What does it mean to be genetically Jewish? (2023)

When my parents sent their saliva away to a genetic testing company late last year and were informed via email a few weeks later that they are both “100% Ashkenazi Jewish”, it struck me as slightly odd. Most people I know who have done DNA tests received ancestry results that correspond to geographical areas – Chinese, British, West African. Jewish, by comparison, is typically parsed as a religious or cultural identity. I wondered how this was traceable in my parents’ DNA.

After arriving in eastern Europe around a millennium ago, the company’s website explained, Jewish communities remained segregated, by force and by custom, mixing only occasionally with local populations. Isolation slowly narrowed the gene pool, which now gives modern Jews of European descent, like my family, a set of identifiable genetic variations that set them apart from other European populations at a microscopic level.

This genetic explanation of my Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry came as no surprise. According to family lore, my forebears lived in small towns and villages in eastern Europe for at least a few hundred years, where they kept their traditions and married within the community, up until the Holocaust, when they were either murdered or dispersed.

But still, there was something disconcerting about our Jewishness being “confirmed” by a biological test. After all, the reason my grandparents had to leave the towns and villages of their ancestors was because of ethno-nationalism emboldened by a racialized conception of Jewishness as something that exists “in the blood”.

The raw memory of this racism made any suggestion of Jewish ethnicity slightly taboo in my family. If I ever mentioned that someone “looked Jewish” my grandmother would respond, “Oh really? And what exactly does a Jew look like?” Yet evidently, this wariness of ethnic categorization didn’t stop my parents from sending swab samples from the inside of their cheeks off to a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company. The idea of having an ancient identity “confirmed” by modern science was too alluring.

Not that they’re alone. As of the beginning of this year, more than 26 million people have taken at-home DNA tests. For most, like my parents, genetic identity is assimilated into an existing life story with relative ease, while for others, the test can unearth family secrets or capsize personal narratives around ethnic heritage.

But as these genetic databases grow, genetic identity is reshaping not only how we understand ourselves, but how we can be identified by others. In the past year, law enforcement has become increasingly adept at using genetic data to solve cold cases; a recent study shows that even if you haven’t taken a test, chances are you can be identified by authorities via genealogical sleuthing.

What is perhaps more concerning, though, is how authorities around the world are also beginning to use DNA to not only identify individuals, but to categorize and discriminate against entire groups of people.


In February of this year, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reported that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the peak religious authority in the country, had been requesting DNA tests to confirm Jewishness before issuing some marriage licenses.

In Israel, matrimonial law is religious, not civil. Jews can marry Jews, but intermarriage with Muslims or Christians is legally unacknowledged. This means that when a Jewish couple want to tie the knot, they are required by law to prove their Jewishness to the Rabbinate according to Orthodox tradition, which defines Jewish ancestry as being passed down through the mother.

While for most Israeli Jews this simply involves handing over their mother’s birth or marriage certificate, for many recent immigrants to Israel, who often come from communities where being Jewish is defined differently or documentation is scarce, producing evidence that satisfies the Rabbinate’s standard of proof can be impossible.

In the past, confirming Jewishness in the absence of documentation has involved contacting rabbis from the countries where people originate or tracking genealogical records back to prove religious continuity along the matrilineal line. But as was reported in Haaretz, and later confirmed by David Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, in the past year, the rabbis have been requesting that some people undergo a DNA test to verify their claim before being allowed to marry.

For many Israelis, news that the rabbinical judges were turning to DNA testing was shocking, but for Seth Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi, it came as no surprise. Farber, who has been living in Israel since the 1990s, is the director of Itim, the Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that helps Israeli Jews navigate state-administered matters of Jewish life, like marriage and conversion. In the past year, the organization has seen up to 50 cases where families have been asked to undergo DNA tests to certify their Jewishness.

Those being asked to take these tests, Farber told me, are mostly Russian-speaking Israelis, members of an almost 1 million-strong immigrant community who began moving to Israel from countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Due to the fact that Jewish life was forcefully suppressed during the Soviet era, many members of this community lack the necessary documentation to prove Jewishness through matrilineal descent. This means that although most self-identify as Jewish, hundreds of thousands are not considered so by the Rabbinate, and routinely have their Jewish status challenged when seeking religious services, including marriage.


For almost two decades, Farber and his colleagues have advocated for this immigrant community in the face of what they see as targeted discrimination. In cases of marriage, Farber acts as a type of rabbinical lawyer, pulling together documentation and making a case for his clients in front of a board of rabbinical judges. He fears that DNA testing will place even more power in the hands of the Rabbinate and further marginalize the Russian-speaking community. “It’s as if the rabbis have become technocrats,” he told me. “They are using genetics to give validity to their discriminatory practices.”

Despite public outrage and protests in central Tel Aviv, the Rabbinate have not indicated any intention of ending DNA testing, and reports continue to circulate in the Israeli media of how the test is being used. One woman allegedly had to ask her mother and aunt for genetic material to prove that she was not adopted. Another man was asked to have his grandmother, sick with dementia, take a test.

What does it mean to be genetically Jewish? (1)

Boris Shindler, a political activist and active member of the Russian-speaking community, told me that he believes that the full extent of the practice remains unknown, because many of those who have been tested are unwilling to share their stories publicly out of a sense of shame. “I was approached by someone who was married in a Jewish ceremony maybe 15, 20 years ago, who recently received an official demand saying if you want to continue to be Jewish, we’d like you to do a DNA test,” Shindler said. “They said if she doesn’t do it then she has to sign papers saying she is not Jewish. But she is too humiliated to go to the press with this.”

