Jewish DNA is full of controversies and the journalist Jon Entine shies away from none of them in this bestselling compendium. Interesting for our readers may be to note where he falls out on some of the more vexed issues after taking the trouble to interview genetic news makers such as Karl Skorecki ("Genes of Old Testament Priests") and Father William Sanchez, the cause celebre for New Mexico crypto-Jews.
Is there a Jewish "race"? That is probably not the right word, but yes, writes Entine, there is definitely a Jewish ethnicity that has been been preserved in exile from the beginnings of Judaism in the Middle East over 3,000 years ago. Even Ashkenazi Jews are, genetically speaking, more similar to themselves and Middle Easterners than they are to Czechs, Poles and other Central and East European neighboring populations.
Is the Bible a true and accurate history of the Jews? No, for one thing, events in the Old Testament are corroborated by only a handful of contemporary records, including one Egyptian document and one Assyrian proclamation. The early books were rewritten several times, most famously by the Patriarch scribe Ezra. The Jews returning from Babylonian Exile burnished the existing scriptures and introduced political themes that put the Northern Kingdom in a bad light. The word "Jew" was not actually used of the inhabitants of ancient Israel until around 520 B.C.E., when the "battered capital city, Jerusalem, surrounded by a scattering of towns" (p. 107) was called Yehud, the Aramaic name of a new province in the Persian Empire.
Do the Samaritans retain the closest genetic resemblance to Abraham's descendants? Here is what Entine writes:
The scientists speculate that not only are today's Samaritans likely descended from the Israelites, they may be the ancestral remnants of a breakaway group of Jewish priests that did not go into exile when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 721 B.C.E. Instead, these Cohanim may well have stayed, "but married Assyrian and female exiles relocated from other conquered lands, which was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities." It may just be that the tiny clan of Samaritans are a rare surviving branch of the ancient Israelites.
Among Entine's sources are Batsheva Bonne-Tamir, an Israeli geneticist who began studying Samaritan DNA when the population had dwindled to only a few families in the 1950s. Other authorities interviewed include:
Karen Avraham (deafness in Jews), Doron Behar (Jewish founding mothers), Neil Bradman (Lemba Jews), Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza (Stanford's grand old man of DNA), Jared Diamond, David Goldstein (Jewish diseases), Michael Hammer (Y chromosomes), Mary-Claire King (disease studies), Jonathan Marks (critic), Tudor Parfitt (African and Indian Jews) and Mark Thomas (Cohanim).
What happened to the ten Lost Tribes? Entine adopts a wry and caustic attitude toward this subject, beginning his chapter "Wandering Tribes" with a piece on the Worldwide Church of God, a Pasadena, California sect founded by an ex-advertising agent, Herbert W. Armstrong, in the early 1930s. Armstrong was a proponent of British-Israelism, the belief that England is the heir to ancient Israel, the tribe of Ephraim having settled in Britain and the word "British" being derived from the ancient Hebrew word beriyth, which means covenant. "When Armstrong died in 1986, the WWCG claimed more than 150,000 members and an annual budget of $130 million" (p. 130).
Are Ashkenazi Jews really Khazars (i.e. non-Semitic)? Their genetic mix contains some Turkic elements from the Khazars, but even the Khazars were not 100% Turkic. Entine does not believe in the mass conversion portrayed in works such as Judah Halevi's medieval account The Kuzari: A Book of Argument in Defense of a Despised Religion. Following the author Kevin Brook ("not a formally trained historian but an impressively self-taught scholar...creator of the Web site khazaria.com," p. 199), Entine says "the number of Khazarian Jews probably numbered no more than 30,000 out of a total population of 100,000, including a few thousand nobles and royalty" (p. 201).
Do you have to have a Jewish mother to be Jewish? Entine investigates this ruling very thoroughly and shows that Judaism was spread primarily by men with Middle Eastern roots who married local women of non-Semitic ancestry who converted to the husband's religion. The Jewish mother criterion came about in rabbinical times under the influence of Roman law. In Biblical times, Jewishness always came from a Jewish father.
Is there an "intelligence gene" among Ashkenazi Jews? Yes, it emerged in the age of the ghetto when survival selected for males who could earn a livelihood with their wits rather than hands or bodies.
Having touched on these questions, I would like to point out that many of the solutions are rather superficial. Entine's research is not very deep or wide ranging. Nowhere in the chapter on mass conversions does he speak about the Babylonian principality of Narbonne in the South of France during Carolingian times. His treatment of Sephardic Jews is meager. There are other limitations in the scope of the work, but in general, Abraham's Children is to be recommended as a solid, reliable, seemingly effortless account of a subject on which blood, sweat and tears have been spilled on every page in the past. That is no small feat.