Scholarly article on topic '‘Jewish Genetics’ and the ‘Nature’ of Israeli Citizenship'

‘Jewish Genetics’ and the ‘Nature’ of Israeli Citizenship Academic research paper on "History and archaeology"

Share paper
Academic journal
OECD Field of science

Academic research paper on topic "‘Jewish Genetics’ and the ‘Nature’ of Israeli Citizenship"


Open Access

Ian Vincent McGonigle

'Jewish Genetics' and the 'Nature' of Israeli Citizenship


In 2013, the Israeli state announced that it may begin to use genetic tests to determine whether some prospective immigrants are Jewish or not. If implemented, the state would be enshrining Jewishness at the level of DNA, rendering "Jewish genes" legally legible, and making DNA signatures a basis for decisions on basic rights and citizenship for the first time in its history. Herein, I examine the Israeli context of "Jewish genetics," and I situate this contingent historical moment within the diverse political philosophy of Zionism, particularly as it relates to configurations of Jewish ethnicity and modes of citizenship. At issue is the possibility of a novel application of genetics in distributing citizenship, entailing a unique application of Jewish political thought, an articulation of a secular Zionism that foregrounds biology in determinations of civic inclusion.


Biopower, Citizenship, Ethnicity, Genetics, Israel, Negative Dialectics, Zionism

Received 5 October 2015 Accepted 1 November 2015


In July 2013, Israel's Prime Minister's office stated that in the future, Russians wishing to make aliya (immigrate) to Israel might need to take a DNA test to prove their Jewishness (McGonigle and Herman 2015; Zeiger 2013). While this statement was meant to indicate that the state would use genetic tests to verify a "biological connection" with a Jewish parent or grandparent, a genetic measure of kinship to establish transmission of Jewish identity is not necessarily recognized by Jewish religious law. If implemented, the Israeli state would thus be enshrining Jewishness at the level of DNA, rendering "Jewish genes" legally legible, and making DNA signatures a determinant of basic rights and citizenship for the first time in its history.

The State of Israel is explicit in defining itself as the homeland of the Jewish people, and is thus both ethno-religious and national in its own self-image. The commitment to the Jewish character of the state, however, raises perennial national concerns, and frequent moral panics, over who is a Jew, how this can be determined, by what credible authority, and what exactly this says about the "nature," or fundamental modality, of citizenship in Israel. Genetic tests for Jewishness would respond by functioning as a metric of legitimate inclusion in the state, constructing a virtual biological border, and providing an unequivocal substrate for calculating ethnic belonging. A test for Jewishness, however, could also engender a novel form of governmentality and "biopower" (Foucault 2009) for the state, a new way of imagining and managing the population at the level of bare life. Although it is unlikely that genetic tests for Jewishness will become the main criterion for securing Israeli citizenship, the rise of "Jewish genetics," and its circulatory semiotics, exemplified most strongly by the recent state announcement, demands an examination of the curious relationship between biology and citizenship in Israel.

Herein, I discuss the basis of this novel and particular form of governmentality, the management of citizens and populations through "ethnic genetics," and I situate this contingent historical moment as it relates to the political philosophy of Zionism, particularly regarding conceptions ofJewish ethnicity. This reading imposes an "immanent critique" of the phenomenon of the molecularization of ethnicity in the context of the Jewish ethnonation. To follow the Frankfurt school of critical theory, I attempt to breach between ideas and reality, and "confront the

Unauthenticated Download Date | 1/16/17 12:01 AM 90


existent in its historical context, with the claim of its conceptual principles, in order to criticize the relationship between the two and thus transcend them" (Held 1980:183). The thrust of this article is therefore to interrogate how, and why, Jewish genetics can fit with or reshape prior ethnic and political imaginaries, thus exposing why the Israeli state is attempting to understand itself in the present through technoscience. This line of thought assumes that what exists, ontologically, depends on how and why we know it. Rather than regarding ethnic genes as being pure essences "in themselves," then, this "negative dialectical" critique emphasizes the necessary historical particularities of the mediations of their ontological claims (Adorno 1980[1966]) and precisely strives for the "negation of reification" (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002[1947]:vii). This reading may therefore also help in thinking about how and why other states might similarly draw on genetic technologies in determining rights to citizenship, and in imagining the borders of ethnic belonging.

While clear-cut racial divisions are perhaps the ideological construction par excellence, the borders of ethnicity are being complexified and reformulated with the latest next generation genomic sequencing technologies.1 "Nature" becomes more political, more geographically and historically specific, and more culturally particular, as genomic technologies get grounded in different national spaces. In the Israeli context, ethnic genes have already entered public discourse, especially since geneticists have been describing the genetic structure and historical migrations ofJewish populations (Atzmon etal. 2010; Behar etal. 2004, 2006, 2010; Bray etal. 2010; Ostrer and Skorecki 2013; Ostrer 2001). It has been said that such genetic research is contributing to a "'biologization' ofJewish culture and historical narrative" (Egorova 2014:354), as lay commentators now often turn to DNA evidence as a "rhetorical means for inscribing identities," especially to support "favoured accounts of the origin and historical development of the tested communities" (Egorova 2014:360). There are strong reasons for the popular appropriation of these scientific findings. Jewish population genetics studies usually treat diverse diaspora groups of Jews as a related cohort, and often trace genetic data to support the narrative of a line of descent from the ancient tribes of Israel. In this regard, Jewish genetics reiterates, and lends credibility to, the Israeli state's founding narrative of return to the Holy land.

While Jewish genetics studies make claims about general ethnic groups and their historical migrations, Jewish genes are not a sine qua non in guaranteeing "authentic Jewish" identity at an individual human level. Individuals with no historical or biological connection to the Jewish tradition may, of course, make a religious conversion and become Jews. Conversely, non-Jewish donor sperm and ova may be used in assisted-conception clinics to produce babies that are legally Jewish in the eyes of the Israeli state, though only when the gestating womb (including surrogates') is deemed to be ofJewish "identity" by the rabbinate, and therefore recognized by the state (Kahn 2005:184).

