Culture club

James Redfield of Pikeville, Tennessee was a keen observer of facial features. Eighty years before Der Sturmer gave Jews gargantuan noses, he outdid Goebbels’ artists with artistic comparisons of his own: In his 1852 book, “Comparative Physiognomy or Resemblances Between Men and Animals,” he argued quite simply that there are some human beings that may consider themselves to belong to a loftier species, yet in appearance actually resemble goats.

This anecdote from generations past seems amusing now, but it is also symbolic of the anti-Semitic conceptions that were prevalent even in a most enlightened nation. Now that the technology exists for mapping facial features and your distinct aspects of personality, on a biological-scientific basis, all that’s missing is a study proving that one indeed fits you.

Who is a Jew and who isn’t? What is unique about Jews? Can they even really be defined biologically, per se? Do biologists or geneticists possess research tools that are sophisticated enough to definitively answer these loaded questions? Raphael Falk, a professor emeritus of genetics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is happy to address this challenge – which many others in academia have avoided.

It was Falk’s teacher, Elisheva Goldschmidt, who influenced him to switch direction from lab work on the Drosophila fruit fly to human heredity and the genetics of the populations of Israel. For over 20 years, his field has been the history and philosophy of biology, especially genetics. About 12 years ago, Falk became interested in researching the connection between the Zionist idea and biological theories regarding the Jewish people. What began as a sideline eventually developed into a comprehensive study that is currently being published by Resling Press as a book entitled “Tziyonut vehabiologiya shel hayehudim (“Zionism and the Biology of the Jews”).

Bialik echoes Hitler

Raphael Falk, 77, says that he fully understood when he chose his research topics that they were not something that had ever been addressed by academia.

“There’s no such thing, the biology of the Jews,” he says. “Everyone defines a Jew in a different way. On the question of who is a Jew, Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn said that whoever defines himself as a Jew is a Jew, while Justice Menachem Elon adhered to the Law of Return, defining a Jew as anyone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted. And yet, the Zionist movement did adopt the view that there is a biology of the Jews.”

In 1865 British scholar Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” (from the Greek meaning “good in birth”) to refer to the improvement of the human race.

“The Zionist movement also emphasized the need to preserve the essence of the Jewish people, and in that period, this took on a biological meaning,” Falk explains. “The Jews were persecuted because of their religion, their appearance and their sociology. On the one hand, they won emancipation in the 19th century and were no longer supposed to be persecuted because of their religion or occupation, but it was still convenient to say that they were different even though they didn’t look different. So it was said that they were different in their biology. Hatred of Jews thus became biological. The term ‘anti-Semitic’ was also coined at about the same time, around 1870, and was invented by German journalist Wilhelm Mahr, who claimed that the Jews were of a different and peculiar race, the Semitic race, and that this was imprinted on their biology.

“The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder spoke of the idea of the Volk, the ‘folk-nation’ that viewed a people as an organic unit. And not just in the cultural sense. In time, this also came to include race. From this movement of the concept of the Volk, you get Zionism developing on the one hand, and German nationalism, which later evolved into Nazism, on the other hand. This is an uncomfortable fact, but a fact nonetheless.”

Falk maintains in his book that many of the prominent Zionists of the 1920s and ’30s saw their movement as having a eugenic aspect that was directed at saving the Jews’ “biological reservoir,” or gene pool, from the degeneration that resulted from life in exile, and he cites numerous examples. Moses Hess, who was one of the first to call for Jewish national renewal in Palestine, referred to the Jews as a race in his 1862 book “Rome and Jerusalem.” Falk says that Zionism adopted the Volkist outlook of a racially defined nation shaped by blood and soil – a concept that included the idea of the establishment of a people’s nationality in its own country. He quotes intellectuals and philosophers who considered their Judaism a race. Albert Einstein, for example, said in 1920: “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our existence as a race.” And Haim Nahman Bialik proclaimed at a 1934 press conference at the Hebrew University: “I, too, like Hitler, believe in the power of the blood idea.”

Blood and soil

According to Falk, the question of the biological essence of Jewish existence was part and parcel of the realization of the Zionist idea from the beginning. Dr. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Palestine Office of the World Zionist Organization, which purchased lands and established various kinds of settlements, presented the eugenic idea as one of the goals of Zionism. He was convinced that the Jews possessed a biological uniqueness and that settling them in Palestine was vital in order to preserve this. Ruppin wrote in 1923: “Were it not for the Jews’ racial affinity with the peoples of the Near East, it would not be possible to justify Zionism.”

