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An Emperor of Nothing

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.

There is a Jew who preceded him by generations who is much more relevant to modern Jew and gentile alike. Baruch Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew who grew up in the Netherlands, and came from a religiously fluid community fleeing persecution in Iberia. Not surprisingly Spinoza is the individual who Albert Einstein credits as being most philosophically influential upon his thought. While the Gaon of Vilna was the object of acclaim during his life from his people, Baruch Spinoza was an outcast. A religious heretic who was melodramatically excommunicated by the Jews of Amsterdam, his Christian correspondents were also discomfited by the reality that Spinoza’s flight from Judaism did not entail an acceptance of Jesus Christ. Rather, Spinoza’s metaphysical views prefigured the Deism which came to be so dominant during the Enlightenment. If ever there was a patron saint of contemporary cosmopolitan individualists, it was Baruch Spinoza.

Neither Jew nor gentile, just a man

With hindsight some of Spinoza’s rationalist fancies strike us as naive. And the certainly he must be held to account for the excesses of Enlightenment hubris. Spinoza did not grasp the limits of human analytic capacities. But no one denies that Spinoza was a great figure in Europe’s 17th century Republic of Letters. He looks forward to a secular world which takes seriously the abstruse contemplation reminiscent of the pre-Socratics. The Gaon of Vilna was a prefection of the past, while Spinoza was a coarse prototype of the future.

To understand why I say this, consider this passage from The Essential Talmud:

However great the scope of Torah, the sages were never concerned with scientific speculation for its own sake and displayed no interest whatsoever in philosophy, whether in its Classical Greek, Hellenistic, or Roman versions. Talmud study of subjects correspondending to general philosophy is constructed in a totally different fashion. Similarly, the sages wer indifferent to science itslf, whether astronomy, medicine, or amthematics. In these, as in other spheres of science and knowledge, they recognized only the boundaries of Torah and they studied these matters on only two planes, dealing with science only wen it related directly to halakhah and with the natural sciences only when there were general ethical and ideological implications.

To a great extent I find this sort of passage damning of the intellectual jewel of Rabbinical Judaism, the elaboration of Jewish law. Because of the occupational constraints of Ashkenazi Jews, and their narrow ecological niche as an non-agricultural minority, the development of a religious specialist class whose stock and trade was extensive commentary and interpretation of law is not entirely surprising. But it is also totally parasitic upon the genuine productivity of a society. The reality is that for a society to flourish you do not need thousands of ethical rules to follow. Like many investment bankers and “patent troll” attorneys the great rabbis of yore many have had fast processing units, but they did not utilize them toward productive ends. In modern Israel the haredi, many of whom are direct descendants of the Gaon of Vilna’s Mitnagdim, exhibit a parasitical relationship to the Jewish mainstream.

Ali Sistani

Of course this institutionalized flight toward obscurantism is not limited to Jews. Muslims have a similar legal tradition to Jews, and historically the “best and brightest” have been drawn to this domain. Many of my own recent ancestors have been ulema in the Hanafi tradition of Sunni Islam. The same sort of hagiography of the great rabbis occurs with Muslim eminences, such as the ayatollahs of Shia Islam, who are termed “proof of Islam” if they have mastered an eclectic array of frankly useless intellectual skills.

Genius is more than just cleverness and flexibility of mind. It is the application of that mental acuity to problems of broader general relevance which make a permanent impact upon history. Baruch Spinoza was a genius who just happened to be born a Jew. The Gaon of Vilna was a genius about things pertinent to Jews. If there ever was a “Jewish physics,” it would be of far less interest than just plain physics.

• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Jews, Religion 
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Berber queen?

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.

So what does the paper say? First, I have to admit that the prose in this paper is very difficult to follow. Perhaps this was a function of the collaborative nature of the project, as well as revisions which were included. But it seems to me that the authors squeezed verbal descriptions of statistic after statistic, when it might have been better placed in the supplements. I am not innocent of Jewish history or genetics, and I found it difficult to understand the relevance of particular sentences on many occasions. Second, there are basic errors in the non-genetic aspects which I need to highlight. First, a small one: Isolation began for Jews when Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion of the Roman Empire. In the process, Jews were deprived of their right to convert pagans or accept proselytes. Constantine did not make Christianity the state religion. Rather, he extended official toleration of the religion, and subsequently favored it, just as late 3rd century Emperors patronized the cult of Sol Invictus. Though they were not pagans, the sons of Constantine still acceded to the request of pagan notables and took upon symbolic title as priests of the ancient Roman religion, as well as allowing for the continuation of the subsidies to the temples. The Christianization of the Empire was a gradual process which occurred in stages between the early 4th and early 5th centuries. It is perhaps somewhat accurate to state that Theodosius the Great did make Christianity the official state religion around 400, through his explicit (albeit more symbolic) bans on pagan sacrifices, and tacit approval of the erasure of public paganism by violent Christian radicals (e.g., the destruction of the Serapeum)). Additionally, I do not believe it is correct to state that Jews could not recruit pagans. I know for example that prominent 6th century Neoplatonists had Samaritan origins, indicating that religious movement between non-Christian groups was still occurring without consequence two centuries after Constantine.

