Middle East studies in the News
The Bad Genetics of Nadia Abu El Haj
by Jonathan Schwartz
Nadia Abu El Haj, the Barnard College professor whose tenure bid is being challenged by professors who maintain that her book on Israeli archaeology is shoddy, is now working on a book on Jewish genetic origins, a book that her colleague and friend Joseph Massad describes as being about the "Zionist movement('s)…desperate contemporary search for Jewish 'genetic markers'."
Zionists are engaged in a "desperate" search for Jewish genetic markers? Who knew?
Zionists like other Jews and, frankly, like most peoples of the world are intrigued by the new data genetics provides about the history of human populations. But "desperate" search undertaken to support an "investment in the racial separateness of the Jews." I don't think so.
There may be Jews who believe in "the racial separateness of the Jews," though it's hard to understand how. It's pretty hard to believe in "the racial separateness of the Jews" when Israelis come in more colors than a Benetton commercial.
The person who actually is on a desperate search for Jewish genetic markers seems to be Nadia Abu El Haj. She has been working for the better part of a decade on her projected book about "Genetics, Jewish Origins and Historical Truths," or, "Bearing the Mark of Israel? Genetics, Genealogy and the Quest for Jewish Origins," as two of her lecture titles phrase it.
In a recent paper, "Rethinking Genetic Genealogy: A Response to Stephan Palmié," American Ethnologist 2007, 34:2:223-227, Abu El Haj states that one of the "instances in which widely accepted forms of knowledge have been disproved" by genetic research is "the ‘fact' that the Jewish maternal line originated in ancient Palestine."
The leading study of the subject actually comes to exactly the opposite conclusion. The authors of "The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event," conclude that evidence "supports a common Levantine ancestry" for Jewish women. "Close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only 4 women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansions in Europe within the past millennium."
Abu El Haj appears to be attempting to deconstruct Jewish ancestry in much the way she attempted to deconstruct the archaeology of ancient Israel in Facts on the Ground, and for similar reasons. She is committed to the proposition that Israel has no right to exist because it is a "settler-colonial" state. And she appears to believe that if she can deny that Jews are descended from a Near Eastern ancestral stock, she can delegitimize the Israeli state.
It is worth pausing here to consider this question carefully. There is no doubt that the culture of the Jewish people is continuous from the ancient Judean kingdom through to the modern era. The historical record of a people who worship one God, observe the laws of the Torah, and use Hebrew as their legal and theological language is too continuous and extensive to be in doubt (except by propagandists, anti-Semites, and cranks). Now, suppose for the sake of this argument, that the Torah, the Hebrew language, and the observance of Jewish law have continued uninterrupted since the Judean kingdom in the days before the Babylonian exile (as historical sources establish that they have), but no living Jew is a biological descendant of the ancient Judeans. Suppose, that is, for the sake of the argument, that the Torah was faithfully passed down from generation to generation, welcoming converts and teaching every child to cherish the Torah. But it so chanced to happen that every one of the ancient Judean families failed at some point to produce a new generation, while the biological descendants of the converts, who would have been, after all, indistinguishable from the biological descendants of Judeans after a generation or two, did continue to produce heirs so that by the twenty-first century geneticists could prove that no living Jew was a descendant of the ancient Judeans. (We should pause here to remind ourselves that genetic science is not this precise. We do not have a genotype of the ancient Judean population, and will never be able to prove or disprove descent of a population with this degree of certainty.) But, for the sake of the argument, if someone like Nadia Abu El Haj could in fact prove that no living Jew is a natural descendant of the ancient Judeans, would it negate the right of the Jewish people to nationhood in the ancient homeland of the Jewish nation?
Nadia Abu El Haj obviously thinks so. She seems to believe that it is so important to prove that modern Jews are not descended from ancient Judeans that she is willing to perjure herself to do it. She has published a paper in which she states that it has been proven that the Jewish maternal line did not originate in ancient Palestine.
It is, of course, possible that she is not deliberately lying. It is possible that when she wrote this paper she was unaware of research on the subject of the genetics of the Jewish maternal line that is familiar to every reader of the New York Times. (NY Times, Jan 14, 2006, "New Light on Origins of Ashkenazi Jews," Nicholas Wade.)
But if that is the case, if Nadia Abu El Haj has spent the past seven years studying the genetics of the Jews and was unaware of this study when she denied that Jewish ancestral lines can be traced to the ancient Near East, she certainly doesn't merit tenure at Columbia.
The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event Doron M. Behar,1 Ene Metspalu,2 Toomas Kivisild,2 Alessandro Achilli,3 Yarin Hadid,1 Shay Tzur,1 Luisa Pereira,4 Antonio Amorim,4,5 Lluís Quintana-Murci,6 Kari Majamaa,7 Corinna Herrnstadt,8 Neil Howell,8 Oleg Balanovsky,2,9 Ildus Kutuev,2,10 Andrey Pshenichnov,2,9 David Gurwitz,11 Batsheva Bonne-Tamir,11 Antonio Torroni,3 Richard Villems,2 and Karl Skorecki1
1Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Research Institute, Technion and Rambam Medical Center, Haifa, Israel; 2Department of Evolutionary Biology, University of Tartu and Estonian Biocentre, Tartu, Estonia; 3Dipartimento di Genetica e Microbiologia, Università di Pavia, Pavia, Italy; 4Instituto de Patologia e Immunologia Molecular da Universidade do Porto (IPATIMUP) and 5Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade do Porto, Porto, Portugal; 6Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) FRE 2849, Unit of Molecular Prevention and Therapy of Human Diseases, Institut Pasteur, Paris; 7Department of Neurology, University of Turku, Turku, Finland; 8MitoKor, Inc.,* San Diego, CA; 9Research Centre for Medical Genetics, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, Moscow; 10Institute of Biochemistry and Genetics, Ufa Research Center, Russian Academy of Sciences, Ufa, Russia; and 11Department of Human Genetics and Molecular Medicine, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel
Received September 28, 2005; accepted for publication December 6, 2005; electronically published January 11, 2006. Am. J. Hum. Genet., 78:487-497, 2006.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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