Falk: “I don’t think that these people thought in terms of biology the way we do today. They weren’t biologists. When Herzl spoke openly about race he didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. Max Nordau, who was a doctor, used the term race, as did figures like Jabotinsky, who was a journalist and a writer, and by the early 20th century was speaking openly about a biological race. Religious Jews saw themselves as a biological entity, as the descendants of the patriarch Abraham, but also accepted converts into their midst. But from the late 19th century on, the Zionists defined Jews in a biological sense with no connection necessarily to religion or culture. This was for the sake of uniting the Jews and saying: Look, we’re a race that is also a nation, and like any other nation and race, we deserve our own piece of land. In his writings, Martin Buber, who was liberal and enlightened, defined a nation by means of what the Germans called Blut und Boden (blood and soil). The Zionists also had a concept of ‘blood and soil.’ Not in the way it developed with the Nazis, but Zionism was certainly a national movement that took people’s biology into account.”

Dr. Max Nordau, Herzl’s associate and a physician and publicist, also adopted the eugenic theories. Nordau contended that for the Jews, life in exile as a separate ethnic group had led them to a state of degeneration in body and soul. He recommended that Jews live in nature and pursue a more physical culture – that Judaism build up some muscles. “He thought that the biology of the Jews needed to be changed via eugenics. That is, to improve the Jewish race by means of selection as is done with plants and animals to ward off degeneration,” says Falk.

“The ideas about using positive selection of the human race were very accepted in those years and Ruppin and others mention them. What’s more, some also say that in exile the Jewish people underwent selection for good genes by marrying well-off young women to Torah scholars, that this was selection for an improved social and economic class and for high intelligence.”

Falk explains in his book that improvement of the race was considered a good idea among the people of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, and he offers many examples. Dr. Mordechai Brachyahu, a pediatrician and school doctor who headed the Department of Hygiene at Hadassah Hospital, published an article in 1922 in which he wrote: “Knowledge of heredity is necessary not only in the abstract, for the sake of recognition of the culture and history of peoples, but also in practice, for the lives of the individual and the nation, for policy and settlement, education and public hygiene.”

Brachyahu added: “The guiding spirit of this movement is the idea that the greatest sin that humans can commit against the God of life is to give birth to sick children marked with the seal of degeneration; the public that preserves the assets of the collective and the individual demands, in this matter, adherence to rational means, so that helpless offspring will not be born; and in the war of nations, in the secret, ‘cultural’ war between one people and another, the victor is he who sees to the improvement of the race, to the elevation of his descendants’ biological worth …”

Ethnic differences

Moshe Glickson, a leader of the General Zionists and chief editor of Haaretz from 1922-1937, wrote: “There are among us a certain type of Zionists, who understood or felt that Zionism is more than just another economic-business enterprise.”

Dr. Zvi Rudy published an article in which he discerned hereditary differences on the basis of “social classes” as well as “geographic regions,” and also noted that “differences according to race are evident also in the differing spiritual inclinations between the children of the Jews and the children of the Christians in Eastern Europe.”

Dr. Israel Rubin, an educator and literary critic, observed mixed marriages among various Jewish ethnic groups. “Here the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ in Palestine makes possible ‘mixed marriages’ not between Jews and non-Jews, but between Jews and other Jews … Doesn’t this in itself contain the hope of eugenic salvation to a great extent?”

Quite a few scholars of European background stress the ethnic differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. In July 1930, a Dr. Orenstein conducted comparative psychological testing among groups of children classified as Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and determined that the achievements of the latter “fell far below those of their Ashkenazi brethren.” Differences of heredity and upbringing, he explained, were the cause of their relatively inferior intellectual level.

Dr. Yosef Meir, after whom Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba was named, warned young mothers that it was their duty to give birth to healthy children. In 1934, Meir published an article in which he analyzed who ought to give birth and called on couples not to have children unless they were sure their offspring would be healthy in body and mind.

Biologist Fritz Shimon Bodenheimer ascribed to the Zionist project a decisive role in consolidating the biology of the Jews, and advocated marriages “between Sephardim, who in the author’s view are culturally inferior, but having high fertility, with Ashkenazim, who have the culture but have inferior fertility.” Bodenheimer argued that this combination would lead not only to a vital improvement of the Jewish nation, but would also be a solution to the demographic problem stemming from the high fertility of the local Arabs.