Secondly, there is a rather confusing and large error within the text which should have been caught by someone: The first evidence for Jews in North Africa is from 312 Before Common Era when King Ptolemy Lagi of Egypt settled Jews in the cities of Cyrenaica in current-day Tunisia. Cyrenaica is not in current day Tunisia, but eastern Libya. This may seem like an obscure historical point, but it shouldn’t be too obscure because the divide between eastern and western Libya has been in the news a great deal over the past year (of possible relevance to this paper, Cyrenaica was actually part of the Eastern Roman Empire, while Tripolitania and the Maghreb were part of the Western Roman Empire; culturally one was part of the Greek world while the other was Latin).

As for the genetics, you can see many of the non-supplemental figures over at Dienekes‘. I have to say that I appreciate that they did IBD analysis, but the charts are a little hard to extract information from because the differences are so small beyond the few inbred groups. The various clustering algorithms did not tell us much we didn’t know. North African Jews by and large cluster with other Sephardic Jews, who form a clade with Ashkenazi Jews, against Middle Eastern Jews. There is evidence of European admixture in the Sephardic Jews, and this seems evident in North African populations which are presumably a synthesis of Sephardic and non-Sephardic ancestry (long IBD tracts indicative of recent admixture are elevated for European ancestry, suggestive of events in the Iberian peninsula before expulsion). One model which I suggest may be that long term differential fertility may have resulted in the diminishing of non-Sephardic ancestry in contemporary populations, even if the original numbers in the decades after the expulsion from Spain were at parity. Using Basque, Palestinian, and Tunisian reference populations the authors did not seem to discern greatly elevated Maghrebi admixture from what I can gather as a function of geography for the Jews. The main qualm I have is that the Tunisian population in their data is highly inbred. I suspect this may reduce the Maghrebi fraction below what it “should” be. A major issue with comparison with the North Africa data that they have is that many of these have substantial African admixture, or may not be representative of the broader populations of the Maghreb. This is certainly true for the Tunisian Berbers, who are highly inbred, and the Mozabites, who were selected for their isolation. Western Sahara and Southern Morocco also were samples which I think are marginal in the broader Maghrebi landscape. I paid most attention to the Northern Morocco sample, since it was neither highly inbred, nor geographically marginal or isolated.

This is a paper where the supplements are worth reading. The authors were as clear in their methods (i.e., easy to replicate) as they were confusing in their digest of the results. There is also a fuller review of the IBD section, which I think is a major value-add here over PCA and STRUCTURE. The authors observe that Yemeni Jews share elevated IBD with other Jewish populations, suggesting more than an indigenous proselyte origin for this community. That being said I think we need to be careful about our priors and how they shape our interpretation of the data. For example, jump to table 1 of the supplements and you see a relatively high IBD between the North Italian sample and the Jewish populations. If you didn’t know that Northern Italians (I believe this sample is from Bergamo) weren’t Jewish, you might wonder if they were Jewish! This sort of association is why I think that neighbor-joining trees aren’t telling us much that’s useful. These trees collapse a few thousand years of complex admixture process into one visual summary. I’m not sure that the complexity is fully unpacked, even in this paper. So there will almost certainly be follow ups, because I don’t think that it answered without a doubt the central questions posed by the existence of the North African Jewry.

The genetic origins of Jews are complex enough that broad sketches leave a lot to be desired in explaining specific narrow historical-demographic questions. A Silver Age of genetics in this area is upon us. But I do hope that in the near future we’ll also start to do the same thing with other groups. There is more to this world than Jewnetics. Zack Ajmal has a large collection of Brahmins from various parts of India in his data set now. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see their relationships IBD?

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Every few days my Google Alerts have been dropping in my inbox reviews of Harry Osters’ Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. The latest is in the The Tablet, A Case for Genetic Jewishness:

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.

