In This Article Jewish Genetics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Special Issues of Journals

Jewish Studies Jewish Genetics
Noah Tamarkin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0112


Like other research on human heredity and biological relationships, Jewish genetics has seen a surge in new research beginning in the 1980s as the larger field of genetics made use of new technologies and methods of analysis. More recently, the availability of whole-genome sequencing following the successful completion of the human genome project has opened new research possibilities as well as new ethical and political questions about the implications of genetic research. Despite this newness, contemporary geneticists and their critics often consider similar questions and controversies such as those raised in pre-1980s studies based on blood groups, and even earlier biometric studies undertaken by 19th- and early-20th-century eugenicists and their critics. Zionist and anti-Zionist politics significantly inform historical and contemporary Jewish genetics literatures, at times explicitly and more often implicitly in the questions that scholars ask, such as the extent to which Jews constitute a biological community, and the extent to which Jews throughout the world can trace their ancestry to the Middle East. The Jewish genetics literature includes genetic studies and book-length overviews written from the perspective of genetic scientists, qualitative studies and critical analyses of the methods and implications of Jewish genetics written by humanities and social sciences scholars, and popular nonfiction accounts of both written by journalists. This article includes work from all of these categories but emphasizes humanities and social sciences research. The work on Jewish genetics produced in the humanities and social sciences draws from the interdisciplinary fields of Jewish cultural studies, comparative ethnic studies, and science and technology studies, as well as from disciplines such as history, anthropology, and sociology. Scholars seeking to speak across humanities and sciences divides have also explored Jewish genetics, especially in the context of race and genomics, biological citizenship, and anthropological questions about ancestry, medicine, and belonging. Whether authors position themselves as scientists or humanists, a common theme emerges in the Jewish genetics literature; much of the work on Jewish genetics examines continuities between contemporary Jewish genetics research and earlier scholarship devoted to the interrelationships among Jewish identity, Jewish biology, and cultural/political ideas about race and ethnicity. It is thus necessary to consider the critical literature on genetics and race more broadly in addition to texts specifically concerned with Jewish genetics and to approach the topic of Jewish genetics from an interdisciplinary and historical point of view.

General Overviews

Those without a background in human molecular genetics will find Marks 1995 to be an accessible and comprehensive introduction to the field in the context of anthropology, race, and ancestry (see also Race and Genetics: Eugenics Histories). Royal 2006 introduces the larger field of race and ethnicity in genetics research, of which Jewish genetics is a part. Fishberg 2006, originally published in 1911, provides a prehistory of Jewish genetics, asking many of the same questions later asked by geneticists and sharing many of the same concerns with how to use biological measurement to understand Jewish demography, diversity, and medicine. Mourant, et al. 1978 summarizes the field of Jewish genetics as of the 1970s when serological (blood group) studies dominated. For an up-to-date state of the field, the following three excellent texts offer marked differences in their approaches and purposes: Abu El-Haj 2012, Ostrer 2012, and Rosenberg and Weitzman 2013 (the latter is a special issue of the journal Human Biology). Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist, aims to make Jewish genetics accessible for a popular audience, whereas Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist and science and technology studies scholar, examines the epistemologies that facilitate and result from Jewish genetic ancestry research. Both explain the basics of genetics research for a nonspecialist audience, and they complement one another by taking different positions regarding what Jewish genetics tell us about race, ethnicity, biology, culture, and politics. Ostrer emphasizes scientists’ biographies and viewpoints in an account that is oriented toward explicating the central finding of his “Jewish HapMap” research, which is that disparate Jewish groups are genetically linked to one another (see Jewish Genetic History and Identity for more on this research, as well as dissenting views from other geneticists). Abu El-Haj 2012 also includes detailed accounts of relevant genetic studies and background information about scientists but emphasizes an analysis of genetic ancestry’s epistemological underpinnings as a novel—but not self-evident—form of knowledge about biology and culture. Rosenberg and Weitzman 2013 in this special issue aim to include geneticists and social scientists in one conversation. Although not exhaustive, the other articles signal some of the current concerns within Jewish genetics: the extent to which historical controversies can be addressed through genetic ancestry studies, the relatedness of Jewish populations to others in the Middle East and Europe, and the significance of pro- and anti-Zionist politics to how Jewish genetics research is produced and interpreted.

  • Abu El-Haj, Nadia. The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

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    Abu El-Haj argues that genetic history seeks historical, cultural meaning through statistical differences gleaned from genomic data. She highlights changing understandings of Jewish genetic research vis-à-vis biological essentialisms and cultural meanings, as well as changing forms of Zionist politics and ideas about nationhood.

  • Fishberg, Maurice. Jews, Race, & Environment. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Transaction Publishers, 2006.

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    Originally published in 1911, Fishberg’s study of the racial characteristics of Jews concludes that Jews do not constitute a race. Its original context was public debates about the racial and assimilation status of Jews as an American immigrant population. Readers will note that the book was written prior to the possibility of genetic research. However, this is an especially important text for those interested in historicizing Jewish genetics. Recent research addresses similar questions, such as the extent to which Jews are similar to one another and the way in which to evaluate associations between Jews and specific diseases.

  • Kahn, Susan Martha. “The Multiple Meanings of Jewish Genes.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 29.2 (June 2005): 179–192.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11013-005-7424-5E-mail Citation »

    Kahn examines the implications of Jewish genetic research for essentialist notions of identity. In this succinct analysis of Jewish genetics, Kahn argues that a consideration of genetics alongside other biomedical technologies in which bodily substances are exchanged ultimately challenges the essentialisms that Jewish genetic identity appears to present.

  • Marks, Jonathan. Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.

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    Marks is an anthropologist who writes prolifically on genetics and race. This book is an excellent introduction to how genes, race, and history are understood within biological anthropology, as well as to the tradition in anthropology that cites genetic evidence for the position that biological races do not exist.

  • Mourant, Arthur Ernest, Ada C. Kopeć, and Kazimiera Domaniewska-Sobczak. The Genetics of the Jews. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.

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    The authors present a summary overview of Jewish genetics to the 1970s, emphasizing blood group data and questions of race and ancestry. They argue that all of the Jewish populations show similarities with each other as well as in varying degrees with the non-Jewish populations among whom they live.

  • Ostrer, Harry. Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    Ostrer provides a detailed genealogy of major events in the history of Jewish genetics research, along with clear explanations of technical terms. Ostrer emphasizes biographies of major Jewish geneticists and explanations for a general audience. He argues that disparate Jewish groups are genetically linked to one another.

  • Rosenberg, Noah A., and Steven P. Weitzman. “Introduction.” In Special Issue: From Generation to Generation: The Genetics of Jewish Populations. Edited by Noah A. Rosenberg and Steven P. Weitzman. Human Biology 85.6 (December 2013): 817–824.

    DOI: 10.3378/027.085.0603E-mail Citation »

    The introduction to this special issue emphasizing Jewish population genetics explains why Jewish genetic ancestry is of interest to population geneticists and to scholars in Jewish studies and related fields.

  • Royal, Charmaine. “‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Science, Medicine and Society.” BioSocieties 1.3 (September 2006): 325–328.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1745855206003048E-mail Citation »

    Royal explains why and how scientists use the terms “race” and “ethnicity” in biomedical and genetic ancestry research. She highlights how these concepts can be misleading or otherwise problematic and advocates for a more nuanced approach to human genetic variation.

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