From Sicily to Iraq

Who was it that defined the Jews as Jews? “The Ashkenazi Jews did this,” says Prof. Falk. “If the Ethiopian Jews were the ones doing the defining, then you and I wouldn’t be considered Jews. There was also a big debate over who are the real Jews – the Ashkenazim or the Sephardim. Most of the Ashkenazi researchers concluded that the truest representatives of the original Jews are the Sephardi Jews. There was the non-Jewish point of view that attributed a special aura to the oriental noble savage. Therefore, they saw the dark-complexioned Jews as the idealization of the romantic figure of the original ancestor. For this reason the Ashkenazi Jews chose to adopt the Sephardi accent as the authentic accent of the revived Hebrew language and gave up the Ashkenazi accent. The anti-Semites also claimed that the real Jews were in the Middle East, and that the Ashkenazim in Russia and Europe did not share the nobility of the original Sephardi Jew.”

After the founding of Israel, Falk participated in studies in the country, which had absorbed immigrants “from 70 exiles,” as he notes in the preface to his book. The challenge of conducting genetic research on the Jews as a biological entity enticed many of his colleagues, he recalls.

“We tried to search for and find decisive proof of a common biological basis for the members of the various ethnic groups,” says Falk. “As early as the 1940s, Joseph Gurevitch, a doctor at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, began collecting data on the distribution of blood types among the different Jewish ethnic groups in Israel. The blood was available at the blood bank, and Gurevitch wasn’t thinking about research that would prove that the Jews are Jews. He wanted to publish an article. I was also working on similar research since it was an extraordinary opportunity with so many different populations gathered here, and to a geneticist it was interesting to examine the dynamic between them. Unconsciously, there was a desire to compare the ethnic groups with one another and show that there were no differences between them.”

A 1957 study by Leo Sachs and Mariasa Bat-Miriam caused something of an uproar. In research based on a model of fingerprints of Jews, the two claimed to have identified a common denominator among the various Jewish ethnic groups. Again, these were Ashkenazi researchers who, consciously or not, were defining who is a Jew.

There are no common genetic characteristics shared by Jews?

Falk: “I don’t have any definition of who is a Jew. There are no biological markers in general or genetic ones in particular, according to which one could define a man or woman as a Jew. In the past there were attempts to identify such a biological common denominator. In other words, people said: If we look at genetic signs we’ll find that in the population of those who are defined as Jews, the incidence of these signs is different than in the population of non-Jews. In the past they would take just one or two indicators: [They said that] Type A or B blood in English Jews is more or less common than among non-Jews, or that the prevalence of the gene for Tay-Sachs disease is higher among Lithuanian Jews than among Lithuanian non-Jews.”

And nowadays?

“Nowadays it is possible to look simultaneously at many molecular-genetic indicators and to summarize the overall incidence of many such indicators by means of a single (variable) number and to examine whether it is different (significantly higher or lower) than among non-Jews. However, there is no biological way to say who is a Jew – that is, who is included in the population.”

In the population?

“The Jews were generally isolated in their own ‘reproductive circles’ (or gene pools, as geneticists would say) from the populations among which they resided, because of their religion, their customs and the prejudices regarding them. Obviously, the isolation of reproductive populations is always relative and there is always ‘leakage’ of genes to and from a population.”

Then what is the relatively isolated reproductive population that is defined as Jewish, and what is its connection to the Law of Return?

“The Law of Return has a formal definition that seeks to give an answer regarding this or that individual and really only sidesteps the question by saying, in the best case, that an individual is a Jew if he was born into a Jewish community/population. But how do we decide what is a Jewish population? Clearly, it is a population that, due to its customs, traditions, religion or the views of ‘others,’ is fairly isolated …

“Throughout the world there are many populations that call themselves or are defined by their surroundings as Jewish. In recent times Jews have also been appending to themselves populations that are rather isolated culturally and geographically: in the Andes in Peru, in northwest Burma, the ‘Bnei Menashe’ and so on. Without a doubt, many of them have at least some characteristics of custom, religion and culture that are more or less similar. According to the view of the recent generations of geneticists, all Jews are related, and are descendants of a single mother and father: Abraham and Sarah. In other words, we are all branches and sub-branches of the same tree-trunk, which is distinct from other trees and their related branches. A few branches may be a little farther away from the rest (such as the Ethiopians, perhaps, or the Jews of Cochin), but generally speaking, according to this argument, we are all Jews not only in our tradition and customs and religion, but also in our common origin.”

