What Does It Mean To Be A Jew

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Philip Bliss

Apr 4, 2010, 3:29:57 AM4/4/10
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What does it really mean to be a Jew?
By Matt Lerner
Tags: Israel NewsJewish World

What does it mean to be a Jew? Is it solely a religious affiliation? Is it simply an affinity to an ancient cultural tradition? Or is it literally bone-deep? 

Status as a Jew has historically been determined either by matrilineal descent or by conversion into the faith. However, in two millennia of diaspora, Jewish identity has become far more multifaceted than the progenitors of the tribe could ever have imagined. 

Today, Jewish identity is defined variously through religious practice, secular cultural identification, and the controversial notion of Jewish ethnicity - the idea of Jewish blood. 
Understandably, the notion of "Jewish blood" makes a lot of people cringe. The notion of racial purity was famously paramount to Nazi ideology. The Nuremberg Laws and other Nazi policies labeled even non-practicing Jews as such, condemning them to death solely by virtue of their Jewish ancestry. 

Traditional knowledge holds that there was once a distinct nation of people who all practiced the Jewish religion, a Hebrew people with a common geographic origin and, in all likelihood, relatively uniform physical appearance. 

But there are those, like Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand, who question both the relevance and validity of this notion in modern discourse. 

Sand is the author of a book called "The Invention of the Jewish People", and a proponent of the belief that today's Jews are the descendants of different global populations who converted to Judaism over the ages, rather than the offspring of an exiled Hebrew nation. 

Sand rejects the traditional narrative of a Roman-instigated diaspora and views the notion of Jewish ethnicity as a racist one used to perpetuate a Zionist myth of ownership of the land of Israel. 

Jewish identity exists in countless diverse modes. The most important aspect of Jewish identity to many religious Jews is their faith and their daily practice, their attendance at synagogue and the sincerity of their prayer. 

There are plenty of Jewish atheists who attend synagogue and celebrate Jewish holidays on a solely cultural basis, as a way of engaging with their distinct heritage. In addition, there are those secular Jews who self-identify as such due to their belief that Jewish blood runs through their veins. 

Today, nearly two millennia after the destruction of the Second Temple, people identifying themselves as Jewish hail from nearly every corner of the globe. 

Intermarriage and assimilation were seemingly prevalent in every outpost of the Jewish diaspora, as evidenced by the vastly divergent appearances of the world's Jews. 

Regarding the Kaifeng Jews of China, the Bnei Menashe of Northern India, the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe and even the monotheistic Lemba of Zimbabwe, one may ask: how can it be said that these people share a single ethnicity? Some say science holds the answer. 

DNA studies conducted over the past two decades have made interesting headway in the scientific analysis of Jewish genealogy. 

A 2000 study analyzing seven geographically distinct Jewish groups found that six were more related to each other than to the non-Jewish populations of their respective Diaspora homes. 

Research done the following year indicated that Sephardic and Kurdish Jews are essentially indistinguishable on the genetic level, while differing slightly from Ashkenazis. 

London's Daily Telegraph reported in January that Indian scientists are seeking a genetic connection between the Pashtun ethnic group and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. 

This case is made particularly newsworthy by the fact that it is largely ethnic Pashtuns who make up the leadership of Afghanistan's Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist entity at potentially violent odds with the Jews. 

Perhaps the best-known study of Jewish DNA was published in 1997 in the science journal Nature. It found that Cohanim (members of the Jewish priestly class) from different Jewish populations share a common genetic marker despite their geographic diversity. 

This marker, known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype, or CMH, is common both in Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations and indicates a common male ancestor for many Cohanim. 

Researchers in 2000 found that members of one clan of the Lemba tribe of Southern Africa exhibit the CMH in high frequencies, lending credence to the claim of some Lemba to historic Jewish origin. 

Another study found the CMH to be present among the Bene Israel of India, whose oral traditions tell of ancestors arriving in India after a shipwreck in the 2nd century BCE. 

It is important to mention that some of these same studies have come to surprising conclusions about the relationship of the Jews with other Middle Eastern populations. 

A 2000 study found that Arabs and Jews share a "relatively recent common ancestor", while the same study that encompassed seven distinct Jewish populations also acknowledged an "extremely close affinity" of Jews with non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations. 

The closest genetic link found in that study was between the six most-related Jewish groups and Syrian and Palestinian populations. 

DNA research has gone some way towards establishing a probable common ancestry for many of the world's Jews, but has also made clear that Jews and their Arab neighbors hail from the same stock. 

Does Jewish ancestry forty generations in the past really mean anything to the world's far-flung Jews? 

Or is it their practice and culture that truly matter? Is information about distant ancestry truly relevant? 

It's up to the Jews - and their distant Arab cousins - to decide.

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