Thilo Sarrazin makes a fateful remark about Jews

September 13, 2010

Former German central banker Thilo Sarrazin couldn’t content himself with the claim that Muslims are intellectually inferior to other Germans. No, he had to say something about Jews, too.

From the Washington Post:

German-Jewish groups…are among Sarrazin’s staunchest critics, calling him a dangerous racist. Though Sarrazin has spoken positively of Jews, saying they have “high IQs,” he courted controversy after declaring in an Aug. 29 interview that “all Jews share a certain gene.” In fact, observers here say that the official outcry against Sarrazin – including the move to expel him from the board of the central bank – would have been far more muted had he simply stuck to his generalizations about Muslims.

That’s got to warm a Muslim’s heart.

The Weekly Standard contextualizes Sarrazin’s gene remark:

[W]hen restored to their context, it is obvious that in using the six words, Sarrazin was merely attempting, however infelicitously, to express what is in fact a simple tautology: namely, that to the extent that we refer to “Jews” and are not doing so on the basis of religion, then we must be supposing some sort of common “genetic heritage” or, in other more colloquial terms, shared ancestry. Otherwise, the use of the word to refer to persons who are not religious makes no sense whatsoever.

Just how far afield Sarrazin’s reflections are from the Nazi-like notions of “racial purity” that have been attributed to him by his accusers is indeed made clear by the very passage that precedes the six words in the interview. Sarrazin employs here the common German word Volk, which can variously be translated as “people” or “nation.”

The identity of a people [Volk] or a society is not anything static. There is a French identity, a German identity, a Dutch identity. When things go smoothly, immigrants grow into such identities; at some point they get dissolved into such an identity; the image of the melting pot is not false. The faces of peoples [Völker] change over the course of time, but this occurs on the basis of the continuous development of their identities….The cultural particularity of peoples is not a myth, but rather determines the reality of Europe.

At this point, it was in fact the interviewers who brought up genetics, asking “Is there also a genetic identity?” To this, Sarrazin replied matter-of-factly, “All Jews share a certain gene; Basques have certain genes, which distinguish them from other people.”

Maybe Sarrazin was referring to a 2000 study that got some press in the New York Times:

The … study, led by Dr. Michael Hammer of University of Arizona, showed from an analysis of the male, or Y chromosome, that Jewish men from seven communities were related to one another and to present-day Palestinian and Syrian populations, but not to the men of their host communities.

The finding suggested that Jewish men who founded the communities traced their lineage back to the ancestral Mideastern population of 4,000 years ago from which Arabs, Jews and other people are descended. It pointed to the genetic unity of widespread Jewish populations and took issue with ideas that most Jewish communities were relatively recent converts like the Khazars, a medieval Turkish tribe that embraced Judaism.

Or maybe Sarrazin was referring to studies like this one from 2009, featured on Gene Expression, which would seem to support the Weekly Standard’s point:

[W]e considered a random sample of 611 unrelated self-described Caucasian subjects mostly residing in America who specifically reported whether they had Jewish ancestry, and if so, how many grandparents were ‘Jewish’. All individuals were genotyped for approximately 550,000 polymorphic markers and we applied a principal-component-based method to describe the population genetic structure [8] of the sample. Out of the 611 subjects, 507 reported no Jewish ancestry, 55 reported 4 Jewish grandparents, 4 reported 3 Jewish grandparents, 37 reported 2 Jewish grandparents and 8 reported 1 Jewish grandparent. Of these, 23 reported that they were Ashkenazim, one reported four Sephardic grandparents, two reported three Ashkenazi and one Sephardic grandparent, and two reported two Sephardic grandparents. A further 62 provided European or Russian country-of-origin information for at least one grandparent and 14 were able to give no more information than ‘European-American’.

Or in other words, the authors searched for tiny differences in DNA sequence that distinguished Jewish ancestry from non-Jewish ancestry. Humans all share the same genes, but there are specific locations in or between genes where the DNA sequence tends to vary between individuals. Over time separate populations pick up more of some changes and less of others. These difference don’t necessarily mean anything for how the body functions, but researchers need to take them into account when trying to understand the genetics of certain diseases that are more common in, say, Jewish populations. Or that’s my non-expert’s understanding, anyway. (Pipe up if I’m wrong.)

Here’s the punch line of the study (emphasis Razib Khan’s):

In conclusion, we show that, at least in the context of the studied sample, it is possible to predict full Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry with 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, although it should be noted that the exact dividing line between a Jewish and non-Jewish cluster will vary across sample sets which in practice would reduce the accuracy of the prediction. While the full historical demographic explanations for this distinction remain to be resolved, it is clear that the genomes of individuals with full Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry carry an unambiguous signature of their Jewish heritage, and this seems more likely to be due to their specific Middle Eastern ancestry than to inbreeding.

Finding evidence of shared ancestry is not the same thing as saying Jews “share a certain gene,” which makes it sound like there’s a single gene that carries racial identity, as opposed to these little variations that are more or less common in one population than another. But that distinction might be lost on some people, especially when you throw genetic determinism and racism into the mix.

I’ll take up Sarrazin’s IQ remark in a subsequent post.

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