And what do you say?

“This whole argument contains a mistaken initial premise – populations of human beings multiplied as branches of the same trunk. That is, that the closeness of the communities defined as Jews and their segregation arose because of their common origin and that their history is that of a splitting and divergence of branches. Yet it is really religion, tradition and customs, as well as persecution, which have always defined Jews. This is what caused them to form gene pools that were somewhat isolated from their surroundings and what caused the common genetic connections among them.”

Did you embark on your research with the somewhat frustrating knowledge that there is no biology of the Jews?

“It was clear to me that I cannot define who is a Jew, and neither can anyone else. As a biologist, it became increasingly clear to me that, apart from the Jews who seek to do so, those who wish to define Jews biologically are the anti-Semites and the Nazis. Also when I took part in studies in the early years of the state, I found that there was no common denominator among Jews. When I saw the results of studies from recent years that found that Jews share some common elements at the DNA level, it threw me at first, and then I came up with what philosophers of science like to call an auxiliary hypothesis, which says that what underlies this phenomenon isn’t a common origin, but a common culture, and this auxiliary hypothesis is just as plausible as the opposite hypothesis.”

Hard to be a Zionist

Falk finds a connection between his research and his own struggles with his personal identity. “In recent years it’s been hard for me to be a Zionist,” he says. “I grew up in a yekke [German-speaking] home whose Zionism was socio-liberal and idealistic. Since ’67, it’s become harder and harder for me to be a Zionist. This study was an attempt to grapple with how I can be a Zionist today. Hence, the part of the book that examines Zionism’s relationship to the biological problem was a kind of catharsis and now I know how I come to terms with Zionism. The Zionism that in its early stages adopted the biology and eugenics of 19th-century Europe was not nationalist-fundamentalist. Today I despise fundamentalism on the one hand and nationalism on the other.”

Jewish tradition wasn’t the flame that ignited Falk’s research. He was born in Frankfurt to very secular parents. His bar mitzvah celebration was held at home and he did no more than read the haftara. He was also brought up in the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

“I’m an atheist, but my wife says that we’re anti-religious and that’s true in the sense that religious coercion plays a big part in our lives in Jerusalem. I was raised on the need to be tolerant, but I myself am not at all tolerant toward religious extremists.”

He and his wife Ruma, a psychologist, married 53 years ago in Stockholm, Sweden, where Falk attended university. In lieu of a wedding canopy, the chief rabbi stretched a kaffiyeh over their heads. There was no minyan (prayer quorum) and the rabbi recited only a brief text. Their unusual ketuba (Jewish marriage contract) caused problems for the couple upon their return to Israel. Falk’s father was a pediatrician, the director of the pediatric department at a hospital in Haifa, who made caring for the children of Yemenite immigrants his life’s work. “Whenever people talk about the kidnapping of Yemenite children I get mad because there was extraordinary devotion to these children,” says Falk.

Falk has stored on his computer a series of photographs of Yemenite children before they were hospitalized and after they received treatment.

“The children who recovered were transferred to the Omna children’s home in Neveh Sha’anan and after a time they had to be discharged from there, too, and some of the children were put up for adoption. I don’t want to say that no one ever engaged in any monkey business or that they didn’t sell a child or two. I know that about 70 children went missing from all the hospitals, and I also know the sort of dedication with which my father and his team cared for these children in the conditions that existed then.”

How is this addressed in your research?

“In the book I wanted to consciously convey that things must be viewed in the context of their time. You can’t judge the people of the 1920s and ’30s according to the post-Holocaust view of eugenics. In the period I’m discussing, eugenics was an accepted science as a good and important scientific framework. Without question, in that period of the early years of the state, there was terrible paternalism also in relation to the children from Yemen …

“Zionism also had strong elements of nationalism and colonialism. At the peak of the colonial period, Herzl said that Palestine is empty. Arthur Ruppin imported the Yemenites as foreign workers, as a cheap labor force, which is a terrible thing, but it was also the colonialist outlook of his time. It should be judged in terms of the criteria of the time.”

What about the myth of the Jewish genius?

“The question isn’t whether it’s a myth, but rather whether it has any biological basis. It has no such basis.”


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