Jewish Racialization in Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing in the US
…by Erin Elhaik
[ Editor’s Note: VT ran across Israeli geneticist Erin Elhaik when he was working at Johns Hopkins University. He had recently published his historical study disputing that the Ashkenazi Jews who claimed Israel as the ancestral home of all Jews did not have the DNA to substantiate their claims.
The part I loved the most is that most Ashkenazi Jews don’t have any more Holy Land DNA than I do.
We first featured Dr. Elhaik on VT during a time when Israeliaphobes were doing their best to attack the validity of his work. They failed and eventually gave up trying.
Erin moved on to a position in Britain and has been in Sweden for the past year or so. We try to stay in touch with ‘one of a kind’ talents to follow their work for the new surprises were are sure will come from it. We consider all of our distant contributors to be distant relatives in a way.
Political Zionism has a lot at stake for keeping the story alive about how a band of primarily atheist Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia crashed into Palestine after WWII to eventually take over the place based on their claim that “God gave this land to the Jews”.
The debate continues over ‘what Jews’ and more importantly ‘who is a Jew’, and then the more narrow topic of should any Jew that claims Israel as an ancestral land have to pony up to the DNA database and verify their claimed ties.
This would have been even more important for contemporary Israelis Jews to claim the right to throw Palestinians out or keep them in open air concentration camps. If Jews were being kept under such conditions anywhere in the world, there would be hell to pay for it.
I have links to some of Dr. Elhaik’s work following his newest publication below. Part of the reward for our working at VT is the interesting people we have met along the journey and watching them evolve over the years.
Jewish Racialization, the “Jewish Gene,” and the Perpetuation of Ashkenormativity in Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing.
…by Sabina Ali
Jewish identity has been defined and redefined, negotiated and renegotiated, among Jews and non-Jews in various parts of the world. The tensions around the ongoing question of “Who is a Jew?” arise from the fact that Jewish identity encompasses numerous combinations of religion, commitment, nation, kinship, peoplehood, culture, ethnicity, and memory.
This thesis will examine the way Jewishness has been and continues to be racialized in the United States by Jews and non-Jews. Specifically, I look at how direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing companies, such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA, present a racialized view of Jewish identity to consumers and perpetuate the social construction of a Jewish race by claiming detectable “Jewish genes” in their ancestry reports.
Additionally, since these companies often provide reports on European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish ancestry, excluding non-Ashkenazi Jewish ancestries, they contribute to an Ashkenormative narrative of Jewish history, heritage, and identity.
Ali aims to study Jewish racialization in the US, particularly in light of genetic testing. She relies heavily on the works of Eric Goldstein and Nadia Abu El-Haj; this is a bit problematic as the latter provides an inaccurate and outdated view of how genetic ancestry tests are done or reports are provided. For example, the author concludes that:
While Jewishness continues to be racialized to mean whiteness in the United States, and as American Jews continue to incorporate “gene talk” into the social construction of what it means to be Jewish, direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests “reinforce the idea that [Ashkenazi Jews] are the real Jews” and conceal all others, including Jews “with ancestry from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean” as well as “adoptees and converts,” from the conversation. After all, a 23andMe or AncestryDNA genetic ancestry report does not provide non-Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity or ancestry estimates and, therefore, does not seem to validate non-Ashkenazi Jewishness on a genetic level.
However, many companies report Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Other than that, I agree with the conclusions, and the review makes an interesting mainly if you are not familiar with the subject. If you are familiar with the subject, don’t expect major surprises, particularly as the author hesitates in understanding the motivation of genetic testing companies, despite its clear aim to do so:
Therefore, consciously or not, direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing companies perpetuate an already dominant Ashkenormative understanding of Jewish history, heritage, and identity in the United States.
This blog records several very conscious instances to manipulate data to appeal to Jewish narratives. These companies are not in the business of publishing their actual motivation, so a bit more investigative journalism work is needed from anyone aiming to cover the subject.
Ali, Sabina, “Jewish Racialization, the “Jewish Gene,” and the Perpetuation of Ashkenormativity in Directto-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing in the United States.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2020.
Jim W. Dean Archives 2009-2014