A recent On Faith column by playwright and former professor John Nassivera managed to make several egregious blunders of fact, all of which together suggested wrongly that the state of Israel is practicing DNA-based racism, and that Ashkenazi Jews are discriminating against non-Ashkenazim to the point of excluding them from Judaism.
All of this goes on, Nassivera avers, in a context of rising international racism and concerns for racial purity; and he strongly implies that ethnocentric Judaism is morally inferior to “Christianity and Islam (which) were created in no small degree to combat the exclusionary, tribal and imperial practices of secular rulers who strengthened their power by pitting people against people.”
Nassivera takes pains to say, “Please don’t get me wrong and paint me with the anti-Semite brush.” Very well. I am less concerned with Nassivera’s bigotry or lack of same (based on his column, he could plausibly offer ignorance as a defense) — and more concerned with correcting the inaccuracies that riddle his argument.
Here are the most important:
Nassivera bases his column on a recent essay in the Guardian titled, “What does it mean to be genetically Jewish?” The author, Oscar Schwartz, begins with his parents taking commercial DNA tests, confirming that they both are “100% Ashkenazi Jewish.” Schwartz then discusses a recent controversy in Israel over the Chief Rabbinate’s use of DNA testing in a few instances to confirm Jewish ancestry, surveying the arguments for the practice and the many voices opposing it.
However, Nassivera does not seem to have read the Guardian essay to its end. He claims that “the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is now regularly making use of DNA testing to determine who is officially ‘Jewish,’” darkly implying that those with the wrong genes are cast out of the tribe. However, as Schwartz’s article makes clear, the Rabbinate is only using DNA testing in cases where an individual lacks other evidence of his or her religious status, in order to include people who otherwise would have an ambiguous status — not to exclude them.
Nassivera also claims that “In Israel today, the fact is that a Jew cannot marry a non-Jew.” This is false. The role of the Rabbinate in validating Jewish marriages is real and hotly debated, but it is easy for Israelis to sidestep religious jurisdiction.
More fundamentally, Nassivera attacks Israel’s supposed “equation of one’s genes with one’s ‘religion’ and one’s irreversible ‘religio-ethnic identity,’” which he calls “a dangerous, slippery slope.” (Indeed, it would be, if it were really happening.) Against such a “tribal” mentality, Nassivera contrasts Christianity and Islam, in which “one becomes a member of the faith not merely by being born into it, but by being educated and making a conscious choice — and the decision to make such a choice is open to everybody, regardless of geographic origin, language or genetic ancestry.”
Astonishingly, Nassivera does not seem to know that one can convert to Judaism, that many people do, and that the Israeli Rabbinate joyfully accepts those who converted according to the proper procedure. Jewish tradition celebrates gerei tzedek, “righteous converts,” as among the highest exemplars of Judaism. A “genetic religious test” to exclude the insufficiently “pure” would thus make zero sense: while most Jews have shared ancestors and identifiable genetic markers, many Jews do not — and are nevertheless still Jewish.
(Nassivera also ignores that Islam, too, is passed down through birth. If one parent is Muslim, the child is considered to be Muslim as well, and need not recite the Shahadatayn upon adulthood to confirm that status.)
“There are two major ethno-geographic groups of the Jehudim: the (original) Sephardim of the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa and later into Spain, and the much later Ashkenazim of eastern Europe and into Germany.”
(The Ashkenazi and Sefaradi communities originated from the same people and split due to differing migration patterns; Ashkenazim are not “later,” and are genetically linked to the Middle East more than to Europe. Additionally, Ashkenazim spread from Germany into Eastern Europe, and not the reverse. One hopes that Nassivera is not making a sly reference to the discredited “Khazar hypothesis,” a favorite of anti-Semites and cranks.)
“(T)here were basically no Ashkenazim living [in modern-day Israel] prior to the 20th century, especially prior to 1948.” (Ashkenazim made up a majority of such Jews in 1900.)
“It is a demographic and historic fact that the modern state of Israel was founded by Ashkenazic Jews from Europe.” (And therefore, the “sins” of Ashkenazim are the sins of the Israeli state?)
Why does Nassivera claim that Jews discriminate based on genetics? So that he can then claim that Ashkenazi Jews are exceptionally bigoted, discriminating on a racial basis even against fellow Jews as well as Palestinians: “(T)here is very little genetic difference between the so-called ‘Palestinians’ and the Sephardim.” Once Nassivera “establishes” that Ashkenazi Jews are obsessed with racial purity, he can then lump the State of Israel in with the American “Religious Right” and the nationalist movements of Europe, who are fixated on “birtherism, nationalism, racism and bigotry.”
But so many of Nassivera’s premises are simply wrong, the entire argument collapses in on itself. His stated conclusion is laudable: Few would dispute that we humans should recognize our common humanity, genetic differences notwithstanding. But the conclusion seems out of place in an argument that uses a tapestry of falsehoods to claim that Ashkenazi Jews are “backward bigots.”
Israel is not using DNA testing to create a “pure” nation. Judaism does not conflate religious belief with “pure” birth. And if Dr. Nassivera continues to write about Judaism and Israel, he should learn the difference between fact and crankery.
Oren Litwin is associate director of the Islamism in Politics project of the Middle East Forum.