On the other hand, so-called "Jewish DNA" is also being read through personal genomic testing, even when Jewish genes are located in areas of "non-coding DNA," that is from genetic material that probably does not in itself determine a specific physical trait. These so-called Jewish genes may not make a difference at all (phenotypically, at least), and yet they would become vital if they become the legible traces that decide rights to citizenship in Israel. Regardless of the debated validity or biological importance of such Jewish genes, at issue is the question of why genes are becoming a site for the Israeli state to imagine control of the population. It has yet to be made clear what this potential development says about the trajectory of the Israeli state, its commitments to religious law, and how this emergent phenomenon connects with, or breaks from, a longer history of Jewish political thought and imaginations of Jewish ethnicity.

Despite the ambiguity over the legal, biological, and social "nature" of Jewish genes and their intermittent role in the reproduction of Jewish identity, Israel is an ethnically diverse country.2 And while Jewishness has often

1 See Prainsack and Hashiloni-Dolev (2009) for a review of the impacts of the so-called "new genetics" on collective identities, including nation, race, and ethnicity.

2 With many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, North Africa, France, India, Latin America, Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia, the US, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the ex-Soviet Union, not to mention Israel's indigenous Arab minority of close to 2 million people. .. th t td



been imagined as a biological race,3 the initial origins of the Ashkenazi Jews who began the Zionist movement in turn-of-the-century Europe actually remain highly debated and enigmatic. Recent population analysis by geneticists has led to an unresolved and hot debate (Abu El-Haj 2012; Elhaik 2012; Kohler 2014). One of the most contentious claims made is that European Jews are descended from converts to Judaism from the Khazar Empire, which covered much of Eastern Europe during the second half of the first century CE (Koestler 1976; Sand 2010). Regardless, Jews are widely believed to have resided in the Levant for several centuries prior to the destruction of the Second Temple,4 and European Jews are thought to have resulted from dispersals of Jews to the north into the Europe and the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages. It is assumed that following expulsion from Western Europe, in around the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jewish communities expanded eastwards to Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. As European Jews have arguably experienced much more persecution and suffered more displacements than Jews living in the Arab world, it is unsurprising that political Zionism emerged almost exclusively as a European Jewish political movement, with large-scale immigration of Jews from the Arab world not beginning until the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948.

The stakes in the debate over Jewish origins are high, however, since the founding narrative of the Israeli state is based on exilic "return." If European Jews are descended from converts, the Zionist project falls prey to the pejorative categorization as "settler colonialism" pursued under false assumptions, playing into the hands of Israel's critics and fueling the indignation of the displaced and stateless Palestinian people. The politics over Jewish genetics are consequently fierce. But irrespective of philosophical questions of the indexical power or validity of genetic tests for Jewishness, and indeed the historical basis of a Jewish population "returning" to the Levant, the Realpolitik of Jewishness as a measurable biological category could also impinge on access to basic rights and citizenship within Israel. Looking at the issue internal to Israel's national politics and modes of governmentality, a geneticization of the idiom of citizenship would actually mark a new moment in the Zionist political philosophy that motivated the state's emergence, since many of the European Zionists that founded the Israeli state differed widely on the basic principles upon which Jewish nation building5 should be pursued. In fact, the basis for connecting the diaspora Jews of the world in a single state followed several different imaginations of citizenship, varying across political, labor, cultural, and religious Zionism: That there existed amongst world Jewry a unity consisting of a spiritual tie, as a togetherness consequent to shared persecution, as a shared history as an exiled ancient diaspora nation, or indeed as a natural ethnic cohort.

In the light of the ambiguities around the materiality/immateriality of the grounds ofJewish ethnicity, the nascent potential impact of genetics on rights to citizenship, and the connection of biology to the state's founding narrative of exilic return, this article considers how and why biological measures of Jewishness are becoming an increasingly important part of the Israeli national discourse, that is to say the way Jewish ethnicity is imagined as something rooted in the body, transmitted by genes, and shared by the world Jewry. This article also addresses the way the Israeli state is attempting to understand, and reproduce, itself in the political present through the visions and imaginations afforded by science and technology.


The Zionist movement emerged in turn-of-the-century Europe as a nationalistic response to solve the so-called "Jewish question" on modern political terms, though different strands of Zionist thought have been divisive in both their explicit political goals and their religious sensibilities. While so-called labor Zionists, influenced by Marxist-inspired reform in Russia, advocated a secular state, emphasizing vigorous physical labor and pointing to the nourishing and rejuvenating effects of working the land, religious Zionism, on the other hand, foregrounded a more diffuse spiritual unity as the essential condition that would realize the universality of the ideal Jewish state and unify the Jewish people. Distinct formulations of the ontology of the Jewish political subject are in contention,

3 Most notably, and to horrific ends, by the Nazis, but also later by Zionists and early Israelis for state building purposes

4 In Jerusalem in 70 CE.

5 I follow Weingrod (2015:317), in thinking of nation building as "processes through which citizens in a society reach broad agreement regarding common values and goals, develop effective institutions that are able to mediate differences, agree to seek the 'common good,' and also share mutually agreed upon symbols and language."


with the very "nature," that is to say the core fundamental definition, ofJewish citizenship "co-produced" (Jasanoff 2004) with the political telos of community building pursued. In other words, the various dominant images of Jewish ethnicity, and their performances, must be apprehended in their particular social, cultural, political, and historical milieu. To parse such distinct configurations ofJewish ethnicity, and examine the ways in which different political goals entailed different ideas of Jewish citizenship, a brief reading of some of the political philosophies of early key Zionist thinkers, tracking the continuities and incommensurabilities, and identifying the common threads that unite their diverse political imaginaries, will prove useful. The purpose of this line of thinking is to reveal the historical foundations of the contemporary Israeli situation and at the same time expose the history of the concepts of Jewish citizenship and ethnicity in the discourses that framed the founding of the state. To begin, the ways these Zionist thinkers conceived of diaspora Judaism, and how by distinction the Israeli citizen, or the "New Hebrew," would be self-fashioned whilst being physically and/or spiritually relocated proximal to the epicenter of Jerusalem, will be revealing.

Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl was one of the key founders of political Zionism, whose ideas had their roots in the ambivalent neo-Romanticism of fin de siècle Europe, that is, "between the fears and despairs of the post-Enlightenment Kultur and the respect and awe of post-industrialist scientific rationality, or Zivilisation" (Falk 1998:590). Herzl (1896) thought that attempts at assimilation of Jews into European society were in vain, since it was always the majority of each country who could decide who was a native and who an alien. He resented the idea of "belonging" as a criterion of privilege determined in the hands of exclusive national elites. He thought anti-Semitism to be a problem that would need to be solved by both global Jewry and non-Jews acting in concert, thus transforming the "Jewish question" into a distinctly international political problem to be negotiated and resolved between nation states on the world stage. In this regard, political Zionism's birth and strategic vision is a precise reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism, European nationalism, and modern mythologies of ethnic purity, but importantly, is not an internal movement inherent to, intrinsic to, or a "natural" aspect of, the Jewish diaspora.

Consequently, one of the trends in Zionist thought that sought to move against this kind of reflexive responsiveness to external political pressure and persecution was to re-root the Zionist movement on the organic plane of bodily labor. Labor Zionism thus sought to reconcile Jewish history through the conjunction of a powerful ideology of Jewish nationalism with a strong desire to work hard and cultivate a robust Hebrew body. This ideology would demand an overhaul of Jewish political life, and a transformation in diasporic traditions, to inculcate the practice of Jewish nationalism at the level of the body, through arduous labor practices. The early labor Zionist and Ukrainian journalist, Micha Josef Berdichevski (1900:294) underscores this imperative for historical rupture with diaspora Judaism, echoing Nietzsche's philosophical treatise on the "will to power," saying:

It is not reforms but transvaluations that we need—fundamental transvaluations in the whole course of our life, in our thoughts, in our very souls. Jewish scholarship and religion are not the basic values—every man may be as much or as little devoted to them as he wills. But the people of Israel come before them—'Israel precedes the Torah.'

Accordingly, Russian Zionist thinker Aaron David Gordon took up this thread to provide a theory of Jewish labor that he claims would propel the Zionist movement forward to practical success. In the belief that Jews could become whole again by living the life of nature, Gordon likewise identified hard bodily labor as the essential habit that Jews lacked. He says (1911:373):

Labor is not only the force which binds man to the soil and by which possession of the soil is acquired; it is also the basic energy for the creation of a national culture. This is what we do not have—but we are not aware of missing it. We are a people without a country, without a living national language, without a living culture.

In Gordon's prognostications, a culture of labor would serve as the very glue, or the "basic energy," that could tie men to each other, to the land, and through that dialectical process, fill a deep lack and secrete a national culture



to be enjoyed and sustained collectively. Further, for Gordon, "culture" was the dynamic and self-reinventing language of identity politics, and the new Hebrew Zionist movement would spread and be reproduced through joint labor, a manifest practice of nation building. He painted a vivid picture of the "nature" of the labor Zionists' mutual solidarity with the acoustic metaphor:

The ethnic like choral singing, in which each individual voice has its own value, but in which the total effect depends on the combination of the relative merit of each individual singer, and in which each individual singer is enhanced by his ability to sing with the rest of the choir (Gordon 1920:380).

While labor and political Zionists generally saw the move towards self-determination as a process of manifest vindication, the culturally inflected school of Zionist thought was apprehensive about this headfirst dive towards a new Jewish culture. In fact, Ahad Ha'Am rejected the Nietzschean will to power that Gordon backed so confidently, believing that hasty state building and cultural refashioning would be a naive mistake. He was skeptical that the "moral good" would no longer be valued, but would instead raise up the human type above the general level of mankind, and he doubted whether the moral development in the cultivation of a "Superman" ideal would serve the Jewish tradition well. He warned about potential regression:

Seeing that the goal is the mere existence of the Superman, and not his effect on the world, we have no criterion by which to distinguish those human qualities of which the development marks the progress of the type, from those which are signs of backwardness and retrogression (1898:225).

With no agenda except the acquisition of power and instrumental domination of the immediate political environment, the Hebrew Superman is bereft of any moral compass to offer guidance toward an ethical future. According to Ahad Ha'Am, Israel was already chosen by God for "moral development" (1898:229); Israel has a moral purpose that is divinely inspired, and as such, a transvaluation of its values would be an affront to God's will, disrespecting history and its "universal historical laws" (Ibid 241). As to how to realize the ideal end point, the resolution that Ahad Ha'Am advocated is a reconciliation of the dualism of flesh and spirit—material and immaterial aspects of the Jewish individual—in a manner that is compatible with Jewish history and religious traditions: "The two elements in man, the physical and the spiritual, can and must live in perfect accord" (Ahad Ha'Am 1904:150). He says (1904:155): "spirit without flesh is but an unsubstantial shade...the spirit of Judaism could not develop and attain its end without a political body, in which it could find concrete expression".

In this formulation the historical dialectic is closed, and the Jewish spirit can only be realized in concrete terms through the establishment of the Jewish ethical state, and the state can only be enlivened with the healthy spirit of the committed and ethical citizen. This formulation of the Zionist telos breaks entirely from the labor Zionists viewpoint in that it refuses to bury Jewish history, and more importantly, sees the state as the materialization of spirit, which is to say the dualism of spirit and flesh is folded into an ethic of state building. In terms of realizing the birth of the State of Israel in practical terms, Ahad Ha'Am warns against looking forward with eager aspirations to modern novelty. Instead, Jews should look to the past for inspiration. Rather than tearing asunder the fabric of Jewish traditions, his conservative Zionist vision demands the national Ego emerge organically from history and law, or precisely, from the "foundations of the past" (Ahad Ha'Am 1904:89).

