Home July 2014 DNA and Diaspora

DNA and Diaspora

A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing a researcher who was the first to discover that Jews across the globe share distinct genetic traits that are different from other groups and that trace back to the ancient Middle East.
“The debate is over,” Dr. Edward R. Burns said. “The Jewish people are one people with a common genetic thread that evolved in the second or third century BC.”
I was excited about Dr. Burns’ study because it confirmed something I knew in my bones: Jews are, in fact, a people and Israel is our home.
The study, “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era,” compared the genetic analyses of 237 Jews, including Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, with an analysis of 418 non-Jews worldwide, and found that the Jews were more closely related to each other than to their fellow countrymen.
The study also scientifically undermined arguments made by those who challenge Jews’ historical relationship to Israel.
That study was published four years ago. Why do I bring it up now?
Anti-Semitism is on the rise everywhere from France to UCLA, and I am not sure our people are doing enough for our People.
There is a saying in Hebrew, k’lal Yisroel arevim zeh bazeh: all Jews are responsible for one another because we are connected. And, truly, really, in chromosome as well as in practice, we are connected.
So I wonder what that connection amounts to when pictures of Justin Timberlake at the Western Wall get more social media play than the stories of the four people shot and killed at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Our French brethren undergo daily harassment, and I haven’t heard the lox-and-bagel set at Katella Deli talking about it. Does anyone care?
My synagogue recently tried to host a speaker from UCLA to talk to the congregation about the problems plaguing the Jewish and pro-Israel students there, but few wanted to listen. Emails that bounced around about the proposed talk essentially boiled down to, “Why would anybody want to go to that talk? It’s not our problem.”
Of course it’s our problem.
I don’t need a cheek swab to tell me that I’m connected to the harassed French Jews, the fearful Belgians or the Birthright kids from UCLA. But knowing about my genetic link makes me feel as though those attacks happened to my own family.
Because, in reality, it did. No matter how assimilated or anti-religious a Jewish person is, when someone attacks the rights of one of us to circumcise our sons (San Francisco), wear a kippah in public (France) or attend a Birthright trip before running for student office (Los Angeles), we are all under attack.
People will often counter assimilation by saying, “You’d have been Jewish enough for the Germans.” That always makes me cringe. I hate to think that a person’s identity could be defined by his enemy.
But on the flip side, if enough people don’t take ownership of their Jewishness and the responsibilities inherent in it, we run the risk of having that identity thrust upon us all in ways we’d rather not think about.
After speaking to the researcher all those years ago, I also spoke to prominent Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe, who told me he wasn’t that impressed with the DNA findings.
“The findings say more about the spiritual strength of our forbearers, the way they treasured tradition so much that they would not compromise it to be part of the rest of society,” he said. “Our spirit guarded our DNA, not the other way around.”
Where is that spirit today?

After a 10-year career as a newspaper reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, Mayrav Saar left to try her hand at child rearing and freelance writing.

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