Rafi Falk

Rafi Falk (1929–2019)

Indifferent to their wishes, fate often plays with men, commanding twists and turns and new beginnings, some rather hard. Others laugh at fate, determined to strike an independent path by the force of their own will. The life of Raphael Falk, known to all as Rafi, exemplifies both, a kind of paradox. At the age of five, as the Nazi grip over Germany strengthened, Rafi left his home in Frankfurt am Main for Palestine. His father, a doctor, settled the family in the north of Eretz Israel, and while Rafi’s Hebrew suffered from a strong German (known as Yekke) accent, he loved his new home and determined to fit in. Still, Palestine was no Europe. To some, Rafi’s classical training and confident philosophical outlook seemed obtuse. Ultimately drawn to genetics, he travelled to Stockholm to complete a masters degree; one could not then study genetics in the Promised Land. But with increasingly more Jewish refugee scientists arriving on the shores of the young Israel and the state investing in science and technology, horizons broadened. Returning to his adopted land, Rafi would be one of the first students in the country to complete a doctorate in the field.

It was on to America after that, to work as a post-doc with the Nobel Laureate Hermann J. Muller. He would visit Curt Stern’s lab as well, another refugee who had escaped the Nazis, and, like Muller, had trained in the famous Fly Room of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his posse at Columbia. These were the greats of Genetics, and, following Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the structure of DNA, Rafi and his generation would now take their ground-laying work to another level. When Muller had used X-rays in the 1920s to induce mutations in flies, he had no idea what was happening at the molecular level. When Rafi did the same in the 1950s and 60s, he already understood that the mutations were changing the code.

In time Rafi became a central pillar of the Genetics Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he made his home with his wife Ruma, a distinguished academic statistician in her own right. His punctuality and inability to suffer fools gladly became legion. “Aaaach!” he would grunt in a seminar room or standing somewhat bent out of shape in the cavernous halls of the department, spastically waving away some poor soul’s flimsy argument. Rafi’s intellectual appetite was prodigious, and before long could not be satisfied entirely by genetic analysis; beginning in the early 1980s the history and philosophy of biology increasingly preoccupied his mind. Like Ernst Mayr in America, he became one of the leading practitioners of the field now offering serious reflection on its intellectual growth and social relations. In particular, Rafi turned to the history of genetics in Palestine/Israel, showing how early attempts at studying the population genetics of Jews reflected Zionist agendas. Some early Zionist leaders and personages, such as the biologist Max Nordau and the anthropologist Arthur Ruppin, as well as the national poet Bialik, harbored racialist aspiration — they’d been trained in Europe and thought in eugenic terms about the Jews settling the land. The research project would ultimately be published in its English version as Zionism and the Biology of the Jews, and pulled no punches. As a young scholar just starting to walk down his own path, I felt exhilarated in his presence. I recall many Friday mornings, sitting in Rafi’s cramped study, surrounded by and virtually buried in books, many of them leather bound hardback classics in the original language, sipping tea and eating strudel and talking about biology. It felt like a time machine had kidnapped us to Germany before the war.

Rafi knew things, and his brain was his fortress. His true greatness came out later in life, to my mind, when he revisited the fundamental concepts upon which he and his generation built their careers. Most people’s minds close with time; Rafi’s just continued to open. In a co-edited volume, The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution, as well as a careful historical study of his own, Genetic Analysis: A History of Genetic Thinking, Rafi trained his penetrating gaze at the beginnings of the science of heredity, showing how dogmas that were effective for their times became ensconced over generations, reifying biological phenomena. Thus did it transpire that a man whose entire career had been built on the back of the gene came to doubt the very existence of the gene, at least in the particulate form in which it had been constructed and passed down to him. Instead, he championed complex genetic systems at the nuclear and cellular level, showing how they played their role in heredity and evolution, and advocating for more nuanced conceptualizations. For Rafi, it wasn’t just science, but rather a matter of principle: the aura with which the particulate gene had enveloped itself had served dark ideologies, from the Nazis to the early American eugenicists, all the way to nationalist radical Jews.

Rafi thought he knew the world more intimately, both biologically and politically. His world was not a deterministic one, but rather one full of choice, where human beings acting freely could use their powers of reason to fight for just causes. A man whose life was shaped by the dramatic vicissitudes of the twentieth century, he was convinced not only that this was the case, but that it ought to be.

We dearly miss him already.

Oren Harman
Bar Ilan University

Publications by Rafi Falk