Dani Ishai Behan

The Antisemitic Obscurantism of Commercial DNA Testing

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

At-home DNA testing has become increasingly commonplace over the past 20 years. To wit, anyone curious about their ancestral roots can purchase a kit online and have their results delivered to them within a month or less. For most non-Jews, these results tend to be fairly straightforward. But Jewish history is unique, and the overwhelming failure of most DNA companies at accounting for these differences has fomented inaccurate understandings of Jewish peoplehood and fueled antisemitism throughout the world.

Of particular concern is the “ethnicity percentage” estimates on offer and their erroneous categorization of Ashkenazi Jews as “European” (as opposed to Middle Eastern), thereby buttressing the popular false canard of Ashkenazim as alien interlopers in the Middle East and airbrushing them out of their indigeneity to Israel.

Before I get into that, it is incumbent that I explain how these DNA kits work and what their classification methods entail.

First and foremost, it must be understood that these are not “race” tests. Their purpose is to compare a customer’s DNA to that of living individuals who, as they are grouped, represent “modern populations” (“modern” as in “going back no further than the time of Christopher Columbus”). That is, the test will only show you where your ancestors were within a given genealogical timeframe, notwithstanding heterogenous mixture that occurred afterwards.

In plainer terms, wherever your ancestors were 500 years ago, that is more or less how you will be classified on these tests. A perfectly anodyne framework for non-Jewish populations who’ve never experienced prolonged exile in foreign lands. But Ashkenazi Jews, having spent the past 1,000 – 1,500 years exiled in Europe, do not fit so neatly into this classification schema.

The assumption that Jews comprise multiple “ethnicities” indigenous to whatever regions they recently inhabited – as ingrained, popular, and fervently held as it may be – is not accurate. Jews are a Levantine ethnic group indigenous to Israel and, ideally, our DNA results should reflect this.

Classification of Ashkenazi Jews as “European” – either by name, on the map, or beneath the continental breakdown – implies to the viewer that they are native to Europe, not a displaced Middle Eastern population who experienced exile in Europe.

While DNA tests such as these are not “race” tests, they are undeniably perceived that way by most people and this, in large part, the fault of the company. What all of this implies to the mind of an average consumer, is that Jews are actually a “white-European” population, not a Levantine-Middle Eastern one. I’d say, it is still possible to have an Ashkenazi Jewish category, with the diaspora history in Europe made clear in the scheming for its genealogical purpose, without actually compromising the visual representation of being an explicitly Middle Eastern diaspora people. More on that anon.

First, let’s look at the current scheming in greater detail:

23andme has only one Jewish category – Ashkenazi – which is lumped automatically under “European”. Ergo, a customer who is 100% Ashkenazi Jewish will be registered as “100% European” by default, with an accompanying map highlighting Central and Eastern Europe. All acknowledgement of ancestry and ethnogenesis in Israel is shunted off to a “see more” side bar that most customers will scarcely notice, let alone read.

Now, imagine you are Ashkenazi Jewish. You’ve been told your entire life that Jews are nothing more than a religious faith, that your “roots” are in places like Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, etc. At some later point in life, you realize that this information – most likely handed down to you by your assimilationist parents – isn’t quite correct. You learn that we are actually a Levantine diaspora population with an exile history in Europe, and that we are not (as modern-day antisemites and assimilationists allege) a European collective that embraced Judaism at a varying intervals.

Cognitive dissonance sets in, and so you take a DNA test to find out which side is telling the truth. Your results come in the mail, and it says “you are 100% European – specifically, 100% Ashkenazi Jewish”, thus confirming (as far as you know) that Ashkenazi Jews really are white-Europeans and all of this talk of Ashkenazim being indigenous to Israel is just “Zionist hogwash”.

Yes, there is an acknowledgement that we come from Israel, but it’s hidden away in a side bar that’s likely to be ignored or missed altogether. The results you were looking for, as far as you know, are already right in front of you anyway. You are 100% Ashkenazi AND 100% European. Case closed. From 23andme’s perspective, this categorization makes perfect sense: most Ashkenazim were indeed living in Europe 500 years ago. However, in terms of genetic ancestry and ethnic origins (which is what 23andme purports to convey, and how most customers interpret it), it is woefully inaccurate. It creates the impression that Ashkenazi Jews are “genetically European” (and thus converts/Khazars, thus not Middle Eastern, thus not indigenous to Israel, and so on) and fails to adequately convey that Europe was our place of exile, not our origin.

FTDNA similarly uses a continental breakdown and classifies the Jewish diaspora groups under different continents, each corresponding with recent diaspora history. Ashkenazim are grouped under “Europe” and Sephardim are collectively grouped under MENA, even if their families recently lived in Europe. This, again, is misleading – diaspora history and genetic origin are categorically not the same thing, and the lines between the two should not be blurred in the way companies like FTDNA have done. An acknowledgement of Levantine origins is made, but it’s incredibly brief and easy to miss, and seems the company did not make the effort to make it clear.

AncestryDNA does not use a continental breakdown. Instead, it has an equally damaging “Jewish Peoples of Europe” category. Although their explanation is the best of the three, our status as a Levantine diaspora group is still obfuscated by the title – seemingly on purpose.

Ultimately, not a single mainstream company categorizes us as Middle Eastern, nor do they make any meaningful attempt to clarify that Europe is not our “ethnic origin” but is, rather, our diaspora history. In this respect, DNA companies are (like most of the media at this point) being used to rewrite Jewish history in frightening and damaging ways.

Why is this happening? Your guess is as good as mine, although I think I might have at least some inkling as to what is going on. I know there is one forum poster out there who seems to share my view…

Image source: My screenshot

It bears repeating, and emphasizing, that most non-Jewish ethnic groups never experienced an exile from their homelands/forced diaspora in foreign lands, and certainly weren’t experiencing it 500 years ago (which is where the cut-off point is for these tests). Ergo, the results will be perfectly accurate for most gentiles and, thus, they will see no issue with how these tests work. Again, Jewish history is different. Most of us weren’t in our indigenous land 500 years ago. The vast majority of us were still exiled, and this is what allows companies like 23andme and FTDNA to paint an inaccurate picture of Jewish ancestry.

If anything, it is a textbook example of gentile privilege in action.

So what needs to be done? I am of two minds about this…

1. Throw away the current categorization schema in favor of a new one that gives customers a more comprehensive breakdown of their ancestry.

However, this option would require using ancient samples. Since the tests already use modern ones, the entire scheming would get thrown off. So, that really just leaves the following proposal:

2. Use different standards of classification for Jews, and for other longstanding exiled populations. Ideally, I would create a “Diaspora Jewish” category containing multiple subcategories (e.g. Ashkenazi Jewish, Sephardi Jewish), then place it under the broader Middle Eastern/North African heading. This allows for clearer acknowledgement of our Levantine ethnic identity, our exile history in Europe (or wherever else we wound up) and, if only for health purposes, the distinctiveness of our genetic profile.

Until and unless 23andme et al agree to heed these suggestions, Jewish customers should withdraw their patronage.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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