So Are the Neanderthals Still Jews?

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Aug. 2 1997 3:30 AM

So Are the Neanderthals Still Jews?

And other revelations culled from history's big secrets.

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You read the press reports in July about the DNA of Neanderthals, and you quickly grasped how the new findings suggest that this branch of humanoids is much more distantly related to modern Homo sapiens than you may have believed--they are not even direct human ancestors. Now you must apply these findings, and examine their implications for the world around you. Specifically, you must weigh their effect on certain theories in circulation, among them that Neanderthals still walk--or lumber--among us, and indeed that they have maintained their cohesion through the ages and still constitute a group apart. And, most importantly, that this group of living, lumbering Neanderthals is the Jews.

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You laugh? That may be a mistake. At least two theorists working separately have concluded precisely this: The Jews are surviving Neanderthals. Laughing at such ideas suggests you believe them to be absurd. But the validity of such theorizing is beside the point. What matters is the existence of such a premise, because it validates the question it seeks to answer: What explains the Jews? That Jews require a meta-explanation is the problematic premise, one that even philo-Semites have sometimes fallen for. Anyway, if you laugh at the idea that the Jews are Neanderthals, what will you do when you learn, as you shortly will, that the Jews are really aliens from outer space?

A long and extraordinary history of speculation concerns the ultimate identity of the Jews. In its course, learned fellows have repeatedly announced they have stumbled on a Big Secret, a hidden truth that explains Jewish survival, character, behavior, and even the historical antipathy toward Jews by others. That Big Secret has often been that Jews are not what they seem to be: This line of thought provides for a certain macabre entertainment, but it is also a lesson in how the most inane ideas can have the most appalling consequences. Here is a whirlwind tour of the field, in approximately chronological order.

The Jews are a Race of Lepers. An ancient argument in circulation in the first century. We know of it because Flavius Josephus, the traitorous Jewish general who joined the Romans, bothers to refute it in his surviving writings. Josephus attributes the argument to an Egyptian named Manetho who, in a counter-version to the Book of Exodus, asserted that the Hebrews weren't led out of Egyptian bondage by Moses. Instead, they were an outcast group of lepers, forced to settle together, who were eventually chased out of the country by patriots. The existence of such a story is not necessarily evidence of general antipathy toward Jews; it is a likely reflection of the long struggle between Hellenism and the only Mediterranean culture of consequence that held out against it, Judaism. The idea that Jewish lineage is impure or malevolent reappears in Visigothic Spain in the early medieval period, and most notoriously in Nazi Germany.

The Jews are a Race of Devils. References to the Jews as the children of the devil or as constituting a "Synagogue of Satan" appear in the New Testament, implying that they are in league with the devil. That they are themselves actually devils, complete with horns, is a folk belief that arises in the centuries following the Crusades, when European Jewry's problems begin in earnest. The survival of such beliefs into the mid-20th century is illustrated by Carlo Levi, an anti-fascist Italian Jew sent into internal exile among dirt-poor southern peasants in the 1930s. His memoir of exile, Christ Stopped at Eboli, describes an encounter with a local woman who refuses to believe that Levi can be Jewish because he seems to be a person much like herself. Arguments that Jews are a race of nefarious devils are still being published in the Middle East, and have been exhibited at Cairo's book fair.

The Jews are a Separate Creation."Polygenism," the theory that God created different peoples in different acts of creation, blossomed during the Enlightenment. It was in part a "solution" to the "mystery" of Native Americans, whose startling existence seemed to require some explanation, and whose status as humans awaited papal resolution. It was also an attempt by early humanists to challenge clerical authority. They pointed to ambiguous passages in Genesis that might suggest more than one. Some prominent Jews of the period saw the hope of popular redemption by supporting such notions. However, Jew-haters also saw value in the idea, because it allowed them to regard the Jews as an entirely separate species. French scholar Leon Poliakov argues that the pseudoscientific foundations of racism were laid in this debate.

The Jews are an Inferior Race. A still-familiar concept that arose in the wake of Jewish emancipation in 19th-century Europe, it argues that Jews constitute a separate racial group anthropologically inferior to European racial groups. The thesis attempted to provide a "scientific" rationale for hatred at a time when legal restrictions on Jews were disappearing. A great deal of detail was presented in support of the thesis, from relatively tiny cranial capacity to the idea of peculiar Jewish feet and a peculiar Jewish smell.

The Jews are Khazars. An idea put into circulation by Arthur Koestler in his 1976 work, The Thirteenth Tribe, it is now widely disseminated among Jew-haters and anti-Zionists. The argument is that Europe's eastern Jews have no connection to the Jews of the Bible, but are all descended from the Khazars, a once-powerful Turkic people who lived near the Caspian Sea and who are known to have converted to Judaism in the eighth century. Koestler argued from circumstance, asserting that it is unclear where all the eastern European Jews came from, that the fate of the Khazars is unknown, and that the solution to both problems is the same. Among the scant evidence he offered--in all seriousness--was a chart of noses. The appeal of the argument is apparent: It enables anti-Semites to embrace Scripture and hate Jews without.

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T he Jews are Africans. A thesis advanced by a number of authors, most notably, perhaps, by Yosef ben-Jochannan. His emotional book, We the Black Jews, is printed largely in uppercase. The central idea is that white Jews are all impostors, that the real Jews of the Bible exist, and that they are. Adherents of the idea draw on the Bible for support, including the often-cited "Black Jesus" passage in Revelations.

The Jews are Space Aliens. First argued in 1974 by French thinker Marc Dem in his Les Juifs de L'espace, this thesis holds that Jews are ultimately space aliens, and that that explains their, um, difficult history. Dem's book was part of the flood of Ancient Astronaut books inspired by the huge success of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods?, and appeared here in 1977. Von Daniken, like many of his imitators, sought evidence for ancient visitations in the Bible, especially in such passages as the description of Ezekial's flying chariot. Deducing that the whole of the Old Testament was the work of aliens is, therefore, perfectly logical.

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