Jewish researcher attacks DNA evidence linking Jews to Israel

| May 13, 2013 |
Credit: Flickr/ Daniele Giovannoni Credit: Flickr/ Daniele Giovannoni

It’s one of the consequences of the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors that the origins of the “Jewish people” periodically surfaces as an issue of great controversy. It’s particularly troublesome when a scientist—in this case, an Israeli molecular geneticist whose motivations appear more personal and ideological than scientific—stokes the contretemps.

The current brouhaha arises over a recent study by Eran Elhaik and is accompanied by his personal attacks on more mainstream scientists who have eviscerated his work. In the face of overwhelming evidence from dozens of studies over twenty years from geneticists and historians around the world, Elhaik is aggressively stumping on behalf of his belief that most Jews trace their seminal ancestry not to the Middle East but to the Caucuses and Eastern Europe.

Khazarian myth

Elhaik, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins, is recirculating the debunked “Khazarian hypothesis” promoted by journalist Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book, The Thirteenth Tribe, written before scientists had the tools to compare genomes and challenge his conclusion.

The Khazarian myth was more recently recycled (to great applause by anti-Israeli activists and some pro-Palestinian groups) in no less convincing form by Israeli French historian Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People, published in 2008—a book panned by both historians and geneticists.

Elhaik reengaged the faux controversy late last year when the Oxford journal Genome Biology and Evolution published his study, “The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses.” The young Jewish researcher challenged the so-called “Rhineland hypothesis”—the broadly accepted genetic and historic evidence that about 80 percent of Jewish Ashkenazi males trace their ancestry to a core population of approximately 20,000 Eastern European Jews who originated in the Middle East. Elhaik wrote that the Khazars converted to Judaism in the eighth century, although historians believe and genetic evidence confirms that only a fraction of the population converted, including almost certainly royalty and some members of the aristocracy.

A paper published in 2000 by geneticists Harry Ostrer, a professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer showed that most Ashkenazis, Italians, North Africans, Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish and Yemenite Jews share common Y-DNA haplotypes that are also found among many Arabs from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.  Only a small percentage of the Y-DNA of Jews originated outside of the Middle East—some in the Caucuses.

The competing Rhineland and Khazarian theories were most recently discussed by Ostrer in two studies published in 2012 and in his well received book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People. He found that geographically and culturally distant Jews still have more genes in common than they do with non-Jews around them, and that those genes can be traced back to the Levant, an area including modern-day Israel. “All European [Ashkenazi] Jews seem connected on the order of fourth or fifth cousins, Ostrer has said.

The concept of the “Jewish people” remains controversial. The Law of Return, the Israeli law that established the right of Jews around the world to settle in Israel and which remains in force today, was a central tenet of Zionism. The DNA that links Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi, three prominent culturally and geographically distinct Jewish groups, could conceivably be used to support Zionist territorial claims —except, as Ostrer has pointed out, some of the same markers can be found in Palestinians, distant genetic cousins of the Jews, as well. Palestinians, understandably, want their own ‘right of return’.

That disagreement over the interpretations of Middle Eastern DNA also pits Jewish traditionalists against a particular strain of secular Jewish ultra-liberals who have joined with anti-Israeli Arabs and many non-Jews to argue for an end to Israel as a Jewish nation. Their hero is the Austrian-born Shlomo Sand—and now Elhaik. His study gained buzz in neo-Nazi websites and radical anti-Israeli and more radical pro-Palestinian blogs. For example, the notorious former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke actually attacked Elhaik in his latest anti-Jewish rant—Duke’s anti-Semitic beliefs hang on the fact that Jews are genetically cohesive and conspiratorial. “The disruptive and conflict-ridden behavior which has marked out Jewish Supremacist activities through the millennia strongly suggests that Jews have remained more or less genetically uniform and have … developed a group evolutionary survival strategy based on a common biological unity — something which strongly militates against the Khazar theory,” Duke wrote in his blog in February.

While Elhaik’s work has provided ideological support for those seeking the destruction of Israel, it’s fallen flat among established scientists, who peer reviewed his work and found it sloppy at best and political at worst.

“He’s just wrong,” said Marcus Feldman of Stanford University, a leading researcher in Jewish genetics. “If you take all of the careful genetic population analysis that has been done over the last 15 years… there’s no doubt about the common Middle Eastern origin,” he said. He added that Elhaik’s paper “is sort of a one-off.”

“It’s an unrealistic premise,” said University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer, one of the world’s top Y-chromosomal researchers.