From looking at these patterns of relatedness the authors infer that despite the genetic variation in the modern Jewry, most of the world’s Jews, from Iran to Morocco to Lithuania, share common ancestry from a source population which flourished ~2,500 years ago. All that being said, genetics is only part of the puzzle here. In the discussion the authors suggest that “Yet, the sharing of Iranian and Iraqi Jews of a branch on the phylogenetic tree with the Adygei suggests that a certain degree of admixture may have occurred with local populations not included in this study.” I argue in my post The Assyrians and Jews: 3,000 years of common history, a clear and distinct category of “Jew” as opposed to generic North Levantine in the year 500 BC probably does not make biological sense, though it might make culturally sense (and “generic North Levantine” is obviously not accurate, as most of these individuals had strong tribal or ethnic identities at the time). Finally, I don’t think I highlighted in my earlier commentary that these data imply that the rise of Christianity and Islam fundamentally stabilized the genetics of the Jewish people, insofar as much of the admixture upon the core base in the peripheral populations seems to predate the rise of these religious civilizaitons. Once Christianity and Islam marginalized the Jews, the gene flow from non-Jews to Jews diminished greatly. This is curiously analogous to the cultural involution which Jews also underwent during this period.

• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Human Genetics, Jews 
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Uyghur girls

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.

As you can see there is an ancestral element which is predominant in the Ashkenazi. A individual analysis also implies that most of those with a lower fraction of this element who identify as Ashkenazi probably have recent admixture (e.g., only three out of four grandparents were Jewish). What I found striking is that the Uyghur and Hazara both also shook out as of a particular ancestral element. The reality is that we know this is a total artifact of the ADMIXTURE software; the Hazara have a historical narrative of being the product of intermarriage between Mongols and Persians. The historical evidence for the origin of the Uyghur is sketchier and more confused, but it can be reconstructed. And the genetics make it likely that both these groups emerged over the past 2,000 years, as an admixture between a Western and Eastern Eurasian set of populations.

What does this have to do with Ashkenazi Jews? I think one should be skeptical of an “Ashkenazi Jewish” modal element when we already know that this plot has useless clusters. It does not seem like they included any “real” East Asian reference populations, so the Hazara and Uyghur stepped up and took that position, despite both populations having ~50 percent West Eurasian admixture. The ADMIXTURE software transformed a clearly hybridized population into its own ‘ancestral’ population. Something similar might be happening with the Jews, especially in light of the fact that the authors had a relatively large Jewish population their data, geared to exploring the nature of Jewish genetic relationships. This is a case where we know that we probably don’t know that much.

The moral: don’t think you can read a scientific figure plainly without any context.

Image credit: Wikipedia

• Category: Science • Tags: Human Genetics, Human Genomics, Jews 
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2 Kings, 17:

[5] Then the king of Assyria came up throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria, and besieged it three years.

[6] 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.

[18] 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.

First, a little etymology. It turns out that the term Syrian likely has a root in As syria. That term itself deriving from Assur, the primary god and city of ancient Assyria. After the conquest and dismemberment of the Assyrian Empire the core Semitic lands between the Mediterranean and the Zagros mountains became the cultural domain of the Syrian people. That is, those who spoke one of the Syrian dialects. Politically Assyria never arose independently again after its conquest by the Persians. Despite the dialect continuum, and deep roots in the Assyrian Empire and Near Eastern polities preceding it, for nearly one thousand years the eastern and western segments of the Syriac domains were divided by politically, and to some extent culturally, between the Classical Greco-Roman spheres and the Iranian orbit. People of Syrian origin became prominent in Roman life, such as the emperor Elagabalus and the writer Lucian. In the east, under Persian rule, Assyrians such as Mani were also culturally and socially prominent, though marginalized politically by the dominant Zoroastrian Persian ruling caste. The division between east and west was also evident among the Jews in Late Antiquity; ergo, the two Talmuds.

The coming of Islam changed this dynamic: the eastern and western Syrian world were reunited into one political and cultural order. Even though there always existed connections across the Roman-Persian frontier (which in any case periodically shifted), it is notable that the ancient historical divisions persist down to the present day among those who consider themselves the descendants of the (As)Syrians of that era: the Middle Eastern Christians. The Christians of Syria and Lebanon divide between those who are aligned with the Syrian Orthodox Church, or Christians affiliated with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. In Iraq the majority of Christians come from a different stream, the ancient Church of the East which grew out of the Christian communities of pre-Islamic Iran and Iraq. Today the majority of Iraqi Christians are in communion with the Pope of Rome, while the Assyrian community of the Church of the East is predominantly found abroad (this is due to 20th century politics). But whatever the current configuration, it remains true that to this day these churches can root their lineage back to the Roman and Sassanid period.

