Where can you find the Jews? Thanks to the Diaspora, pretty much everywhere – and, according to recent genetic testing, there might be members of the Tribe in places we had never imagined. A new study of Colorado Native Americans has found that many of these individuals have the so-called “Ashkenazi mutation,” described as “deleterious modification in BRCA1 gene which increases risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.” Apparently, the Jewish people has long-lost cousins amongst the Native Americans: more specifically, a Jewish individual that came to America from Europe 600 years ago. Surprisingly, Jews and Native Americans go way back – both in genes and scholarship.
This idea raises many questions. It’s one thing to have cousins, but it’s another item entirely if you have something practical in common. The study found no cultural commonalities between those examined in the study, who once lived in Mexico several centuries ago before moving to Colorado, and the Jews. There don’t seem to be any visible similarities that tie these two societies together, other than this shared genetic marker. Does this make us real cousins, then, or just sharers in an unfortunate tendency to contract feminine cancers?
Years ago, scholars posited that Native Americans were more than just peoples to conquer, but also members of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike supported this theory, which probably gained popularity because of the European preoccupation with the Bible. The idea also gained religious credence in the Book of Mormon, which suggests that Native Americans were descended from the Jews.
Both groups were minorities in the face of rapid colonization. The Native Americans faced off against the westward-expanding European colonists, while the Israelites were crushed by the powers of the Assyrians and Babylonians. It is noteworthy, though, that the Native Americans themselves did not choose to identity themselves with the oppressed Jews, but outside powers did that for them. For the European colonial powers, identifying the Jews with the Native Americans served as a type of religious justification for their conquest.By identifying the Native Americans with the Jews, Europeans may have see “their colonization of New England as a reenactment of Israel’s journey into the Promised Land,” David Koffman concludes on MyJewishLearning.
If anything, though, I would think that the incoming colonists would be seen as the evil Assyrians or Babylonians, encroaching on the sacred land of the natives. Why would the colonists position themselves as the “bad guys”? As previously mentioned, perhaps they were interested in the Bible to the extent that they cast some people in the wrong roles. I do agree with Koffman’s suggestion that America was meant to be the new “Promised Land” – see “Manifest Destiny” – and maybe the Europeans got so caught up in making the colonies into ancient Israel that they forgot their own self-cast roles.
Ironically, the Europeans don’t seem to have been that far off – at least in the genetic sense. Next Passover, let’s all sit down with matzoh of maize meal and pay homage to our new-found cousins.