Discover’s Razib Khan did a textured critique in his Gene Expression blog, noting the study’s historical fuzziness and its selective use of data to come up with what seems like a pre-cooked conclusion. As Razib writes, it’s hardly surprising that we would find a small but sizable Khazarian contribution to the “Jewish gene pool”. In fact the male line of my own family traces to the Caucuses, suggesting I’m one of the 20 percent or so of Jews whose lineage traces to converted royal Khazarians. But that view is widely acknowledged by Ostrer, Hammer, Feldman, Michael Thomas and every major researcher in this area—as summarized in my book, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People.

The rebuke of Elhaik’s study apparently has irked the beleaguered and brash researcher. He’s launched a new offensive—the double entendre is intentional—as chronicled in the Jewish Forward. Elhaik is now calling the world’s top geneticists “liars” and “frauds.” When I weighed in on the magazine’s discussion board, Elhaik responded with academic restraint, claiming my reporting was no better than the geneticists he trashed, saying it shared “common ground with the Nazism (sic) ideology.”

Judaism’s tribal roots

Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism is not solely a faith-based religion. Its origins, as is the case with the other prominent surviving ancient religion, Zoroastrianism, are tribal. The blood connections mentioned endlessly in the Hebrew Bible are not just symbolic; the Jews of ancient Israel were a clan of connected tribes who coalesced over hundreds of years. While Jesus and later Mohammad transformed the notion of “blood” into “faith”—one could become a Christian or Muslim through faith alone—Judaism has always retained an ancestral component.

In the Torah, that blood link is patrilineal, passed on from father to son. That tradition is preserved today in the Jewish priesthood, known as the Aaronite line. According to the Bible (and we have no way to know if this is historical or apocryphal), Aaron was anointed as the first Jewish priest and his sons and their descendants became the seed population of the Jewish priesthood. Jewish Cohanim—the word means ‘priests’ in Hebrew—supervised the inner sanctum until the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century, after which the Aaronite line was preserved by tradition, with Cohanim having special privileges and responsibilities to this day.

Are present day Cohanim descended from Aaron? That question is unanswerable; we do not even know for certain that Aaron or Moses even existed. However, DNA studies of the Y chromosome have determined that a majority of self-proclaimed Cohanim (it’s an oral tradition) has a set of genetic markers that trace back approximately three thousand years to a single common ancestor. In other words, if there was no Aaron, there was certainly a High Priest early in the Jewish tradition whose ancestors have retained evidence of that tradition in their DNA.

As discussed in Abraham’s Children, Judaism has always retained its tribal roots even as faith-based religions flourished. In the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century, Jewish lineage became defined through the mother rather than the father. Jewishness is now based on a triple helix: belief in God (although many Jews are agnostic or atheist); recognition of ancient Israel as a Biblical homeland; and literal blood connection with other Jews, passed on from generation to generation.

To many people—including and especially Jews sensitive to the Nazi branding of Jews as a race, which led to the near extinction of the religion—acknowledging the genetic cohesiveness of Judaism is uncomfortable. Anything that marks Jews as essentially different runs the risk of stirring either anti- or philo-Semitism. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the factual reality of what Ostrer calls the “biological basis of Jewishness” and “Jewish genetics.” Acknowledging the genetic distinctiveness of Jews is “fraught with peril,” but we must grapple with the hard evidence of “human differences” if we seek to understand their implications of the age of genetics.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

  • Matjasz Bogatay

    Palestinians are not ‘distant cousins of Jews.’ Kohanim gene occurs almost as frequently among Palestinians as Jews, shown by Israeli researcher. Cavallo-Sforza et al,’s seminal work demonstrates on a range of markers predominant in the Eastern Mediterranean that Palestinians and Jews are equal on frequency, and more closely related to each other than any other group, incl. Lebanese, Jordanian and Saudi Arabs, Syrians, and others. Many Jews of Galilee turned out to be more Syrian than Judaean. This work has been confirmed by Israeli, British, and American genetic researchers as well. This article is very biassed as usual. If you can’t overcome your ethnocentrism and myths, as well as your hate, you will never obtain peace or longevity as a state.

    • Jon Entine

      I don’t think you understand the relationship between a haplotype and closeness of relationship. Jews and Palestinians are indeed more closely related than many other groups, but their maternal and paternal lines and their overall gene makeup have diverged over the past two thousand years quite significantly, according to all the studies.