And Syriac in the form of neo-Aramaic remains a living language in the Middle East among some Christians. In Syria it is almost extinct, but substantial numbers of Christians in the east still speak it. This is one reason that there is some debate as to whether “Arab Christians” are Arab at all. Ignoring the reality that whole Arab tribes were known to have been Christian even before Islam, it is probably correct to assume that almost all Arab Christians are Arabicized Aramaic or Coptic speakers. In the The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown claims that the conversion to Islam by subjects of the Arabs in the Fertile Crescent increased in pace only after the shift from Syriac and Greek to Arabic. In other words, Arab Christians were far more common than Syriac Muslims.

Even though the majority of the population of the core Middle Eastern nation is descended from the peoples of antiquity, they now consider themselves by and large Arab. The Arabs were also present in antiquity, and are mentioned early on as a group on the margins of the ancient world (and sometimes at the center). But it seems implausible that the antique Arabs had the demographic heft to overrun so many peoples across the Fertile Crescent, let along Egypt. Though the Semitic populations of the Middle East now generally have an Arab self-identification in keeping with their dominant language, some among the Christians dissent. For speakers of neo-Aramaic in Iraq this makes total sense; but Arabic speaking Lebanese Maronites also object to an Arab identity (though this gains some traction due to the common bilingualism of Maronites in French and Arabic). But even if most of the Christians of the Arab Middle East are no longer non-Arabs by speech, they preserve a direct link with the ancient pre-Arab Middle East in their liturgy. In the Fertile Crescent this would be a variant of Syriac, but in Egypt it would be Coptic, the language which descends from ancient Egyptian.

There are obviously many in the Middle East who take pride in their pre-Islamic past. Saddam Hussein liked to fashion himself a latter day Nebuchadnezzar II and Hammurabi, while the government of Egypt is a lavish funder of Egyptology. But the Christians seem particularly attached to the pre-Islamic past, because their religion is a tie back to antiquity, and its broad outlines were formed then. This has a bit of an ironic aspect, because in Late Antiquity the Christian Church was a powerful force in the destruction of the indigenous religious traditions of Syria and Egypt. In Syria it seems that a non-Christian culture and society made it down to the Islamic period around the city of Haran, showing up in history as the Sabians. This was probably just a coincidence of geography, as the forced conversion which Justinian the Great imposed on the non-Abrahamic minorities (and to a lesser extent on the Jews and Samaritans as well) in the 6th century was unfeasible so close to the border with the Sassanid Empire. Unfortunately the textual records from Persia are not so good. We don’t know how the Semitic population shifted religious identity from non-Christian to Christian (or Jewish), particularly in an environment where the political elites were not adherents to an Abrahamic religion (though if someone can post a literature reference I’d be very curious).

However it happened, what we do know that is that by the early Islamic centuries the Aramaic speaking populations of the Fertile Crescent were instrumental in being channels for the wisdom of the Classical Age. Many of the Syrians were trilingual, in their own language, as well as Greek and Arabic. For an overview of what transpired between then and now to the Christians of the Middle Eastern Orient, read my review of The Lost History of Christianity. Suffice it to say, by the year 1900 Westerners who were reacquainting themselves with Oriental Christianity observed that they had lost much of its cultural vitality, and been subject to involution. Over a thousand years of Muslim rule and domination meant that the Christians of the Middle East had been ground down into total marginality; to such an extent that Western Orientalists had to “re-discover” them.

This marginality was an end consequence of the dhimmi system to which they’d been subjected to, a system that Christians had imposed upon Jews and Samaritans earlier. They were allowed to persist and exist, but only marginally tolerated. Debilities and indignities were their lot. One famous component of the modus vivendi between Muslim polities and the non-Muslims whom they dominate is that one can defect to Islam, but defection from Islam is not tolerated. The involution of dhimmis then is simply not cultural, it is genetic. By and large the cosmopolitan welter of the great Islamic Empires would have passed the dhimmis by. Eastern Christians then may given us an excellent window into the impact of the Arab conquests on the genomes of the peoples of the Middle East. For example, how much of the Sub-Saharan genetic load in modern Egyptians is post-Roman, and how much pre-Roman? A comparison of Copts to Muslims would establish this. It has clear political implications in the United States, where Afrocentrism is rooted in part on the presupposition that ancient Egypt was a black civilization.