In profound opposition to Ahad Ha'Am's thoughts on preserving the foundations of Jewish history as though they were the inherited treasures of time, more recently the Boyarin brothers (1993) praise diaspora Judaism's bricolage culture as testament to the resilience and adaptability of Jews in the face of uncertain conditions. They pin Jewishness as precisely the ability to adapt, go unnoticed, and succeed as a "cultural trickster." They thus embrace the emergent cultural form of a dynamic diaspora Judaism. In rejecting the idea of Judaism as a fixed and essential cultural form, they say:

Diasporic cultural identity teaches us that cultures are not pre-served by being protected from "mixing" but probably can only continue to exist as a product of such mixing. Cultures, as well as identities, are constantly being remade (1993:721).


Though this kind of flux may be true of all cultures, they assert that diasporic Jewish culture makes it impossible to see "Jewish culture as a self-enclosed, bounded phenomenon" (Ibid 721). This diasporic relational ontology of Jewish ethnicity, as defined by cosmopolitan experience, is fundamentally incompatible to a Zionist project of Jewish nationalism that sees the spatial sequestration ofJewish citizens to an exclusively Jewish ethnic homeland.

In distinction to such a fluid, contingent, and contextual conception ofJewish identity, religious Zionists, however, typically emphasized the immaterial spiritual component of Jewish identity and the importance in gathering Jews in the land of Israel. In this regard Abraham Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, and an enigmatic and mystical philosopher of Judaism, is exemplary of religious Zionism. Kook thought of Israel as "not something apart from the soul of the Jewish people" but "part of the very essence of our nationhood... bound to its very life and inner being" (Kook 1910:419). This relation between soul and land that he professes cannot simply be explained away in politic rhetoric or philosophy. Rather, he says, "Human reason, even in its most sublime, cannot begin to understand the unique holiness dormant within our people" (1910:419). Clearly writing outside of a rationalist "modern" discourse, or a dialectical tradition attempting to reconcile contradictions, Kook's mysticism transcends the realm of concrete politics and moves into the diffuse realm of the experiential Holy. "Deep in the heart of every Jew," he writes, "in its purest and holiest recesses, there blazes the fire of Israel" (Ibid 421). Seeing Israel as an extension of the redemptive process that commenced with the exodus from Egypt, the "Light" of Israel can be understood in his thoughts as being on the plane of a cosmic totality, being the final Jewish redemption with which history has been forever pregnant. Such messianic religious Zionism is far removed from the pragmatic action advocated by political and labor Zionism, but like cultural Zionism, it foregrounds the immaterial dimension of diaspora Judaism, and the spiritual component of Jewish ethnicity.

Having touched briefly here on the various regimes of values that have spurred the distinct strands of Zionism that emerged in early twentieth century Europe—labor, religious, cultural, and political: movements that jointly contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel—it is clear that many elements of these movements rest on distinct images of Jewish citizenship and nation building, and run in parallel. Political Zionism hinged on a relational ontology ofJewishness, with Herzl pointing to anti-Semitism as the intersubjective constitutive factor in binding diaspora Jews with a common political goal. Labor Zionists emphasized "solidarity" and a shared culture of bodily practice, and cultural Zionism rested on the creative use of Hebrew and valued historical continuity, while religious Zionism explicitly emphasizes both a spiritual and material connection between Jews and the land of Israel. This disparate set of roots that later spawned the Israeli state has grown from a heterogeneous entanglement of diverse political thought to yield a centralized state apparatus, with varying attitudes towards the social "nature" of Jewish citizenship as it is condensed into law and practice. In order to determine how these various layers of Zionist thought have led to the present case in which Judaism can be attended to at the molecular level, as with "Jewish genes," a look at contemporary secular Israeli culture is crucial.

It is the mainstream secular Zionist national identity, as it emerged as a hegemonic force in the early years of the Zionist movement, that provides insight into the development of what Kimmerling (2005) terms "Israeliness." While the Israeli state is still today an immigrant settler polity that lacks a consensual social identity, raising questions over its boundaries and positioning in the geopolitical environment of the Middle East, the pluralism of the states' demography still fosters a sense of collective Israeli community (Kimmerling 2005). His analysis of contemporary Israeli society posits seven distinct "cultures" that comprise the pluralism of contemporary Israel: the secular Ashkenazi upper class; the national religious; the traditionalist Mizrahim (Arab Jews, who have presumably always resided in the Near East and North African Jews); the Orthodox religious; the Arabs; the Russian immigrants (especially since the fall of the Soviet Union); and the Ethiopians (who mainly immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s) (2005:2). Together, these groups form Israel's population of 8 million total people, of which approximately 6 million are Jews. In serving to combine the distinct Jewish cultural groups with unity, he identifies the state, the education system, and the military as the three key institutions that jointly help to stabilize a notion of a shared Israeliness. But the Israeli state poses problems for the affordance of formal



equality to all of its citizens. While there are secular Jews and a secular cultural life in Israel, it is not automatically clear whether Israeliness is a class of citizenship that necessarily requires Judaism at some fundamental level, necessarily excluding non-Jews from complete civic inclusion.

"Citizenship" is therefore an illuminating concept for examining the political workings of diverse democratic states and their particular state citizen relations. Shafir and Peled (2002:1) claim that Israel's principal moral political dilemma is the need to choose between the cardinal principles of the universalist commitment to being a Western-style democracy, versus the particularist commitment to being an exclusively Jewish state. They argue it is still not possible to separate Israeli democracy and Israeli citizenship from its settler colonial beginnings, nor from its continued journey on that path (Shafir and Peled 2002:1), since in Israel ethno-nationalism denies the possibility of cultural assimilation of non-Jews, as the discourse on citizenship incorporates non-political cultural elements as critical determinants of assimilation.

