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Should Jewishness be determined by a genetic test?
The pros and cons of using DNA to prove and define Jewish identity
For thousands of years Judaism and its traditions have been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and belief.
“I am a Jew because my mother is a Jew, she is a Jew because her mother was a Jew… my parents kept the Torah because their parents kept the Torah,” and so on. However, with recent breakthroughs in genetic testing, experts have found that there could be a way of testing Jewishness through a simple saliva or blood test.
Recently, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, who is both co-head of the Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies and a senior rabbinical judge on the private Eretz Hemdah rabbinical court in Jerusalem, says that says a genetic test could be used as proof of Jewish descent for certain Ashkenazim.
For thousands of immigrants, especially from the former Soviet Union, this could ease the process of proving one’s Jewish identity while trying to make aliya, before marriage and so on. For others, however, who have believed in their Jewish heritage for years, this genetic test could be their worst nightmare – it may shatter an identity they have internalized and cherish.
Due to religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, many Soviet Jews lost or hid their identity.
This led to several generations of lost Jews.
The hostility of the Soviet regime toward all religions made no exception for Judaism. Between 1919 and 1921, the USSR seized many synagogues and Jewish properties.
In 1929, the regime passed legislation against keeping Shabbat. Antisemitic campaigns in the 1940s and 1950s and targeting of Zionists in the 1960s created more fear and secrecy among Jews and convinced more of them to conceal their religious identity.
This history of repression caused innumerable difficulties for many new or soon-to-be olim – hundreds of thousands of whom have struggled to provide proof of their Jewish roots.
ACCORDING TO a report by prominent geneticists Prof. Karl Skorecki of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Dr. Shai Tzur from Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, approximately 40% of Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of four Jewish women who migrated to Europe with their families more than 1,200 years ago.
“One can find ‘footprints’ of links to these ‘matriarchs’ in the gene pool today,” the geneticists write.
Carmel explains, “All people receive DNA from both their mother and father; this genetic information is found in the nucleus of each of the body’s cells. A small group of genes, different from the rest of the human genome, is found not within the nucleus, but ‘resides’ nearby in the cell’s mitochondria. It is called mtDNA.
“A female’s egg is the largest cell in the human body, and a male’s sperm is the smallest. The mtDNA is in the egg itself but only in the tail of the sperm. In the reproductive process, the embryo receives mtDNA only from the mother, not the father,” Carmel continues.
“Thus, the aforementioned four Jewish matriarchs passed on this part of their genetic codes through their daughters to their Jewish offspring many generations later, ‘untainted’ by their male spouses’ codes. A male has mtDNA from his matriarchal chain, but does not pass it on.”
Carmel adds that there have been cases where the mtDNA test has helped prove Jewish identity, according to a 2015 research paper titled “Genetic citizenship: DNA testing and the Israeli Law of Return” in The Journal of Law and Biosciences.
“The religious Orthodox community has had a mixed response to the increase in genetic technology... In general, they have embraced the genetic tests, and have relied on them to ensure safe and healthy reproduction,” wrote its authors, Prof. Ian V. McGonigle and Dr. Lauren W. Herman.
“However, when it comes to genetics as a means of testing Jewishness, many rabbis remain skeptical. One rabbi said he believed genetics could be a ‘consultant’ to Jewish law. For other rabbis, concerns remain about the ‘dangerous eugenic overtones,” the study said.
The article gave reasons why Israel was considering the use of genetic testing.
“There are several ways to interpret the Israeli government’s increasing reliance on genetic testing to determine eligibility for citizenship or other rights. It could be a trend toward more restrictive immigration policies that seek to guard access to state resources.
“Advocates have seen similarly restrictive policies advanced to require Jewish verification from those seeking temporary student or work visas. One rabbi who helps potential immigrants navigate the rabbinic bureaucracy, explained this as xenophobia: ‘It manifests itself in the way we treat people born Jewish who don’t fit the description of what a Jew should look like.’ The tests may also become a means to expand the pool of potential new Jewish immigrants who have verifiable ancestral ties,” McGonigle and Herman explained.