But this post is not about Egypt. Rather, let’s go back to the Assyrians and the Middle East. I wrote up the historical introduction for perspective. But this is about genes. Nature on The rise of the genome bloggers:

David Wesolowski, a 31-year-old Australian who runs the Eurogenes ancestry project (, also focuses on understudied populations. “It’s a response, in a way, to the lack of formal work that’s been done in certain areas, so we’re doing it ourselves,” he says. Wesolowski and a colleague have drilled into the population history of people living in Iran and eastern Turkey who identify as descendants of ancient Assyrians, and who sent their DNA for analysis. Preliminary findings suggest their ancestors may have once mixed with local Jewish populations, and Wesolowski plans to submit these results to a peer-reviewed journal.

A few weeks ago Paul Givargidze, David’s colleague mentioned above, informed me that it didn’t look like the article would be published in the near future due to time constraints. But with all the energy invested Paul wanted something to come out of the project, so he forwarded me a link to a set of files, and suggested that if I found it of interest I could blog about. Here’s the link:

Additionally, Paul informed me that the background of the Assyrian samples were Jacobite (Syrian Orthodox?), Church of the East, and Chaldean. The latter two are the same for our purposes; the the separation of the Chaldean Church from the main body of the Church of the East is a feature of the past 500 years. The Jacobites though presumably are from Syria, though I know that there were some Jacobites in the Assyrian lands as well. In any case, the key is this: these populations have been isolated from others since the rise of Islam 1,400 years ago. They give us an insight into the genomic landscape of the Late Antique Levant and Mesopotamia.

The slide show below has what I believe are the most pertinent figures (I’ve reedited them a bit). The first two are ADMIXTURE plots. So they’re showing you the breakdowns by population/individual for K ancestral quantum (8 and 10) respectively. The rest are MDS which relate individuals within populations on a two-dimensional surface.

[zenphotopress album=248 sort=sort_order number=7]

Sephardi Jew

Some of the populations should be familiar. They’re from the same set as a Jewish genetics paper from last spring. And that’s why you see a diverse set of Jewish groups too. One thing to keep in mind is that the patterns you observe are partly conditional on the inputs. Remember that the “Near Eastern” constrained data sets aren’t simply geographical zooms from the “West Eurasian” set. Rather, the spatial relationships reoriented themselves as the underlying data set from which they emerge are changed.

In regards to the Jews, there are three obvious groups. An Ashkenazi + Sephardi cluster, a Mizrachi cluster, and finally, a, Yemeni cluster. There are also other Jewish groups which don’t fit neatly into this typology. The Jews of India, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, etc. But since this is focused on Middle Eastern populations, you’re looking at these three groups. The Yemeni cluster is straightforward: this looks like a classic Judaizing population. In other words, the historical records which suggest Jewish convert kings of Yemen were likely accompanied by mass conversions of populations. Or, perhaps there were mass conversions of segments of the population which prompted the conversion of a kingdom to Judaism, or the rise of a Jewish noble to power.

Ashkenazi Jew

With that taken care of, it’s time to move on the Ashkenazi + Sephardi vs. Mizrachi cluster. We already saw this prefigured last spring: it looks as if Jews under Roman and Persian rule respectively parted ways genetically nearly 2,000 years ago! This is a strange finding, in particular since some of the Sephardi samples are from Syria. But this is a somewhat deceptive division, as much of the Sephardic Jewish community in the Middle East dates to the Ottoman years, as Iberian Jews fled the increasingly intolerant Catholic monarchies of the peninsulas. Though the indigenous Jewish often preserved their own customs (e.g., Romaniotes), by and large they were absorbed by the arriviste Sephardim. The results from the Syrian Jews imply that either these newcomers were very numerous, or, they were very fecund vis-a-vis the native population of Jews. Where the Mediterranean touched it seems that a common Jewish genetic-cultural pool existed. But what about where it did not? For that, one needs to move east, to the land of the Assyrians.