In this context, the state's announcement that Jews may need to prove their Jewishness with a DNA test raises the chilling question of how, after the annihilation of European Jewry in the Nazi death camps, can Israelis speak of Jewish genes and biological metrics as a determinant of civic participation, with all the resounding eugenic echoes. To open up this space of critical theoretical investigation, I adopt a cultural and historical reading of science, reading genetics as a politicized discourse employed by a society that charges it with its valuable meaning.


Scholars in the social study of science have described the ways in which scientific knowledge is influenced by the cultural, historical, and political climate that incubates it (Abu El-Haj 2002; Bijker et al. 1987; Bloor 1991; Hacking 2000; Jasanoff et al. 1994; Jasanoff 2005; Latour 1987, 2004), and have established that science varies across different states, highlighting the ways that the social order and scientific knowledge are "co-produced" in complex entanglements that can't be neatly separated into the pure categories of "nature," "culture," and "politics" (Hacking 1995; Jasanoff 2004; Latour 1993a, 1993b, 2004; Stengers 2010). In this mode of inquiry, I ask from whence came the current fascination with Jewish genes, as a sui generis product of Israeli history, a nationally particularistic instantiation of scientific reasoning in the public sphere.

Scholarship on diaspora Judaism has revealed how Jews were not just objects of racial classification and discrimination, but that they also applied racial concepts to themselves in various ways and for specific purposes (Bloom 2007; Efron 1994; Falk 1998; Goldstein 2006; Hart 1999, 2010, 2011; Morris-Reich 2006). In the last decades of the nineteenth century, for example, European Jews were subjected to radical "biologization," particularly in Germany. There, Jews were presented as an oriental race and were attributed distinct physical and mental qualities (Hess 2002), and German anthropologists regarded Jews as a pure race, formed as a result of their practice of endogamy (Efron 1994:20). But in some contexts, "race" was used to establish Jewish unity from within the Jewish community itself, and to establish diversity and hierarchy amongst Jews.6 Consequently, Hirsch (2009:593) argues that an Israeli formation of ethnic Jewishness owes its history to: "the encounter of European Zionists with Eastern Jews, and from the tension between the projects of nation-building and of Westernization in the context of Zionist settlement in the East".

Furthermore, she (2009:596) argues that it was precisely concepts and ideologies such as "degeneration" and racial-eugenic "improvement" that migrated between the discursive fields of Europe and British Palestine that helped to blur the distinction between the biological, political, and social dimensions of Jewishness, making it difficult to separate the metaphor of eugenics from an emancipatory project of improvement and betterment via nation building. In brief, it is clear that Israeli Jews' imagination of a unified Jewish race has its roots in European diaspora host nations, twentieth century biology, and essentialist nationalist imaginaries.

6 This was the case with Zionist literature that circulated in Mandate era Palestine, for example.



Addressing the ways in which Jewish race science has transformed, and perhaps re-emerged, in the twenty-first century, anthropologist of medicine Susan Kahn (2010:21) has identified three key ways in which Jewishness has now entered the molecular realm, with genes being defined as Jewish in three major ways: population genetics; genetic testing for both disease and Jewish identity; and human ova and sperm donation in the domain of assisted conception. In these different conceptual arenas, "Jewish genes" and Jewish inheritance are determined in markedly different ways.

In relation to population genetics, or "tracing Jewish history through DNA," Kahn (2005:181) claims genetic studies must be situated within the larger sociopolitical context where the meaning of claiming Jewish identity can make a direct impact in terms of access to rights and resources. Indeed, Israel's Law of Return, the state's commitment to help the Jews come to live in Israel, makes it important to have verifiable evidence of "authentic Jewishness" (McGonigle and Herman 2015). On the other hand, underserved Jewish communities already in Israel may also benefit from proof of "authentic Jewishness." The marginal groups of the Beta Israel of Ethiopia,7 the Kuki-Chin-Mizo from Northeast India,8 the Bene Ephraim from India,9 or the Lemba people of southern Africa, for example, could all benefit from genetic evidence to support their claims to rights and equality. The Lemba people not only claim descent from a tribe of Israel with descent passed from father to son, and maintain some Jewish traditions such as a kosher diet, but Lemba men possess a "Jewish genetic marker," the Cohanim modal haplotype10 (CMH) with a frequency similar to that in the general Jewish population (in just under one out of every ten men). This adds support to their demands to be regarded as equals to the traditional elites. But as Kahn (2010:21) reports, Jewishness as determined by genomic analysis is embodied as "statistical probabilities that DNA haplotypes will be more prevalent" within groups, and not a clear ruling on whether an individual is Jewish or not.

The CMH, the "Jewish DNA haplotype" that has received the most attention, was first publicized in the scientific journal Nature (Skorecki et al. 1997) in a study that identified six differences in the DNA sequence of male Jews that self-identified as Cohens. It was thought that the "Cohanim" signature represents the inheritance of over one hundred generations from the founder of the patrilineal genetic line, with the signature traced to a date over 3,000 years ago, in accordance with the oral tradition that the Cohens (Jewish priests) maintain a line of patrilineal descent from Aaron, the first Jewish priest (Kahn 2010:14). In line with the tradition of patrilineality, the CMH is only found on the male Y chromosome. However, since the Y chromosome mostly contains non-coding DNA, sequences that aren't thought to translate into a physically expressed trait, it is unclear whether identification of the Cohanim signature holds any valid indexicality as to the nature of the bearers' body in terms of a physiological or biometric characteristic, even though it might be read as a valid inscription of ethnic history.

