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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

Historically, Jewish interest in genetic research was primarily, if not exclusively, driven by the well-established fact that parts of the Jewish population were suffering from some genetic or genetically influenced diseases, more so than the general population which they were living in. As such, Jewish communities embraced molecular based genetic testing as a means of combatting lethal inherited diseases such as Tay-Sachs. Perhaps because of the overwhelmingly positive results associated with genetic testing for medical purposes, Jews have not shied away from embracing DNA testing for genealogical purposes.

In the 2010 Annual Assessment JPPI included an article, “New Findings Concerning the Genome Structure of the Jewish People,” which focused on the potential consequences of scientific genetic studies that focus on the Jewish people. The article briefly discussed two studies that “found important traces of ancient Jewish history – of common geographic origin, past migrations and conversions into Judaism – in the current genome structure of the Jewish people.” Through the article JPPI raised the following important question which is even more relevant today because of the personal nature of DNA testing: “Can awareness among Jews that they are “distant cousins,” this time based not on religious tradition but on science, create or reinforce their group solidarity?”

If the answer for even some Jews is yes, which inevitably it is, there is great opportunity to take advantage of this new source of solidarity to strengthen Jewish peoplehood and educate those with a newfound interest in Judaism. For example, there could be an organized group trip to Israel for individuals who believe they have newly discovered Jewish roots.

It needs to be emphasized that identifying genetic commonalities among the Jewish people and studying Jewish genealogy is not synonymous with racial studies on Jews. If anything, recent scientific studies show that the Jewish people are neither genetically homogenous nor genetically unique. Race is in many ways a socially constructed concept with increasing negative connotations. Many people, especially among younger generations, are turned off by racial categorizations and definitions. Understanding what genealogical mapping and the human genome can tell us about the origins of the Jewish people need not have anything to do with race.

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