OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Genetics can bring Jews and Arabs together

It's time to teach the science that proves Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel.

Illustrative image of the DNA double helix. Source: Deep AI.
Illustrative image of the DNA double helix. Source: Deep AI.
Michael Segal. Credit: Courtesy.
Michael Segal
Dr. Michael Segal is a neurologist and neuroscientist.

The core anti-Israel claim on campuses is that the Jews are not indigenous in the Land of Israel. Jews are labeled as “settler-colonialists” and, based on this, the Jewish state is declared illegitimate and worth dismantling. The Jewish community needs to do more to educate students to counter such false claims. Specifically, it needs to drop its reluctance to marshal the science to make the case for Israel.

There is, of course, abundant historical, archaeological and linguistic evidence for the continuity of Jews over the millennia. The Jewish community has done a good job of teaching about that. But that is not enough. On campuses, such evidence is dismissed as old and faked. Today’s Jews, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, are claimed to have little or no connection to ancient Israelites. 

Such assertions can best be countered with evidence that is current and can’t be faked. Such data is the information that we all carry in the sequence of our genes. Scientists have done fascinating studies of the genetics of Jews that have shown a solid connection to the Land of Israel. 

For Ashkenazi Jews, about half the genome has Middle East origin. About 35% has southern European origin, added about 2,000 years ago when Jewish traders moved to Rome, with some Israelite men having children with European women. The other 15% is of Eastern and Western European origin, added in recent centuries as Jews migrated within Europe. Non-Ashkenazi Jews have substantial similarities to Ashkenazim, though with admixtures from different countries.  

Unfortunately, the Jewish community is reluctant to communicate the science to students. This is not just because Jewish communal leaders are non-scientists. There are historical memories that make Jews afraid to teach about genetics, as well as concerns that such knowledge will make converts feel less welcome. However, to make the case for Israel we must overcome this failure to educate on this science. 

Jewish students need to know enough to counter the unfounded claims of colonialism that they will face. As an example, campus opponents of Israel cite 23andMe’s classification of the Ashkenazi Jewish DNA pattern as “European” as meaning that Ashkenazim don’t have a Middle Eastern origin. But this classification says nothing about the historical origin of Jews; it merely describes residence in recent centuries. The sloppiness of social media results in such claims circulating unchallenged. The same students who proclaim the mantra of “follow the science” about vaccines have a huge gap when it comes to the science showing the Israelite origin of Jews. 

Ignoring the genetics is corrosive to appreciating the connection of Jews to the Land of Israel and such ignorance undermines the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

The genetic evidence also reflects the richness of history. Of particular interest is that it shows that Jews and Palestinian Arabs are very related genetically. Some of this is due to common origins millennia ago, but some is due to Jews in the Land of Israel converting to Islam in many waves since the Muslim conquest. 

Some of the conversions are recent enough that “Arab” clans have oral traditions about their Israelite origins and follow customs such as carving Jewish stars over their doorways and lighting candles on Friday night. One well-described example is the townspeople of the town of Yatta, near Hebron. Another is the claim that Mahmoud Abbas’s father descended from one of the rabbinic families of Safed, who were pressured to convert to Islam after the earthquake of 1837. 

Ignoring the genetics is corrosive to appreciating the connection of Jews and “Palestinian Arabs.” Such ignorance could result in missing opportunities for eventual reconciliation.

As genetic testing is used more widely to diagnose rare diseases, the awareness of shared genetic variants among Jews and Arabs is increasing among physicians. However, such genetic evidence is rarely discussed publicly. Arabs are reluctant to make clear that Jews are indigenous to Israel and Jews are reluctant to discuss the fact that many Palestinian Arabs have some Jewish ancestors.  

Now is the time to transcend such fears of discussing the genetics. Making the science more known will make the discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict more fact-based. This could be the best path forward to breaking the current Arab-Israeli deadlock. 

Once you know that Jews are indigenous to Israel, the slogan “from the water to the water Palestine will be Arab” is clearly unjust. Once you know that many Palestinian Arabs are descended from Jews, an eventual reconciliation between Palestinian Arabs and Jews becomes easier to imagine, though such reconciliation seems far from imminent. 

The Jewish community needs to overcome its inertia and start educating young people in the science, doing this through schools, programs such as Birthright trips and compendia such as Myths & Facts. Discussions at universities need to engage the science and get the upper hand over nonsense circulating on social media. Both need to create a climate of intellectual vitality in which people learn the science, which nudges towards justice and reconciliation.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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