This sort of ambiguous materiality is not the case with inheritable diseases, however, where DNA mutations carry higher likelihood of developing a real disease. Indeed, European Jews are generally more susceptible to a range of inherited diseases11 that are associated with identifiable genes, making it important that two bearers of the causative gene do not have children together. Consequently, there have been moves to test individuals for genetic markers of disease, either before they form partnerships, or before they chose to have children together. The Brooklyn-based organization "Dor Yeshorim," for example, established a database of DNA comprised of samples from young Ultraorthodox Jews in high school (Kahn 2005:181). The samples are crosschecked so that genetically incompatible matches between prospective marriage partners can be recognized in an effort to avoid the spread of the genetic diseases in the community. While the Orthodox community has generally embraced the genetic tests available, there remains concern in the community about the "dangerous eugenic

7 The Beta Israel are Ethiopian Jews who mostly immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. See Seeman (2010).

8 The Kuki-Chin-Mizo is a small group that claims to be descendants of the tribe of Menashe.

9 See Egorova and Perwez (2012, 2010).

10 A genetic signature that has been identified among Sephardic priests in the Jewish population (See Abu El-Haj 2012: 287; Kahn 2010:13; Skorecki et al. 1997; Thomas et al. 2000).

11 Common inheritable diseases amongst European Jews are Tay-Sachs, Canavan's disease, Gaucher's disease, Family Dysautonomia, Niemann Pick disease, and Huntington's disease.

° nai iThiantmatian


overtones" (Kahn 2010:17). That said, it remains unclear whether the use of genetic tests for diseases common amongst Jews is contributing to a reductionist rationality that a Jewish disease is evidence of a Jewish body, or indeed the existence of a Jewish biological race. In relation to ongoing research on diseases in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, however, Mozersky and Joseph (2010:434) argue that ethnic genetic medicine "reiterates a shared history and addresses culturally salient issues," which in turn both "encourages active participation" and "contributes to a particular version of population."

In the third sphere of "Jewish genetics," assisted conception, it should be noted that there is a strong association between fruitful reproduction and Jewish tradition. The Orthodox community has consequently been positive and receptive to the use of technologies to assist with fertility, and many rabbis will permit the use of genetic donor material to circumvent a range of adulterous, or incestuous, unions (Kahn 2005:184). Moreover, since Jewishness is traditionally passed from mother to child, non-Jewish sperm can also father a Jewish child if the mother is Jewish. However, the inheritance of Jewishness may be problematized if a surrogate mother carries a baby. The question of whether a baby who has genetically Jewish parents, that is, who donate the egg and sperm, but who is carried to gestation by a non-Jewish surrogate, will be Jewish. A recent case of this resulted in a rabbi from New York opining that the baby technically had three parents, and because the surrogate was not Jewish, the child was not Jewish (Chesler 2013). Believing the problem more complex than deterministic genetics or notions of modern biology, he reasoned that if motherhood involves both giving a child DNA and giving birth, and if science can now bifurcate these roles, then we have the condition of having two mothers. For a child to be Jewish, both mothers must then be Jews.


These varying findings in the rationalities at play in Jewish genetics point to the ambiguity, or outright contradictions, between the field of biomedicine and rabbinic law in determinations of Jewish ethnicity. On the one hand, geneticists make claims that ancestry can be determined on the grounds of DNA sequences passed from father to son, while non-Jewish sperm may be used to father Jewish babies. Meanwhile, a baby without any Jewish DNA could be a complete Jew. Indeed, the majority of contemporary Orthodox rabbis agree that a child conceived with an egg donated by a non-Jewish woman is considered Jewish as long as the fetus is gestated in a Jewish womb (Kahn 2005:184). In the Orthodox discourse then, Jewishness is not a genetic issue, but in the rabbinic imagination the identity of the birth mother is the determinant of Jewishness. A child conceived with a non-Jewish egg and a non-Jewish sperm would be considered fully Jewish once it is born of a Jewish womb. An interesting paradox thus appears: While Jewishness can be traced genealogically by reading DNA up the paternal line12 with genetic analysis, Jewishness can only be reproduced in the present, that is "passed on" through the maternal line through the process of gestation in a Jewish womb.

In the light of the flexibility of the gendered dimensions of Jewishness, as demonstrated by the ambiguity of Jewish genes and the transmission of Jewish identities through birth, it might be more productive to think about the category of Jewish genes as a discourse that mediates collective visions of peoplehood depending on what it achieves rather than on where it fails. The epistemic dimensions of Jewish genetics—their validity and consistency—can be viewed as secondary to the event that is achieved in the political present. In this line of thought, "Jewish genetics," as a technical iteration of identity politics, cannot be meaningfully discussed without recourse to the specific moment within which the epistemic value of claims to genetic identity affords utility as an achievement as a matter-of-fact in society, that is to say, within the relations of power between citizens and their government, as well as between those that are excluded.

The potential development of governance by Jewish genetics is an example of a hybrid technique that has its roots in statecraft and technoscience, or what Michel Foucault (2010) describes as the management of populations through "biopolitics," the governance of life itself. The advance of "ethnic genetics" in public discourse might therefore be regarded as a reification of the political relations that condition the present actionable. Indeed, the

12 This is the case with the Cohanim modal haplotype. See Abu El-Haj (2012) for a comprehensive review of the science of Jewish origins.



epistemic value of "ethnic genetics" and the political milieu appear to be "co-produced" (Jasanoff 2004), which is to say they beget and stabilize each other. Without a Jewish state in the Levant, Jewish genes would probably hold a very different kind of importance and interest. Crucially then, ethnic genes may serve to make states into more stable political realities, whilst states simultaneously create the conditions for the meaningful misrecognition of genetic material as bearing an essential identity. The potential for Jewish genes being a measure of inclusion in Israel makes this philosopheme patent, but regardless as to what will actually happen in Israel in the coming years, the imagination of Jewish genes is certainly growing and gaining traction, in both Israeli public discourse and the state's political imaginary.

