I’m a regular reader of The Guardian newspaper out of England and on June 13 a piece appeared by Oscar Schwartz, “What does it mean to be genetically Jewish.” That is a provocative and perhaps even disturbing title, and it needs to be stated that Mr. Schwartz is “genetically Jewish” himself, but the point of his piece is that he has considerable discomfort with the recent and ongoing use of DNA testing in Israel.
Marriage in Israel is governed by Jewish religious law, not Israeli secular law. In Israel today, the fact is that a Jew cannot marry a non-Jew. In relation to this, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is now regularly making use of DNA testing to determine who is officially “Jewish.” I suspect that both of those above statements come as a surprise to many if not most people reading this. Also, of course, for those who are well-informed about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, such contemporary use of DNA ancestry and the prohibition of inter-faith marriage carries very dark and disturbing associations. The fact that it is Israel, officially defining itself as a “Jewish State,” that is carrying out these polices makes it all the more disturbing.
Please don’t get me wrong and paint me with the anti-Semite brush: There are a good number of progressive Israelis who are protesting these policies in their country, including some of Israel’s foremost intellectuals — such as the internationally renowned Jewish scholar Shlomo Sand, of Tel Aviv University, for whom I have the greatest respect. I also doubt that the majority of “The Jewish People” (Jehudim) in the world are comfortable with these Israeli policies. But these policies remain in effect.
The equation of one’s genes with one’s “religion” and one’s irreversible “religio-ethnic identity” is a dangerous, slippery slope. It not only fosters slipping into bigotry; it — even worse — fosters slipping backward into the tribal mentality that ruled humanity for thousands upon thousands of years. We do not want to go back there. Tribal societies are violent, exclusionary and bigoted. Sadly, Israel is now slipping back in that direction and — for the good of Israel and the whole world — this has to be checked and stopped.
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. It is a demographic and historic fact that the modern state of Israel was founded by Ashkenazic Jews from Europe. It is also a well-known fact, often written about within Israel, that the Sephardim in Israel are often treated as second-class citizens. There were Sephardim living in Palestine and Judea long before the creation of Israel in the 20th century, but there were basically no Ashkenazim living there prior to the 20th century, especially prior to 1948. There is also an ancient black community of Jewish People who have lived in Ethiopia for thousands of years — and they are not especially welcome in Israel as immigrants. (See, for example, Tamara Manasseh’s piece in The Jewish Forward of Jan. 3, 2018.)
Now comes the real kicker: If DNA is going to start being consulted, there is very little genetic difference between the so-called “Palestinians” and the Sephardim. We now know, through genetic science, that Jews and Palestinian “Arabs” both descend from the Canaanites, who are mentioned prominently in Hebrew scripture as the people who were living in Judea before the arrival of King David. We know from history that when the Crusaders arrived in Palestine (around the year 1000) they found that most of the “Arab” people (who were mostly Muslims by this time) living there were speaking Aramaic, a version of Hebrew, and not Arabic. It is now widely accepted by ethnographers that the original people of Canaan became over time Jews, Christians and Muslims. (See, for example, Dov Ivry’s piece “Most Palestinians are Descendants of Jews” in The Times of Israel, Aug. 21, 2016.)
DNA does not determine people’s religions — at least not for the last 2,000 years, thank God. History, culture, conversion, migration, assimilation and choice determine people’s religions and ethno-identities. The world’s two largest monotheistic faiths recognize this as a founding principle: For both Christianity and Islam, 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. This transformation of religion, away from birth status and geno-type, toward a universal human community was an important, positive thing for human social evolution. We are so much more than our DNA. This is exactly what makes us human and makes us so different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Reversion to birthism, nationalism, racism and racial purity (i.e. supremacy) is literally a reversion to a more backward, less-advanced way of being human — not the other way around, as so many “purists” would like us to think. We should call it what it is. It is backward bigotry. It is bad both for those who do the bigotry and for those who receive the bigotry because it lessens overall respect for humanity as a whole and for each and every individual human being.
Do not think for one minute that it is only in Israel where this reversion is showing its face. This is happening in parts of Europe and in Trumplandia right here in the United States. To be blunt about it and to state the obvious: the U.S. Religious Right has a great deal in common with birthism, nationalism, racism and bigotry. The Southern Baptist Convention has just about zero black members — and the reason there is such a thing as the “Southern Baptist Convention” is because the Baptist Church in America split over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, the Southern white congregations splitting off on account of their full support of slavery.
Science is a two-edged sword. The use of the information encoded in our DNA can work medical miracles, on the positive side; on the negative side, it can be used to split humanity apart and place some with specific genetic traits above others. Frankly, using DNA to do this is not much different from using hair, eye and skin color or the shape of noses and ears for this purpose. Genetic Aryan supremacy became the law of the land in Germany less than 100 years ago. We must never forget.
Both Christianity and Islam 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. The One God of the Hebrew people became recognized as the One God of Christianity and Islam. All monotheists bow to the same God, and people who tell you it isn’t so don’t know what they’re talking about. Even the ancient Canaanites of Palestine — before there were Jews, Christians or Muslims — worshiped the One God they called “El,” the same root word used for God in Hebrew and Arabic.
The true message delivered to us through our new understanding of DNA is that we are, all of us, all around the world, one human family with only very minor and superficial genetic differences. Monotheism grew exponentially worldwide in the 20th century and will continue in the 21st. The misuse of monotheism to split people apart is a great sin against humanity. As the world is becoming smaller, yet more and more monotheistic, it is our sacred duty to guard against religion being misappropriated to lend any support for bigotry.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.