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Thursday November 16, 2000

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UA officials concerned about research on origin of Jews

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Matt Kaplan, an ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student and one of the researchers who worked on questions surrounding the origin of Jews, poses in his lab Tuesday afternoon. Other professors have come forward to dispute the authenticity of the research.

By Jose Ceja

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Researchers and scholars interpret findings differently

Research being done by a UA scientist to trace the Jewish Diaspora, or dispersion of Jewish people may be misguided, a UA professor said.

Edward Wright, director of Judaic studies, said the research Michael Hammer, a UA associate research scientist in the Arizona Research Laboratory, and others have been conducting may be based on a reading of the bible that is too literal.

Hammer's research is based on constructing a kind of family tree based on mutations of the male chromosome, or Y chromosome, which is usually passed unchanged from father to son.

Wright, also an associate professor in Judaic studies, said Hammer's research that has traced the Cohanim - a priestly class of Jews - to a single descendant, believed by some to be Aaron, Moses' brother, assumes events depicted in the bible to be true when many were written 700 years after they occurred.

Wright said many practices attributed to the Cohanim - such as not marrying divorced women - were not common until about 500 Before Common Era, though the bible attributes them to occurring as early as 1200 B.C.E.

"It is like writing about George Washington 400 years from now and saying he used the Internet to plan battles," he said "He is using the biblical in a traditional method as opposed to a critical method."

Hammer's research is not involved in testing the bible and in analyzing the Cohanim, the fact that they were Jewish did not shape the research, Wright said.

"We looked at relationships of populations living today, which happened to be Jewish, and they show a genetic affinity which would suggest a Middle Eastern origin," he said

"Where is the bible in all of that?" Wright said.

Hammer and Wright both expressed interest in participating in a talk to discuss their interpretations and approaches to the issue.

William Dever, a UA professor of near eastern studies, said that Hammer may make biblical references to interest his audiences, but it doesn't mean that it is central to his research.

"I wouldn't want to be held responsible for every word I say to entertain an audience," he said.

Hammer said when he gives lectures, he often mentions the bible in order to make the material more relatable, but never alludes to it when publishing professional papers.

Dever said, however, that although Hammer's research can be useful historically, it has the potential to be misinterpreted to confirm religious beliefs.

"I don't believe Hammer is doing that but I am afraid some of his readers will," he said.

Matt Kaplan, an ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student who has been processing a large amount of the genetic samples used in the studies, said the research is not biblical in nature and is focused on studying the loss of diversity in Jewish populations.

This is believed to be contributing to an unusually high instance of diseases such as Tay Sachs, an inherited disease affecting children, in Jewish populations.

Kaplan said, however, there have been instances of men, believing themselves to be Cohanim, having tests performed to see whether or not they could marry.

Kaplan said there was a man who called off his wedding to a divorced woman after finding out he was a Cohen.

Dever said he also worries that Hammer's research may be dangerous because of potential racism inherent in studying a group in a manner that suggests such uniqueness.

"I hate to say this but in the minds of some people this can have a kind of racist tinge to prove that Jews are different and have always been different biologically," he said.