      Nebel et al, in Human Genetics in 2000 concluded: “The two modal haplotypes in the I&P Arabs were closely related to
      the most frequent haplotype of Jews (the Cohen modal haplotype). However, the I&P Arab clade that includes the two Arab modal haplotypes (and makes up 32% of Arab chromosomes) is found at only very low frequency among Jews, reflecting divergence and/or admixture from
      other populations.” Here’s the link to help you better understand the genetic data: I have no idea about your reference to “myths” or my alleged “hate”. You certainly won’t find it in anything I’ve written. My book “Abraham’s Children” documents the shared ancestry of Jews and Muslims ….something I’m quite proud about as Arabs and Jews share noble Semitic origins. Frankly I’m not sure the point you are trying to make. It’s kind of cool that Palestinians and Jews are cousins; both are cultures well known for their commitment to literacy and family. This is really a science debate and personal attacks are just not warranted.

      • spiritwalker888

        Yes Jon you are right there has been a significant divergence over the many centuries since Abram who later became known as Abraham had a child with Hagar at the insistence of Sarah his wife and Ishmael was born as a result of that union and then when Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, she forced Hagar and Ishmael out of the encampment by basically complaining to Abraham about her. So the Egyptian people are the half brothers of the Israelis and I am sure that the Egyptian People over the course of thousands of years have bred outside of the Egyptian Population, so all of the people over there are half brothers and sisters or cousins to the Israeli People simply because of the intermingling of the people.

  • Jim Jordan

    Wouldn’t the politically relevant genetic data be the pre-Mosaic makeup of the “Canaanites” who were dispossessed of their land when the Chosen People moved for the first time into a land that had been promised to Abraham by Yahweh but which was, inconveniently, already occupied by other people?

    • Jon Entine

      Jim: Alas, not relevant either politically or genetically. The biblical story is just that–a story or myth. The genetic and anthropological data suggests that the original Israelites were in fact “Canaanties”–a mixture of tribal people indigenous to that region along with a random mixture of “Sea People”(from Med cultures), Semites from elsewhere in the region, and even wanderers from Africa. That evolved into the core population that became the seminal people who made up the early Jewish religion, plus many non-Jewish Arabs. The founding of tribal Judaism led to intermarriage and a distinct population as far back as 2500 years ago. If this subject interests you, I discuss it at some length in my book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chose People.”

      • Mike

        Dear John: My Jewish heritage was recently y-dna tested and my haplogroup is E3B/v22.The timing on this subclade among Ashkenazic Jews has me intrigued!(9th-11th cetury) It’s as if they appear out of nowhere!.They certainly shouldn’t be found there (Ukraine) EXCEPT THROUGH MIGRATION /TRADE.This subclade is certainly NOT native to the Caucuses!(Khazars) The connection between an ancient Jewish kingdom in “Kush” and the Samaritans has been pointed out by scholars.Remember Eldad Ha-Dani? He spoke of a Danite Jewish connection to this kingdom.EV22 has a sizeable representation in this very region(Nothern Sudan) AND it is the haplogroup of the current high priest of the Samaritans claiming Israelite ancestry.Why aren’t scholars pursuing this matter further??

        • Jonah Lissner

          During the Middle Ages, e.g. c. 1000 CE there was likely in-migration from Egypt to Constantinople and then the Black Sea region to add to the contemporary Jewish populations in the Black Sea and Ukraine, after the Islamic incursions from whence E3B and other Y-DNA lines in Ashkenazim genetics occur.

          Another in-migration source is from Romaniote or Italkim Jews, and a third source from Persian Jewish communities all moving North to new lands where the Khazar Kingdom had built to welcome Jewish migration.

          Also vide:

          Synopsis of Israeli Migrations from Mosaic, Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles in Northeast Africa

          Jonah Lissner

          Copyright 2014 by Jonah Lissner. All rights reserved by the Author.

          Drs. Parfitt, Omer, and others including my own research indicate the vibrant multicultural world of the Solomonic Kingdom and the centuries thereafter. It is the dynamic system of Afro-Asiatic socioculture that develops these communities of Israelites, e.g. from c. 1000 BCE to c.1000 CE from Mesopotamia to the Horn of Africa and the ancient to contemporary Nile River system cities and regions. Even 100 years ago, modern Eritrea, Djbouti and Yemen had Jewish communities, however the legacy from the Classical to Medieval Era is likely to include Ethiopia, Sudan and Somali based on the former extent and duration of the Israelite to Judaic migrations and proselytes or conversions to Israelite worship.