The prospect of genetic tests for Jewishness in Israel raises concern over a reinscription of ethnic essentialisms, entailing a "biopolitical" project that could foster a new regime of "biopower" (Foucault 2009, 2010) at the level of individuals' genes, with potential for the state cataloguing citizens at the molecular level. The legitimacy of the diverse manifestations of Jewish genetics thus hinges on its potential utility as a "regulatory technique" (Foucault 1977) in managing the state's population. In a parallel case, Prainsack (2006) has argued that Israel's permissive laws regarding the use of artificial reproductive technologies can be traced to their utility in tackling Israel's "demographic problem," that is in maintaining a Jewish majority. In this instance, Israel's pronatalist culture rests on a notion of "risk" to the population that serves to bolster the state's mandate to reproduce the nation at the level of individual bodies. In the eventuality that genetic tests be used in determinations of rights to citizenship, however, an attempt to make Jewish genes a channel to Israeli citizenship is not only a novel form of governmentality, but it also breaks from several of the key political philosophies of Jewish emancipation that spurred the founding of the Israeli state.

In facing the potentiality of genotyping citizenship, it is necessary to read this development as an attempt to imagine a future for the Israeli state through the visions mediated by a secular technoscience. This in itself is not novel, since secular visions of the Israeli state have previously been described in relation to science and technology, as for example with David Ben-Gurion's "scientific utopianism" and his "million plan" to bring a million Jews to Palestine (Barell and Ohana 2014), or with the Israeli geneticists who in the 1950s applied their science to establish a national identity and confirm the Zionist narrative (Kirsh 2003). But with the possibility of genetic tests being used to decide on citizenship, a transformation in the very definition of the Jewish political subject itself is at stake. At issue then, is the possibility of a novel form of governmentality in the distribution of citizenship, which entails a unique iteration of Jewish political thought, a geneticized articulation of a secular Zionism that foregrounds the subject's genetic code in determinations of civic inclusion.


Abu El-Haj, N. (2012) The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Abu El-Haj, N. (2002) Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Adorno, T. (1980[1966]) Negative Dialectics. London: Bloomsbury.

Ahad Ha'Am (1904) "Flesh and Spirit," in Selected Essays by Ahad Ha'Am, L. Simon, trans. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Ahad Ha'Am (1898) "The Transvaluation of Values" in Selected Essays by Ahad Ha'Am, L. Simon, trans. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Atzmon, G., L. Hao, I. Pe'er, C. Velez, A. Pearlman, P. Francesco Palamara, B. Morrow, E. Friedman, C. Oddoux, E. Burns, H. Ostrer (2010) Abraham's children in the genome era: major Jewish diaspora populations comprise distinct genetic clusters with shared Middle Eastern ancestry. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 86(6):850-859. Barell, A. and D. Ohana (2014): 'The Million Plan': Zionism, Political Theology and Scientific Utopianism. Politics, Religion & Ideology 15(1):1-12.



Behar, D.M, M.F. Hammer, D. Garrigan, R. Villems, B. Bonne-Tamir, M. Richards, D. Gurwitz, D. Rosengarten, M. Kaplan, S. Della Pergola, L. Quintana-Murci, K. Skorecki (2004) MtDNA evidence for a genetic bottleneck in the early history of the Ashkenazi Jewish population. Eur. J. Hum. Genet. 12(5):355-364.

Behar, D.M, E. Metspalu, T. Kivisild, A. Achilli, Y. Hadid, S. Tzur, L. Pereira, A. Amorim, L. Quintana-Murci, K. Majamaa, C. Herrnstadt, N. Howell, O. Balanovsky, I. Kutuev, A. Pshenichnov, D. Gurwitz, B. Bonne-Tamir, A. Torroni, R. Villems, K. Skorecki (2006) The matrilineal ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: portrait of a recent founder event. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 78(3):487-497.

Behar, D.M., B. Yunusbayev, M. Metspalu, E. Metspalu, S. Rosset, J. Parik, S. Rootsi, G. Chaubey, I. Kutuev, G. Yudkovsky, E.K. Khusnutdinova, O. Balanovsky, O. Semino, L. Pereira, D. Comas, D. Gurwitz, B. Bonne-Tamir, T. Parfitt, M.F. Hammer, K. Skorecki, R. Villems (2010) The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people. Nature 466:238-242.

Berdichevski, M.J. (1900) "Wrecking and Building," in The Zionist Idea, ed. A. Hertzberg. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

Bijker, W., T. Hughes, and T. Pinch (eds.) (1987). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge MA/London: MIT Press.

Bloom, E. (2007) What 'The Father' had in mind? Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943), cultural identity, weltanschauung and action. History of European Ideas 33(3):330-349.

Bloor, D. (1991) Knowledge and Social Imagery. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Boyarin, D., and J. Boyarin (1993) Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity. Critical Inquiry 19(4):693-725. Bray, S.M., J.G. Mulle, A.F. Dodd, A.E. Pulver, S. Wooding, S.T. Warren (2010) Signatures of founder effects, admixture, and selection in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107(37):16222-16227. Chesler, C. (2013) What Makes a Jewish Mother. June 3rd, The New York Times.

Efron, J.M. (1994) Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Egorova, Y. (2014) "Theorizing "Jewish Genetics": DNA, culture, and historical narrative" in The Routledge handbook of contemporary Jewish cultures, ed. L. Roth, London: Routledge.

Egorova, Y. and S. Perwez (2012) Old Memories, New Histories: (Re)discovering the Past of Jewish Dalits. History and Anthropology 23(1):1-15.

Egorova, Y. and S. Perwez (2010). The Children of Ephraim: Being Jewish in Andhra Pradesh. Anthropology Today 26(6):14-19.

Elhaik, E. (2012) "The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses." Genome Biol Evol 5(1):61-74.

Falk, R. (1998) Zionism and the Biology of the Jews. Science in Context 11(34):587 607.

