Is Judaism a religion or race? Yes

“Abraham’s Children,” by Jon Entine, Grand Central Publishing, 2007, 420 pages, $27.99.

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In “Abraham’s Children,” Jon Entine examines the history of the Chosen People through the lens of DNA analysis. The result is a book that is simultaneously fascinating and troubling.

A central issue about Judaism is whether it is a religion or a race. “Abraham’s Children” attempts to answer the question. Given the complexity of the question, the answer proves both straightforward and complex, a simple yes.

Many who consider themselves Jews can indeed trace their ancestry back to the Holy Land in Biblical times. There are genetic markers that are unique to the Cohanim (the priests of ancient Israel) and the Levites (the tribe that guarded the tabernacle).

These markers show up in unexpected places. The Lemba of Zimbabwe, a black African tribe that claims Jewish descent, appears to be descended from a group of Levites that drifted into South Africa in ancient times. Similarly, the Cochin of India, another group that claims descent from one of the Lost Tribes, has markers that indicate an origin from the area of Palestine.

Genetic analysis also reveals that other groups that have practiced Judaism for centuries — even a millennium or more — are unrelated to the Biblical-era Israelites. These groups converted. Their legends of being one of the Lost Tribes are just that: legends.

The book holds other surprises. Despite modern Judaism’s matrilineal traditions, many of the oldest matrilineal DNA markers come from non-Jewish gene pools. In ancient times, at least, Jewish men often married outside the faith.

“Abraham’s Children” also attempts to put concepts of race in context and looks at the history of eugenics. While DNA analysis can pinpoint a person’s geographic origins almost exactly, it cannot predict what race a person will be considered to be. Nor does ‘race” predict individual behavior. Nurture plays as significant a role as nature.

Given the damage done by abusing race, moving cautiously is prudent. “Abraham’s Children” shows how everyone benefits if we can steer between ignoring and misusing race.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City.

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