Jewish Genes and Anti-Semitism

Some worry that the discovery of "Jewish" genetic diseases will negatively affect the image and treatment of Jews.

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“Couldn’t you just choose someone else for a change?” Tevye the dairyman implored the Lord. These days, in the wake of headlines announcing yet another “Ashkenazi gene” for a fatal disease--colon cancer this time--some Jews are asking scientific researchers the same question. 

The Washington Post, for example, reported that the recent discovery that a particular mutation common in Ashkenazim doubles the risk of colon cancer has “stirred deep anxieties within the Jewish community…Some said they are worried that reports of such findings may have a negative impact on the image of Jews among non‑Jews.”

Given our history, of course, the fear that genetic information can be used against us is entirely rational, and no one wants to give the anti‑Semites any new ammunition. But I, for one, do not object in the least if outstanding scientists continue to devote their time and financial resources to studying diseases that afflict people like me. The problem isn’t that researchers keep finding disease‑related mutations in Jewish populations, but that these results get foolish and misleading publicity.

Our challenge is not preventing scientists from studying Jews, but educating the public, ourselves included, about what genetic information means. In any case, there’s no chance of slowing the momentum of genetic research, given the current multi‑billion dollar international effort to map the human genome. But seeing to it that people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds develop clearer and less emotional ideas about genetics and its new role in our lives is eminently feasible--especially since education is something that we Jews know a lot about.

genetics testing screeningScientists have not discovered so many “Jewish” genes through any evil conspiracy or nefarious plot, but simply because we Ashkenazim are a geneticist’s dream of a research population. Highly inbred, bound by intense loyalty, often identifiable by names or culture, geographically concentrated, densely organized into countless voluntary associations, well educated, health conscious, and numerous enough to provide experimenters real statistical power, we are easy to reach and rally whenever scientists need volunteers.

Two decades ago, in the very dawn of genetic epidemiology, the community‑wide drive to identify Tay‑Sachs carriers introduced us to the idea of giving blood samples for genetic studies, and several highly publicized searches for bone-marrow donors have kept us in practice. Last year’s Familial Breast Cancer study of the “Jewish” BRCA‑1 breast cancer mutation, for example, enrolled more than 5,000 subjects in the Washington, D.C., area in record time.

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Beryl L. Benderly

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes frequently on scientific and medical subjects. She is the co-author of Her Works Praise Her.