Foucault, M. (2010) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978—1979. London: Picador

Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977—1978. London: Picador

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Goldstein, E. L. (2006) The price of whiteness: Jews, race and American identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gordon, A.D. (1911) "People and Labor," in The Zionist Idea, ed. A. Hertzberg. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication


Gordon, A.D. (1920) "Our Tasks Ahead," in The Zionist Idea, ed. A. Hertzberg. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

Hacking, I. (2000) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hart, M.B. (2011) Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.

Hart, M.B. (2000) Social science and the politics of modern Jewish identity. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Held, D. (1980) Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of

California Press.

Hart, M.B. (1999) Racial Science, Social Science, and the Politics of Jewish Assimilation Isis 90(2):268-297.

Hertzberg, A. (ed.) (1997) The Zionist Idea. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

Herzl, T. (1896) The Jewish State. Online at:

Hess, J.M. (2002) Germans, Jews and the claims of modernity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hirsch, D, (2009) Zionist eugenics, mixed marriage, and the creation of a 'new Jewish type. Journal of the Royal

Anthropological Institute 15(3):592-609.


Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (2002[1947]) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. Jasanoff, S. (2005) Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jasanoff, S. (2004) States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and the Social Order. London: Routledge. Jasanoff, S., G. Markle, J. Petersen, and T. Pinch (eds.) (1994) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Kahn, S.M (2005) The Multiple Meanings of Jewish Genes. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 29(2):179-192. Kahn, S.M. (2010) "Are Genes Jewish: Conceptual Ambiguities in the New Genetic Age," in The Boundaries of Jewish Identity, ed. Susan Glenn and Naomi Sokoloff. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Kimmerling, B. (2005) The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military. Oakland: University of California Press.

Kirsh, N. (2003) Genetics in Israel in the 1950s: The Unconscious Internalization of Ideology. Isis 94(4):631-655. Koestler, A. (1976) The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage. New York: Random House. Kohler, N.S. (2014) Genes as a Historical Archive: On the applicability of genetic research to sociohistorical questions: the debate on the origins of Ashkenazi Jewry revisited. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 57(1):105-117.

Kook, R.A.I. (1910) "The Land of Israel," in The Zionist Idea, ed. A. Hertzberg. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

Latour, B. (2004) Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Latour, B. (2000) When Things Strike Back: A Possible Contribution of 'Science Studies' to the Social Sciences. The British Journal of Sociology 51(1):107-123.

Latour, B. (1993a) The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Latour, B. (1993b) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McGonigle, I.V., and L. Herman (2015) Genetic Citizenship: DNA Testing and the Israeli Law of Return. The Journal of Law and the Biosciences 2(2):469-478.

Morris-Reich, A. (2006) Arthur Ruppin's Concept of Race. Israel Studies 11(3):1-30.

Mozersky, J. and G. Joseph (2010) Case studies in the co-production of populations and genetics: The making of 'at risk populations' in BRCA genetics. BioSocieties 5(4):415-439.

Ostrer, H. and K. Skorecki (2013) The population genetics of the Jewish people. Hum. Genet. 132(2):119-127. Ostrer, H. (2001) A genetic profile of contemporary Jewish populations. Nat. Rev. Genet. 2:891-898. Prainsack, B. (2006) 'Negotiating Life': The Regulation of Human Cloning and Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Israel. Social Studies of Science 36(2):173-205.

Prainsack, B., and Y. Hashiloni-Dolev (2009) "Religion and Nationhood," in Handbook of Genetics and Society, eds. Paul Atkinson, Peter Glasner, and Margaret Lock. Pp. 404-421. London: Routledge. Sand, S. (2010) The Invention of the Jewish People. London: Verso.

Seeman, D. (2010) One People, One Blood: Ethiopian-Israelis and the Return to Judaism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Shafir, G. and Y. Peled, (2002) Being Israeli The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skorecki K., S. Selig, S. Blazer, R. Bradman, N. Bradman, P.J. Waburton, M. Ismajlowicz, M.F. Hammer (1997) Y Chromosome of Jewish Priests. Nature 385:32.

Stengers, I. (2010) Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Thomas, M.G., M.E. Weale ME, A.L. Jones, M. Richards, A. Smith, N. Redhead, A. Torroni, R. Scozzari, F. Gratrix, A. Tarekegn, J.F. Wilson, C. Capelli, N. Bradman, D.B. Goldstein (2002) Founding mothers of Jewish communities: geographically separated Jewish groups were independently founded by very few female ancestors. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 70(6):1411-1420.

Thomas, M.G., T. Parfitt, D.A. Weiss, K. Skorecki, J.F.Wilson, M. le Roux, N. Bradman, and D.B.. Goldstein (2000) Y Chromosomes Traveling South: The Cohen Modal Haplotype and the Origins of the Lemba: The "Black Jews" of Southern Africa. American Journal of Human Genetics 66(2):674-686.

Weingrod, A. (2015) "Afterword," in Toward an Anthropology of Nation Building and Unbuilding in Israel, ed. F.

Markovitz, S. Sharot, and M. Shokeid. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Zeiger, A. (2013) Russian-speakers who want to make aliya could need DNA test. The Times of Israel, July . 29th.


Ian Vincent McGonigle is a Ph.D. Candidate in Middle Eastern studies and Anthropology at Harvard University. His work draws on the philosophical anthropology of biology and identity, and his current project focuses on ethnic genetics in the contemporary Middle East. He holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Pharmacology from the University of Cambridge, and has master's degrees in Anthropology from Harvard University and the University of Chicago. His email is

Acknowledgments: The author acknowledges the support of graduate fellowships from the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago, and from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. The author acknowledges the support of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Program on Science, Technology, and Society, where he was a visiting fellow for the academic year 2013-2014. The author is currently supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Israel Institute, and he is hosted by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Tel Aviv University The author thanks Sheila Jasanoff, Steve Caton, and Jean Comaroff for their supervision, and Elise Burton, Shai Lavi and Barbara Prainsack for their comments on the manuscript.