The Mizrachi Jews of the Middle East are a different tradition from the Sephardim. Not only are they different, but these “Oriental” Jews have also been relatively isolated from outside influences. Their closest cultural analogs are probably the Oriental Christians amongst whom they lived before the rise of Islam. I believe that the MDS to the left illustrates exactly what Paul Givargidze and David Wesolowski were suggesting was noteworthy: Assyrian Christians cluster with Mizrachi Jews. It seems as if Iraqi Jews are of equal distance from Assyrians and Iranian Jews. Overall, the three communities, along with Georgian Jews, form a distinct cluster. And and this is the reason I went to great lengths to outline the historical background which set the stage for the world of the Assyrian Christians who came under the rule of Islam in the 7th century.

One plausible explanation of why modern Assyrians are so close to Mizrachi Jews is that the Assyrians and Mizrachi Jews derive from the ancient Semitic populations which have long between resident in the Near East; the Assyrians of antiquity and the Hebrews of antiquity. There is probably some truth to this, but I think it’s a more complicated picture. First, we have plenty of records of Assyrian population movements, enforced from on high. Even if the extent of this was exaggerated, it is likely that this sort of forced transplantation was instrumental in the crystallization of an Aramaic creole which became the lingua franca of the Near East. Other Semitic languages were marginalized, from Akkaddian to Hebrew. But with the linguistic unity likely came a level of fluidity between the fuzzy sets which bounded the communities which we perceive so clearly later in history.

Judaism as we understand it today, or “Orthodox Judaism,” is a product of the religion of the Pharisees, and the tradition which matured with the Babylonian Talmud. The Judaism of the period of the Hebrew kingdoms was no doubt very different, and even that of the earlier Roman period was more variegated than we understand today. For most of history, or the history we record, Jews have lived under relatively brutal religious monopolies in the form of Christianity and Islam. Their community was limited and constrained. But outside of these contexts Jews could be quite different in how they behaved. For example, the two Jewish rebellions under the Romans or the efficiency of the Jewish subordinates who served the Persian Zoroastrians in the Levant after its conquest in the early 7th century. Just as people left Judaism, no doubt others were assimilated into the Jewish community. The Jewish religious texts provide plenty of evidence of this. And even after the Islamic conquest dhimmis were free to convert from one religion to another so long as Islam was not part of the picture.

Azar Gat has convinced me that we moderns to underplay nationalism in antiquity in War in Human Civilization. But just as modern national identities exhibit some fluidity, they no doubt did in antiquity. Jews and other Aramaic speakers in the Fertile Crescent shared a common language. During the Roman period Jews were not distinguished by being a particularly urban community vis-a-vis gentiles. The connection between Mizrachi Jews and Assyrians probably has to do with them coming out of the same broad North Semitic continuum of peoples.

The question I have is if David found any haplotype blocks connecting the Assyrians and Mizrachi Jews, and compared them in relation to the Sephardi + Ashkenazi cluster. If the demographic separation of Assyrians and Mizrachi was very recent, there may not be much of a “Jewish” distinctive signature. On the other hand, if Jews as a whole share lots of identical-by-descent regions of the genome not shared with Assyrians, then it is deeper than I’m positing here. The clustering of the Assyrians with the Mizrachis could be just an artifact because these two groups haven’t been admixed with other non-Semitic groups, as the European Jews have.

Image credit: gdcgraphics, Karin Bar

• Category: History, Race/Ethnicity, Science • Tags: Anthropology, Genetics, Genomics, Jews 
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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.

• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics, Genomics, Jewish Genetics, Jews 
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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.

The methodology of both groups was similar. Take Jewish and non-Jewish populations of interest, and sequence them with a SNP-chip, and then try and extract out some useful patterns for the purposes of analytics. Here’s an important issue I want to reemphasize: the different methods of extracting out useful patterns give somewhat different results, and these results themselves are to a great extent human constructions which map only approximately onto the shape of reality. Measures of “genetic distance” are really just useful reifications and their biological reality as the differences amongst billions of base pairs is a somewhat different thing. This is why it is difficult to be more than trivial sometimes when it comes to what the “bottom line” on these studies are; the bottom lines represent human attempts to generate intuitive categories and representations on natural processes which are in some ways deeply alien to us. So with the cautions out of the way, let’s look at what the figures in this paper might indicate to our puny human intuitions.

First, here is a slice of a PCA where various Jewish groups have been mixed with a range of populations from the HGDP data set as well as a few extra ones. Specifically, I’ve focused on panel B which expands the region of the plot which contains populations of European and West Asian origin. Additionally, I’ve added a few extra labels and expanded the legend for clarity of viewing.


