricultural society on the Malthusian margin can squeeze only so much marginal product out of so many for so long. Once social and cultural capital is gone, there’s a “run on the bank,” so to speak.
But the Assyrians are still with us! Baghdad Raids on Alcohol Sellers Stir Fears:
Eight men carrying handguns and steel pipes raided a Christian nongovernmental organization here on Thursday night, grabbing computers, cellphones and documents, and threatening the people inside, according to members of the group.
“They came in and said, ‘You are criminals. This is not your country. Leave immediately,’ ” said Sharif Aso, a board member of the organization, the Ashurbanipal Cultural Association. “They said, ‘This is an Islamic state.’ ”
The intruders wore civilian clothes, said Mr. Aso and others at the organization, but their arrival was preceded by three police vehicles that blocked off the street. He said the men stole his ring and bashed him on the leg with a pistol.
At around the same time that the two big Jewish genetics papers came out, there was another one in BMC Genetics which I had overlooked. It’s open access so you can read the whole thing, but seems like they used 32 STR‘s as markers. Their primary finding about Jewish populations was that there was a north vs. south distinction, illustrated in this map:
Update: The main author sent me this email:
Hi, I’m the main author of the paper. Although the map (figure 2 from the paper) does depict differences in the northern vs southern assignment values for a subset of the samples in our study, it does not tell the whole story which might be helped by figure 1. The map figure is based only on subjects who had all 4 grandparents from a single country while the STRUCTURE figures (figure 1) are based on all subjects. There were two main points to the paper. 1. There is a difference, on average, between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jewish gene pools and 2. It was only possible to detect this with a small marker panel when hypothetical ancestral or “host” populations were included in the analysis.
In the absence of representative major continental populations, the Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jewish populations were not distinguishable with the small set of markers. I believe that the dependence of ancestry assignment on which markers and which reference populations are included in an analysis has been mentioned a few times by Razib. This is relevant to the way in which certain gene mapping studies are carried out. For medical genetics studies it is important to know if subjects are from the same population or not; if they are not it can lead to false positive results. Jewish populations are heavily studied in medical research and so we wanted to demonstrate that Jewish populations from different parts of the world should not be lumped together for analysis in medical genetic studies.
Based on published mtDNA and y-chromosome studies as well as historical records we assume that the “”Southern” component of ancestry is Middle Eastern in origin and that differences between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi populations are due to both genetic drift and differences between the populations that contributed to the Jewish gene pools in a given location.
After the post on Jewish genetics from a few days ago I was going to do a follow up clarifying a few issues. It was a big paper and I skipped over material which I thought might have benefited from further elaboration, but would have taken up too much time. But Dienekes alerts me to another paper which just came out in Nature of interest, The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people:
Contemporary Jews comprise an aggregate of ethno-religious communities whose worldwide members identify with each other through various shared religious, historical and cultural traditions…Historical evidence suggests common origins in the Middle East, followed by migrations leading to the establishment of communities of Jews in Europe, Africa and Asia, in what is termed the Jewish Diaspora…This complex demographic history imposes special challenges in attempting to address the genetic structure of the Jewish people…Although many genetic studies have shed light on Jewish origins and on diseases prevalent among Jewish communities, including studies focusing on uniparentally and biparentally inherited markers…genome-wide patterns of variation across the vast geographic span of Jewish Diaspora communities and their respective neighbours have yet to be addressed. Here we use high-density bead arrays to genotype individuals from 14 Jewish Diaspora communities and compare these patterns of genome-wide diversity with those from 69 Old World non-Jewish populations, of which 25 have not previously been reported. These samples were carefully chosen to provide comprehensive comparisons between Jewish and non-Jewish populations in the Diaspora, as well as with non-Jewish populations from the Middle East and north Africa. Principal component and structure-like analyses identify previously unrecognized genetic substructure within the Middle East. Most Jewish samples form a remarkably tight subcluster that overlies Druze and Cypriot samples but not samples from other Levantine populations or paired Diaspora host populations. In contrast, Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) and Indian Jews (Bene Israel and Cochini) cluster with neighbouring autochthonous populations in Ethiopia and western India, respectively, despite a clear paternal link between the Bene Israel and the Levant. These results cast light on the variegated genetic architecture of the Middle East, and trace the origins of most Jewish Diaspora communities to the Levant.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that this paper came out right on the heels of the previous one; papers are presented at conferences and word gets around, and I assume that the two groups were rushing to get their work published soon enough so as not to be totally overshadowed by the first past the post. The text of both papers is also an interesting window into the role of interpretation in science, as this one seems to emphasize the common Middle Eastern ancestry of Jews (excluding outliers such as the Ethiopian Jews), while the previous one highlighted structure within the Jewish community. Despite the similarities, this second paper is worth exploring for one major reason: it includes two populations of Jews, Moroccans and Yemenis, which were not in the previous research.
Beinart offers a condescending glance at the “warmth” and “learning” of Orthodox Jews, but neglects to mention the most startling factoid in Jewish demographics: a third of Jews aged 18 to 34 self-identify as Orthodox. “Secular Jew” is not quite an oxymoron–the Jews are a nation as well as a religion–but in the United States, at least, secular Jews have a fertility barely above 1 and an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, which means their numbers will decline by 75 percent per generation. It is tragic that the Jewish people stand to lose such a large proportion of their numbers, but they are lost to Judaism in general, not only to Zionism. That puts a different light on the matter.