          There is much proof for a vibrant African and Asian Israelite community today, which includes the sociogenetic lines, sociocultural artefacts and historical data. As the tribes of Israel today regather the combination of complex system science, history, language, comparative studies and sociogenetics should build strong support for Israelites and Jews of all colors from the Exile, with the majority having the common Afroasiatic/Near Eastern genetic signatures, as Dr. Omer is demonstrating.

          In history and classical texts, popular medieval literature from Afro-Asiatic travelers like Eldad Ben Mahli Ha-Dani and Benjamin of Tudela and others lend more credence to the reality of thriving Jewish communities of the post-Solomonic era across Africa and Asia. If these criteria for Israelite presence are evaluated with folk traditions it is possible, like the Lemba of South Africa, and Chinese Jews of Kaifeng region, another of the Exiled tribes can be restored.


    • Zeev

      The so called Cannanites were basically Hamites who were given the African continent to settle, Shemites got the Levant and Japhetites the Northern lands. See Noah had to leave his sons something for an inheritance and since he was the only surviving father with sons around he divided up the continents.
      The Canaanites were living outside the boundaries of their inheritances after having murdered the descendants of Shem to the point they couldnt fend off the Canaanite incursions.
      So the so called occupying Cannanites were given the options, Leave, Make Peace, Prepare for War. Now you will change and say the bible isnt true anyways though many you will use it if it suits your malevolent agenda.

  • Bulan Sabriel

    Dr. Elhaik is a liar and dumb liar. In his abstract, he shows that he
    doesn’t know when Khazaria existed. And then it gets stupider.

    “Alternatively, the “Khazarian Hypothesis” suggests that Eastern
    EuropeanJew descended from the Khazars, an amalgam of Turkic clans that
    settled the Caucasus in theearly centuries CE and converted to Judaism
    in the 8thcentury. Mesopotamian and Greco-RomanJews continuously
    reinforced the Judaized Empire until the 13th century”

    There simply was not Khazar polity after 1016 CE, when the Rus and
    Byzantines destroyed the reminents of Khazaria in the Crimea.
    Ironically, the leader of this polity, Georgiuz Tzul carried a CHRISTIAN

    I should not be able to find a glaring error in the abstract of piece.

    Dr. Elhaik continues his citation ignorance by holding that Khazars were

    ” a confederation of Slavic, Scythian,Hunnic-Bulgar, Iranian, Alans, and
    Turkish tribes who formed in the central-northern Caucasusone of most
    powerful empires during the late Iron Age and converted to Judaism in
    the 8th century CE”

    There Khazars were no such thing. The Khazars were Oghuric/Lir Turks
    (Hunninc-Bulgar) who had many subject peoples. But there is not a shred
    of historic evidence that subject peoples converted. All of the accounts
    of travellers and from the Khazars state and show otherwise.

    Dr. Elhaik then uses this bad history as a justification for picking horrible choices for genetic sampling.

    “Palestinians were considered proto-Judeans because they are assumed to
    share a similar linguistic, ethnic, and geographic background with the
    Judeans and were shown to share common ancestry with European
    Jews(Bonné-Tamir and Adam 1992; Nebel et al. 2000; Atzmon et al. 2010;
    Behar et al. 2010).Similarly, Caucasus Georgians and Armenians were
    considered proto-Khazars because they are believed to have emerged from
    the same genetic cohort as the Khazars”

    This makes no sense. Palestinians aren’t proto-Jews. Elhaik could
    have chosen Samaritanes (those Israelites still exist) and Sephardim.
    Instead he chooses a different admixture. Neither Georgia nor Armenia
    were part of Khazaria and they were absolutely not “proto-Khazars”.

    So why were they chosen? The old Hebrew name from Armenia, “Ashkenaz”
    should be a clue. He could have chosen Turks who claim Khazar ancestry,
    such as Karaylar and Krymchaks. He refused to do so, because he didn’t
    want to compromise his political study with FACTS.

    Dr. Elhaik may not have known history, but he knew how to fake a study.

    And you don’t have to believe me, you can believe Razib Khan.

  • Palichamp

    I, of Welsh heritage, born in the United States, can now collect military toys, and with thousands of people of Welsh heritage from around the world, invade Wales and throw people from their homes? After all at about the same time Jews rebelled against Roman rule in Palestine, Welsh rebels lost their battles on the other end of the Roman Empire.
    Hmmmm. Where does one buy a warplane?

  • Zeev

    Looks like another nobody needs his 15 minutes of fame.

  • DavePrice

    Palestinian DNA and real Hebrew DNA are a match because, keeping it simple, They lived in the same areas for a long time and to pretend they did not breed with their neighbors is just stupid.