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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

Some argue that for many Jews the synagogue has lost its appeal as the central hub of Jewish life. The recent Pew study (discussed at length elsewhere in this assessment) states that “U.S. Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance.”33 If that is true, it is reasonable to expect some individuals to conceive of their Jewish identity as a result of their ancestry alone and not by their current practices, cultural milieu, or beliefs. Is it possible then, to have this category of Jews be engaged or involved in some way with a Jewish community? Perhaps the virtual networks being created by those engaged in genealogical research offer a new form of Jewish involvement. That is to say, if individuals identify themselves as part of the Jewish community because of their ancestry, then learning more about their ancestry and celebrating their heritage could be considered a form of Jewish engagement. Strengthening these individual’s sense of Jewish heritage or deepening their knowledge of their ancestor’s beliefs and customs through these new tools has the potential to reinforce their Jewish identity and lead to other forms of Jewish engagement.

Therefore, Jewish communal organizations, such as synagogues, cemeteries, and societies, along with the official Zionist and Israel archives, should expand the amount and accessibility of electronic records containing genealogical information to assist those engaged in such research.

Jews who do not connect strongly with Israel or who are even hostile to the idea of Zionism could be deeply impacted by DNA test results similar to the ones above. Those who associate Zionism with colonialism and not a genuine returning of a people to their historical homeland could be surprised to know that they themselves actually have ancestral origins in the Land of Israel.

An extreme example of the effect of learning about Jewish heritage is the bizarre story of Csanad Szegedi, a member of the European Parliament and former leader of Hungary’s extreme right-wing Jobbik political party known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric, who learned of his Jewish heritage only after becoming party leader.34 Not only did Szegedi dissociate from the Jobbik party, he is now reportedly “enamored with Judaism” and living an active Jewish lifestyle.35

One major challenge that will arise due to DTC DNA tests is the likelihood that a committed Jew will find the results of a DNA test off-putting. Imagine an individual, perhaps someone adopted, who is raised Jewish and committed to the Jewish people, but as an adult discovers that s/he likely did not have any Jewish ancestors, or someone who has one Jewish parent and receives DNA test results that suggest she is only ‘15% Jewish.’ Further still, deeply committed Zionists who do not find any traces of Middle Eastern roots within their DNA, might begin to question the relevance of Zionism within their Jewish identity.

Overall, test results have the potential to deeply affect one’s self-conception of belonging to the Jewish people, especially if the individual is only marginally involved in a Jewish community. Therefore, an important policy priority should be to prevent DNA tests from becoming a device of alienation away from the Jewish people.

The amount that an individual’s DNA sequence correlates to DNA sequences common among Jews is not an indication of Jewishness. It needs to be stressed and understood that there is no one singular exclusively Jewish linage extending from Abraham to the present day. There has always been some degree of intermarriage throughout Jewish history. Even King David’s Great-Grandmother Ruth was a Moabite convert to Judaism.

In his day, Maimonides (Rambam) wrote a famous letter to Obadiah the Proselyte in response to the latter’s question, that even though he is a convert to Judaism is he allowed to use the first person plurals ‘us,’ ‘we,’ and ‘our’ in reference to the Jewish people in prayer, alone and in the synagogue. Maimonides concluded that those who adopt Judaism and follow the laws of the Torah are counted among the descendants of Abraham: “In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him.”36

For individuals who become aware of their Jewish ancestry as a result of taking a DNA test, the results could spark interest in exploring their Jewish heritage and becoming engaged in the Jewish community. Perhaps these individuals could even become active supporters of Israel. Although actively promoting DNA tests for these purposes among non-Jews is tantamount to proselytism, it is important for Jewish organizations to be aware of the types of results generated from DNA tests and the potential effect they have on one’s identity. To learn from a test perceived to be scientific that you have Jewish heritage and to be told by a Jewish community that you are not really Jewish could be confusing and disheartening. Leaders of the Jewish community especially should not be dismissive of individuals who approach them claiming to be a distant relative; rather, they should use it as an opportunity for engagement.

Along with the interest among consumers for home DNA testing, there has recently been a variety of academic studies which utilize DNA testing to answer the question of where the Jewish people, or specifically Ashkenazim, come from (Behar et al. 2003, 2010, Elhaik 2012, Costa et al. 2013). Although not necessarily understood by the average reader, the studies’ conclusions gain widespread publicity and raise controversial questions with political implications.

One such recent study published in October 2013 in the journal “Nature Communications” suggests “a significant role for the conversion of women in the formation of Ashkenazi communities” and that “the great majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Levant.”37

Previously, in 2012, a controversial article in the scientific journal “Genome Biology and Evolution” claimed to have conducted DNA analysis that supports the Khazarian myth, that “Eastern European Jews descended from the Khazars, an amalgam of Turkic clans that settled the Caucasus in the early centuries CE and converted to Judaism in the 8th century.”38

Conversely, Behar, with the collaboration of many experts, concludes that DNA analysis can “trace the origins of most Jewish Diaspora communities to the Levant.”39 While this conclusion supports the Jewish-Zionist historical narrative, previously mentioned studies challenge or even refute it. Much like the field of archeology, in which artifacts can be used as evidence to support or challenge long-held historical conceptions, genetic studies can be designed or interpreted to support one historical narrative over another.

Just as the State of Israel has invested resources into the study and promotion of archeology, in part to demonstrate and strengthen the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, by investing in the fields of genetic research and molecular anthropology, Israeli scientists could be at the forefront of this growing field not only to demonstrate the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, but to help refute studies that manipulate data in order to undermine that connection.

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