“Jewish genetic tests could become a way to recognize different and broader articulations of Jewish identity and thereby expand the limits of who is deemed to have legitimate connections. The potential move to legally recognize genetic tests for Jewishness could equally shift some of the authority away from the rabbis, and toward scientists, who may recognize secular manifestations of Jewish identity,” they write.
Although genetic tests may have been intended to increase certainty and validate Jewish identity, they may provoke more confusion by adding another layer of definitional uncertainty.
The article goes on to explain, “On the one hand, the existence of Jewish DNA could verify Jewish connections and provide the requisite proof to grant certain individuals access to citizenship and its associated benefits. On the other hand, it is worth paying attention to who might be excluded – those who claim belonging within the Jewish community but do not have genetic links to prove this biological connection, as well as those who will be granted limited access via citizenship but who will not be recognized as equal members of the Jewish nation.
“It remains to be seen how this new categorization will bear on notions of belonging and legitimacy within the Jewish community. In the area of Jewish identity – already fraught with definitional ambiguity – this attempt to concretize what it means to be a Jew in genetic terms adds another layer of contestation and confusion,” Herman and McGonigle write.
“Crucially, the latest efforts to define Jewishness in genetic terms have not yielded the certainty that the State [of Israel] seeks over how to determine who is a Jew,” they concluded.
SPEAKING WITH several Russian olim who chose to remain anonymous, many echoed much of what was discussed in the article, saying, for example, “It’s unfair and confusing to base their Jewishness on a genetic test.”
In 2011, Boris (pseudonym) found out he was Jewish after his grandmother on his mother’s side told him on her deathbed that she was a Jew. She had grown up in a small village in Ukraine and as a teenager was sent to Auschwitz after the Nazis invaded.
“Her entire family was murdered – parents and siblings – and after surviving the war she moved back to Ukraine and made a promise to herself that she would forget her past and Jewish roots. She married my grandfather, a native Ukrainian, a few years later. She never told my mother that she was Jewish. I get the feeling my grandfather knew, but they brought her up as an agnostic. My parents brought me up as agnostic as well, but I always felt there was something more.”
Boris, an only child, says he was surprised but not shocked by the revelation.
“A year later, I went on a Birthright trip to Israel and after the visit I knew I wanted to live here. I finished my university studies in Ukraine and came here. I know that I’m Jewish even though I have no documents to prove it. I can feel it and no genetic test will tell me otherwise. If the time comes when I have to take a test, I won’t because I know I’m Jewish.”
Boris is becoming more acquainted with his roots, learning about Jewish rituals and the Torah. He hopes to become observant one day. “I worry about when I get married… I shouldn’t have to convert or take genetic tests – I want to learn and grow and become a good Jew,” he adds.
TATIANA (pseudonym), who moved to Israel in late 2015 from Moscow, has almost finished her conversion to Judaism.
“Since 2008, I believed I was Jewish – I didn’t understand that if your Judaism comes from your father’s side, you are not,” she says.
“At the end of 2007, my grandmother on my father’s side died. We cleaned out her home and found several Jewish items, including a menorah and prayer book with Hebrew writing, and a picture of her as a young child holding what I think was this Jewish prayer book. Her father stood next to her in a Jewish prayer shawl.
“I believed at that moment I was Jewish. My father said there had always been whisperings of a ‘checkered’ past but I didn’t know what he meant – well, he meant there was Jewish blood.
“I had been brought up as a secular Christian, and as a child I’d gone to Church services on Christmas and Easter. I felt different though – like there was something else running through my veins.
“After finding the Jewish items, I started to embrace my religion. I learned more about my heritage and wanted to live in Israel, but I didn’t realize that by Jewish law I was defined as Jewish only through my mother’s side. As a ‘Soviet Jew,’ like many who said they had no proof of their Jewishness, it was not as hard as I thought it would be to make aliya – it was an incredible process.
