The beginning of the tribe?

A scholar tries to dissect the many theories on the origins of the Jewish people, but comes up with more questions than answers.

Where DO Jews come from  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Where DO Jews come from
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Scholars agree that the word “Jew” derives from “iudaios” (often translated as “Judean”).
They do not agree, however, about whether this etymological relationship implies that Jews are, in essence, the “same people” as the Hebrews described in the Bible.
In The Origins of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, Steven Weitzman, the director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the approaches genealogists, archeologists, linguists, historians, psychoanalysts and geneticists have taken to address the contested question of the roots of Jewish people. A remarkable model of intellectual curiosity, breadth and depth of knowledge, rigor and candor, his book is a tour de force.
Weitzman identifies three conceptual frameworks that inform studies of the origin of Jews. Traditionalists, he writes, treat origin as a lost object that can be recovered by analyzing clues that link the present to the past. Constructivists examine how communities “invent” ideas through which they tell stories about themselves and their origins. Postmodernists deploy forms of inquiry that assume the absence of an origin; they deconstruct any evidence counted as a starting point, foundation or source.
Scholars, Weitzman argues, have done a fine job of unearthing new evidence and forging new and novel interpretations.
The discovery by linguists of the term “Habiru” in pre-biblical sources, for example, led 19th-century European scholars (intent on distinguishing Aryans from Jews) to develop a theory that nomads, fugitives, or rebels in Canaan referred to by this name were ancestors of the Hebrews.
In the 1950s, archeologists determined that during the Late Bronze Age, Jericho was a small settlement that had no walls to tumble down – and suggested that Israelites may not have been invaders who conquered the land.
That view gained support by the absence of pig bones in Tel Beit Shemesh, a city in the kingdom of Judah, which led excavators to speculate that Canaanites in the vicinity may have distanced themselves from Philistines, who consumed considerable quantities of pork, and subsequently saw themselves as Israelites.
Weitzman reveals that a few years ago, population geneticists claimed to have established “continuity of identity” by identifying an “extended Cohen Modal Haplotype, distinctive to Jewish priests.
However, Weitzman also lays bare the gaps and flaws in each of the origin narratives.
Although he acknowledges that the resemblance between “Habiru” and “Hebrew” seems striking, Weitzman points out that many linguists believe that two of the three root consonants of the former do not match the root consonants of the latter; nor can they explain the differing vowel pattern in the two words. That the hypothesis sustained the stereotype of Jews as perpetual and plundering nomads, Weitzman suggests, may help explain its initial popularity.
Many archeologists, Weitzman indicates, are not convinced that the pig taboo originated in Beit Shemesh, noting that the practice seems to exist elsewhere in Canaan.
Weitzman joins just about every scholar in dismissing as “not salvageable” Freud’s hypotheses in Moses and Monotheism, that Moses was an Egyptian who led a band of Semites into the Sinai desert; his followers murdered him; tried to cover up the crime; but it lingered in their collective subconscious (passed on in a Lamarckian fashion from generation to generation) – until it gave rise to a monotheistic religion which reigned in the id, allowed them to cooperate and act on a desire to replace the father or be the father in less destructive ways.
In a critique of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People (2008), which argues that Zionists “created” the Jews (who did not share common ancestors) as “a people” in the 19th century, Weitzman notes that as the communists discovered, nationalism (as a pre-existing framework of collective loyalties) has an enduring grip that elite-driven ideological indoctrination can rarely displace.
Most importantly, Weitzman cautions against looking to DNA for a definitive solution to the riddle of origins. A 2014 study, he reveals, suggests that the extended Cohen Modal Haplotype split off from an older Cohen Haplotype more recently than geneticists first concluded.
Mutation rates, moreover, are not constant in the real world; the longer the time span, the more difficult the task of linking a distinctive genetic signature to a common ancestor. In any event, Weitzman makes the intriguing claim that, like history, archeology and other methods, geneticists investigating the origin of the Jews must weave data into a narrative “and that is where bias, stereotypes and self-interest slip in.”
Weitzman understands that many readers will be disappointed that his search has led to the conclusion that even though Jews did, indeed, have an origin, given gaps in the evidence (and tendencies to fill them in based on what seems to most probable and aligned with their ethnocentric perspectives) there “appears to be no way to finally resolve the debate over the origin of the Jewish people.”
That said, Weitzman insists that something has been gained from the quest.
After all, some destructive narratives have been proven to be false. And there is something uplifting about the desire “to locate Jews in the larger history of humanity and demonstrate they are something other than what some people have assumed them to be.”
Weitzman adds, “By wrestling with problems we cannot solve and calling into question the very questions that launched us,” we can better appreciate that like many other deep and primal questions, “part of the mysteriousness of origins is why it is that we wonder about them.” 
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.