Monday, May 20, 2013

Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People: wrong lots of times

Jon Entine is a non-specialist in the subject of genetics or Jewish history, a writer with a background in journalism and TV production.  He takes on Jewish genetics in Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. 

As a non-specialist, Entine has a special mission to be particularly careful with his facts, since he is always open to the charge that he is an untrained, and therefore not a credible source to write about his material.  Unfortunately, he exposes himself to just this charge.

I have no idea if the genetics he discusses is correct in the big picture or small details, but some of the things he gets wrong about Jewish history erodes my confidence overall in this book

On page 164 of the hardcover version, he claims that the synagogue of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng still stands.  Actually, it was dismantled in the early nineteenth century, and by the 1850s, there was nothing left but a vacant lot where it once stood.  

On page 173 in a discussion of monotheism in Arabia at the time of the rise of Islam, he claims that Arabia was home to several communities “professing at least a nominal belief in Judaism.”  I’m not sure which communities Entine is referring to, but at the time there were Rabbinical Jewish communities in Arabic, practicing, from what we can tell, a fully normative Judaism for that time.  

On page 180 he says that the Ottoman Empire “embraced a secular Islam” in the centuries following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. I’m not sure what this term means, but certainly the Ottoman Empire embrace a fully religious Islam.  It was not until the revolution of the Young Turks and even more so the founding of the modern state of Turkey, that anything like separation between mosque and state took place in Turkey.

On page 209 he calls Yiddish a “mélange of Slavic tongues, German and Hebrew,” a very distorted view of Yiddish, which is 90 percent  Germanic in vocabulary, syntax and form, with about 10 percent loan words from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages.

On page 226, the famous Jewish messianic heretic is called Shabbetai Izevi, which I imagine is a typo from Zevi, or was meant to be Tzevi, a variant spelling.

If Entine is wrong on these facts, what else he is wrong about?

Generally, the book spends more time on history, and less on genetics, its purported topic.  I’m not sure how useful this book is for either an understanding of Jewish history or genetics or both.

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