“I moved to Israel, met a Jewish man, fell in love and thought, ‘Hey, this is great, my life is falling in place. When I met the rabbi who was to marry us and I told him my background, the bombshell was dropped. He explained carefully why I was technically not Jewish,” she continued.
“I went cold. I couldn’t understand it. I felt Jewish, how can I suddenly not be?” She began the conversion process a few months later, and despite her former fiancé breaking off the engagement, she feels certain that such a situation will never happen again.
Asked if she would have taken the genetic test, she says that it may have given her more clarity about her roots. “But if I didn’t test ‘positive’ – which I wouldn’t have (or maybe I would’ve, who knows?) – I may have just thought I don’t fall under the 40% of Ashkenazi Jews who have the DNA.
“At the same time, I don’t think we should be basing whether we are Jewish or not on a DNA test. To a point, I agree with the theory, but in practice I don’t know if it can work. We have never had to rely on tests up until now – it was all about faith and trust in the past – I’m not sure if we should now rely on science and technology.
“I will be Jewish. I am Jewish. Nothing, no test, will take that feeling away from me,” Tatiana adds. “For those who might fall under the 40% and at this time are not sure, the test might help them so they don’t have to deal with the pain I had to endure, but it must not used as a forceful tool.”
She adds that her three siblings decided not to look into their supposed Jewish roots.
A NEW volume of responsa on matters of Jewish law, written at the Eretz Hemdah Institute under the direction of Carmel and Rabbi Moshe Ehrenreich, who co-heads the institute, discusses a case similar to Boris’s.
In Germany several years ago, a woman who claimed to be Jewish sought to join a Jewish community. She was asked for proof, despite having lost her family in the Holocaust.
Furthermore, her living relatives would not help her look into her roots. Her maternal grandmother, who had survived, vowed not to have any further connection to the Jewish people.
With no other way of proving her Jewish lineage, the woman took a mitochondrial DNA test, which tested positive.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Carmel says that because the test relates very specifically to one group of people (40% of Ashkenazim) that descended from the four aforementioned women, it cannot be abused in the future as a prerequisite for determining one’s Jewish status in a broader sense.
Carmel and Ehrenreich have submitted their responsa to the Chief Rabbinate hoping that the test could be accepted as valid by the rabbinical courts as a way of helping prove the Jewish status of citizens who are otherwise unable to do so.
Rabbi Seth Farber is uncertain about such a process. “In traditional Jewish communities, principles in Jewish law such as the presumption that a person or family is Jewish are what allowed Jews from the next neighborhood or shtetl to marry each other. This created a sense of community and kinship.”
He adds that using scientific means to determine Jewishness could lead rabbinical judges to reject less precise but totally valid tools in Jewish law to establish someone’s Jewish status. He points to a recent decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court and its president, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, that overturned the ruling of a lower court that had rejected a man’s Jewish status following an investigation.
Yosef ruled that since 75% to 80% of people undergoing such investigations are found to be Jewish, the man in question could be presumed to be Jewish.
Farber says that genetic tests could threaten the use of such decision-making tools by rabbinical judges.
In response, Carmel says, “While we appreciate Rabbi Farber’s concerns, our experience is that there are indeed many people who are truly unsure of their Jewish status and certainly unable to provide sufficient proof accepted by many rabbinical courts. Thus, we would not want to deprive them of this opportunity to prove their Jewish identity.”
Nevertheless, he explains, concerns of a slippery slope toward abusing the genetic tool in this case seems less valid, because the mtDNA testing applies only to one segment of Ashkenazi Jews. “So, even if one does not turn up positive in the testing, all the other current paths of proving Jewish identity are still open.”
Yet questions remain. If Jewish heritage has been based on belief and tradition for centuries, should Jews start using technology and science to prove ancestry? If so, how far should such technology extend? Will this help people prove their Jewishness or open a can of worms for those who have always considered themselves Jewish, but may not be able to verify it? The jury is still out.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.