The second figure constrains the variation to European and West Eurasian populations for the purposes of extracting out the two largest dimensions of variation. Observe that the general configurations of the relationships remains the same (if rotated a bit), but the magnitudes are now shifted. In the first plot the unadmixed African populations were the most diverse group, while in the second the Arab groups with appreciable African ancestry such as the Bedouin are. So eigenvector 1 seems to roughly rank order West Asian groups by their African ancestry, while the second eigenvector is a rough east-west axis within the various regional groups.


The PCA aligns well with the previous paper. Ashkenazi Jews are roughly between European and Middle Eastern populations, as one would expect if they were in some sense an admixture between the groups. In the first paper the “Italian” group was from northern Italy. In this paper it is from Tuscany (Tus/T respectively for figure 1 and 2). The more interesting aspect are the non-Ashkenazi groups. This paper seems to confirm the east-west division evident in the earlier paper, whereby Ashkenazi & Sephardic groups form a natural cluster, as do the Mizrahi Jews of Iraq and Iran. Additionally, the Jews of Morocco seem to fall close to the Ashkenazi-Sephardic cluster (Moroccan Jews are Sephardic, but separated out a bit for the purposes of this paper). In the HGDP sample the closest thing to a “host” population for the Moroccan Jews are the Mozabites of Algeria, who are a Saharan Berber group. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the best proxy for the Berber groups because the Mozabites have a substantial proportion of Sub-Saharan African ancestry, more than is typical from what I can gather for populations from the Maghreb. But they added in their own group of Moroccans as well, though I didn’t track down the notation in the supplementary table 1 to ascertain the provenance of this sample.

The Yemeni Jews on the other hand are easier to understand. They seem to shake out as just another Middle Eastern population. They’re a subset of the Saudis in both plots. Since they’re regionally constrained to the southwest of the Arabian peninsula this makes sense, as the Saudi sample seems more regionally diverse in its recent ancestry (the next figure makes this clear to me). So the Yemeni Jews are roughly a third major cluster of “mainline” Jewish groups. Though their history is not as antique as that of the Jews of Iraq and Iran, who presumably go back to the period of the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids (earlier in the case of the Babylonian Jewry naturally), it does pre-date Islam. Additionally the genetic data suggest that this Jewish community has been relatively endogamous since the rise of Islam, as the next plot highlights.

It uses the ADMIXTURE method, with eight ancestral populations represented by each particular color. I’ve truncated the plot to populations of interest, in particular the Middle Eastern ones.

jewadmixplot The inference that Middle Eastern Jews have been relatively endogamous since the rise of Islam is supported by this figure, the red-brown segment is pretty close to Sub-Saharan African ancestry in an individual’s genome. The Arab and North African Muslim groups tend to have some appreciable Sub-Saharan African ancestry, but the Jewish groups do not. This is probably due to the fact that the arrival of Sub-Saharan Africans as slaves was more a feature of the Islamic era states, which had far more pervasive trade links with Africa south of the Sahara than any of the societies of antiquity. The Jews within the lands of Islam who did not convert were marginalized and did not participate fully in the commercial and cultural life of these societies. It seems plausible to assume then that there were few avenues for persons of slave ancestry and origin to enter into the Jewish community, as was common within Muslim society, where the offspring of slave women were recognized as free if the father was free. The Druze, a post-Muslim sect traditionally restricted to the mountains of Lebanon exhibit the same lack of Sub-Saharan African ancestry as Middle Eastern Jews, and this presumably is a pointer to their marginalization over the past one thousand years from the world of Arab Islam generally.

From this figure it looks as if the Moroccan Jews are fundamentally distinctive in some way from the non-Jewish population of Morocco. The green segment within the plot seems lacking in groups from the far western edge of the World Island of Africa-Eurasia. The full figure shows it is also lacking from populations on the eastern edge, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding those which have admixture. This component then point to origins within the center of the World Island, focused on the Mashriq and regions somewhat to the east. The magnitude of contribution of this segment to Moroccan Jews to me clinches the earlier observation of a close association between Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Moroccan Sephardic Jews, and a tie back to the Middle East in part for all these groups (though some of this may be of deeper origin, as the contrast between French and French Basques shows that different groups within the same nation can have different contributions, and the Moroccan non-Jewish samples may not be representative).

Finally, let’s look at the table which attempts to summarize genetic distances using allele sharing. The lower values indicate more genetic closeness.


