ABSTRACT

In June 2010 two papers appeared in major scientific journals – Nature and the American Journal of Human Genetics – which attempted to address the question of the “genetic structure” of the Jewish people (Behar et al. 2010; Atzmon et al. 2010). Both papers set out to assess the degree of Jewish communities’ “genetic” relatedness to each other and to their non-Jewish neighbours, and to explore whether the origin of contemporary Jews could be traced to the Middle East. Atzmon et al. examined seven Jewish populations and concluded that their “[genetic] comparison with non-Jewish groups demonstrated distinctive Jewish population clusters, each with shared Middle Eastern ancestry, proximity to contemporary Middle Eastern populations, and variable degrees of European and North African admixture”. More specifically, the paper states that the study “refuted large-scale genetic contributions of Central and Eastern European and Slavic populations to the formation of Ashkenazi Jewry” (2010: 850). Behar et al. suggest in a similar vein that the results of their study “trace the origin of most Jewish Diaspora communities to the Levant” (2010: 238). These papers contribute to a sizeable body of genetic research that has endeavoured to test the

account of Jewish history, according to which contemporary Jews are genealogically connected to ancient Hebrews. This research has added a new dimension to the debate about what it means to be Jewish, injecting new meanings into the “ethnic” discourse about Judaism and Jewish culture. In academic Jewish Studies any essentialist conceptualizations of Jewish identity have in the

past decades been challenged by commentators coming from the perspective of critical theory, who generally see theoretical foundations of essentialist thinking as problematic. Thus, Laurence Silberstein, drawing upon Judith Butler’s formulation, has suggested an approach which reconfigures such contested terms as Jew, Judaism and Jewish into a site of “permanent openness and resignifiability” (Silberstein 2000: 13). Sander Gilman argues that “there is no such thing as a ‘purely’ Jewish identity”, and that “from the prebiblical world to the Babylonian Diaspora to the world of Sepharad or Ashkenaz, Jews – like all people – have formed themselves within as well as against the world that they inhabited, that they defined, and that defined them” (Gilman

1994: 365). In Israel, further complexity to the question of Jewish cultural (and regional) diversity is added by the fact that society is divided into various edot, or groups of repatriates from different parts of the world, who maintain the cultural and social specificities imported from their counties of origin. Nevertheless, the idea that different Jewish groups around the world are not only culturally

similar, but also “genealogically” connected, is still prominent in the public imagination both within and outside Jewish communities. The notion that Jews are a people almost “biologically” related to each other was promoted by early Zionist ideologues. The racialization of Jewishness in Zionist discourse was a response to the shift from Christian anti-Semitism to racial anti-Semitism, which occurred in Europe in the late nineteenth century. This new wave of anti-Jewish sentiment grounded many of the old-standing stereotypes about the Jews in their physicality and therefore aimed to close the door to assimilation (Weikart 2006). As John Efron comments, in Europe this effected the emergence of “race science” in the Jewish communities themselves, who saw in it “a new, ‘scientific’ paradigm and agenda of Jewish self-definition and self-perception” (Efron 1994: 4-5). The notion of Jewish people being on some level related to each other appears to be alive and well also in our days. Writing about contemporary constructions of Jewishness among the Jews in the West and particularly in the USA, Susan Glenn has observed that even “in our post-ethnic age of ‘voluntarism,’” it is hard to ignore “the centrality of blood logic to modern Jewish identity narratives,” the logic, which Jews retained “throughout all of the de-racializing stages of twentieth-century social thought” (Glenn 2002: 139-40). It is against the backdrop of these debates about the genealogical dimension of Jewishness

that I would like to consider studies in what is sometimes popularly described as “Jewish genetics”. Have these studies and their results had any weight in public debates about Jewish identity? Has DNA become a new “marker” of Jewishness and an aspect of Jewish culture? Has genetics come to play any role in specific cases involving issues of identity arbitration in the context of “emerging” Jewish communities?2