Throwing all the variation together in a grab bag doesn’t seem to really inform that much from what I can tell. Here are the authors:

Genetic relationships between our population samples were then explored with the measure of allele sharing distances (ASDs)…Table 1 provides genetic distances between each Jewish community and its corresponding host population, all Jewish communities, west Eurasian Jewish communities, their respective Jewish group inferred from the PCA, and non-Jewish Levantine populations. The Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Moroccan, Iranian, Iraqi, Azerbaijani and Uzbekistani Jewish communities have the lowest ASD values when compared with their PCA-based inferred Jewish sub-cluster…In all except the Sephardi Jewish community, this ASD difference is statistically significant … ASD values between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Caucasus Jewish populations and their respective hosts are lower than those between each Jewish population and non-Jewish populations from the Levant. This might be the result of a bias inherent in our calculations as a result of the genetically more diverse non-Jewish populations of the Levant. The Ethiopian and Indian Jewish communities show the lowest ASD values when compared with their host population….

So what’s the bottom line here? I think the bottom line is that there isn’t a bottom line, and that we need to proceed on a case by case basis. I’ve focused on Middle Eastern Jews in this post, but let’s put the spotlight on the Indian Jews, the Bene Israel of Bombay, who were separated from the Jewish Diaspora, and the Cochin Jews, who were more well integrated (the Bene Israel did not have the Talmud, the Cochin Jews did). Both these groups resemble their Indian host populations genetically. Yet, Y chromosomal markers strongly imply that the Bene Israel are descended from male Middle Eastern Jews (many carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype). What likely occurred in India was that generations of admixture between Jews and non-Jews resulted in the elision of differences between the two groups, despite the persistence of a cultural distinction. Why the difference with other Jewish groups? I suspect that it has to do with the relative lack of a special relationship between Jews and the host culture in India as opposed to the world of Islam or Christendom. In India Jews were just another group, not subject to particular exclusion or marginalization. Non-Jews could, and did, move into the Indian Jewish community, while this was taboo in the Islamic or Christian world. A similar process seems to have occurred to the Jews of Kaifeng, who intermarried and eventually lost their identity because of their greater eventual isolation from the Jewish Diaspora in comparison to the Indian Jews, especially those of Cochin. The last generations of the Jews of Kaifeng, who likely descended from Middle Eastern traders, witnessed the sons of this community enter into the Chinese bureaucracy through cultivation of that culture’s classics, as well as the farce of Han wives of Jewish notables tending to pigs in their yards.

Citation: Behar, D., Yunusbayev, B., Metspalu, M., Metspalu, E., Rosset, S., Parik, J., Rootsi, S., Chaubey, G., Kutuev, I., Yudkovsky, G., Khusnutdinova, E., Balanovsky, O., Semino, O., Pereira, L., Comas, D., Gurwitz, D., Bonne-Tamir, B., Parfitt, T., Hammer, M., Skorecki, K., & Villems, R. (2010). The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature09103

• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics, Genomics, Jewish Genetics, Jews 
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I notice that a peculiar piece of datum from First Things contributor David Goldman is being passed around, repeated by Ross Douthat no less. Goldman states:

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.

A reader of Goldman’s who happens not to be stupid and can actually read observes that 34% of Orthodox Jews are 18 to 24 according to the original source Goldman was citing. No surprise that Goldman makes such an error, he has a way with faux erudition which amazes the dull and dumb. In fact, the American Jewish Survey reports that 16% of Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 self-identify as Orthodox.

With that small error out of the way, in regards to the future of the American Jewry I think the story outlined in Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 may serve as a possible vision of the future. Elon notes that almost the whole of the German Jewish elite of the late 18th and early 19th century converted to Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn’s last Jewish descendant died before the 20th century; the rest of his descendants had become Christians. Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine were not atypical. But there was a large German Jewish community in the early 20th century, though even that was being eroded by intermarriage and conversion. If Elon is correct that the bulk of the 19th century Jewry became Christian, where did the Jews of the 20th century come from? It seems that as the German Jewish burghers abandoned the Reform temples for Lutheran churches, their spots were filled by assimilating Eastern European Jews who were immigrating into Germany and taking over the institutions which the earlier community had built. They were heirs in spirit, if not blood, to Moses Mendelssohn. In other words, a large bumper crop of Orthodox youth may be the salvation for the Reform and Conservative movements. There may be no third generation Reform, but not all third generations beyond Orthodoxy remain Orthodox either.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Jews 
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Steve points me to a profile of Greg & Henry, with a focus on Jewish genetics & smarts.

• Category: Science • Tags: IQ, Jews 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

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