What offends Shindler most is that the technique is being used to single out his community, which he sees as part of a broader stigmatization of Russian-speaking immigrants in Israeli society as unassimilated outsiders and second-class citizens. “It is sad because in the Soviet Union we were persecuted for being Jewish and now in Israel we’re being discriminated against for not being Jewish enough,” he said.

As well as being deeply humiliating, Shindler told me that there is confusion around what being genetically Jewish means. “How do they decide when someone becomes Jewish,” he asked. “If I have 51% Jewish DNA does that mean I’m Jewish, but if I’m 49% I’m not?”


But according to Yosef Carmel, an Orthodox rabbi and co-head of Eretz Hemdah, a Jerusalem-based institute that trains rabbinical judges for the Rabbinate, this is a misunderstanding of how the DNA testing is being used. He explained that the Rabbinate are not using a generalized Jewish ancestry test, but one that screens for a specific variant on the mitochondrial DNA – DNA that is passed down through the mother – that can be found almost exclusively in Ashkenazi Jews.

A number of years ago Carmel consulted genetic experts who informed him that if someone bears this specific mitochondrial DNA marker, there is a 90 to 99% chance that this person is of Ashkenazi ancestry. This was enough to convince him to pass a religious ruling in 2017 that states that this specific DNA test can be used to confirm Jewishness if all other avenues have been exhausted, which now constitutes the theological justification for the genetic testing.

For David Goldstein, professor of medical research in genetics at Columbia University whose 2008 book, Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, outlines a decade’s worth of research into Jewish population genetics, translating scientific insights about small genetic variants in the DNA to normative judgments about religious or ethnic identity is not only problematic, but misunderstands what the science actually signals.

“When we say that there is a signal of Jewish ancestry, it’s a highly specific statistical analysis done over a population,” he said. “To think that you can use these type of analyses to make any substantive claims about politics or religion or questions of identity, I think that it’s frankly ridiculous.”

But others would disagree. As DNA sequencing becomes more sophisticated, the ability to identify genetic differences between human populations has improved. Geneticists can now locate variations in the DNA so acutely as to differentiate populations living on opposite sides of a mountain range.

In recent years, a number of high-profile commentators have appropriated these scientific insights to push the idea that genetics can determine who we are socially, none more controversially than the former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade argues that genetic differences in human populations manifest in predictable social differences between those groups.

His book was strongly denounced by almost all prominent researchers in the field as a shoddy incarnation of race science, but the idea that our DNA can determine who we are in some social sense has also crept into more mainstream perspectives.

In an op-ed published in the New York Times last year, the Harvard geneticist David Reich argued that although genetics does not substantiate any racist stereotypes, differences in genetic ancestry do correlate to many of today’s racial constructs. “I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism,” he wrote. “But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’.”

Reich’s op-ed was shared widely and drew condemnation from other geneticists and social science researchers.

In an open letter to Buzzfeed, a group of 67 experts also criticized Reich’s careless communication of his ideas. The signatories worried that imprecise language within such a fraught field of research would make the insights of population genetics more susceptible to being “misunderstood and misinterpreted”, lending scientific validity to racist ideology and ethno-nationalist politics.

And indeed, this already appears to be happening. In the United States, white nationalists have channeled the ideals of racial purity into an obsession with the reliability of direct-to-consumer DNA testing. In Greece, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party regularly draw on studies on the origins of Greek DNA to “prove” 4,000 years of racial continuity and ethnic supremacy.

Most concerning is how the conflation of genetics and racial identity is being mobilized politically. In Australia, the far-right One Nation party recently suggested that First Nations people be given DNA tests to “prove” how Indigenous they are before receiving government benefits. In February, the New York Times reported that authorities in China are using DNA testing to determine whether someone is of Uighur ancestry, as part of a broader campaign of surveillance and oppression against the Muslim minority.


While DNA testing in Israel is still limited to proving Jewishness in relation to religious life, it comes at a time when the intersections of ethnic, political and religious identity are becoming increasingly blurry. Just last year, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed the Nation State law, which codified that the right to national self-determination in the country is “unique to the Jewish people”.

Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian who has written extensively on the politics of Jewish population genetics, worries that if DNA testing is normalized by the Rabbinate, it could be used to confirm citizenship in the future. “Israeli society is becoming more of a closed, ethno-centric society,” he said. “I am worried that people will start to use this genetic testing to build this political national identity.”

For Sand, there is a particularly dark irony that this type of genetic discrimination is being weaponized by Jews against other Jews. “I am the descendant of Holocaust survivors, people who suffered because of biological and essentialist attitudes to human groups,” he told me. “When I hear stories of people using DNA to prove that you are a Jew, or French, or Greek, or Finnish, I feel like the Nazis lost the war, but they won the victory of an ideology of essentialist identity through the blood.”

But for Seth Farber, the problem with a DNA test for Jewishness runs deeper than politics; it contravenes what he believes to be the essence of Jewish identity. There is a specific principle in Jewish law, he told me, that instructs rabbis not to undermine someone’s self-declared religious identity if that person has been accepted by a Jewish community. The central principle is that when it comes to Jewish identity, the most important determinants are social – trust, kinship, commitment – not biological. “Our tradition has always been that if someone lives among us and partakes in communal and religious life, then they are one of us,” Farber said. “Just because we have 23andMe doesn’t mean that we should abandon this. That would be an unwarranted and radical reinterpretation of Jewish law.”


As I was reporting this story, it often struck me as oxymoronic that an institution like the Rabbinate would embrace new technology to uphold an ancient identity. It seemed to contradict the very premise of Orthodoxy, which, by definition, is supposed to rigidly maintain tradition in the face of all that is new and unknown.

But Jessica Mozersky, assistant professor of medicine at Washington University in St Louis, explained that part of the reason why the Rabbinate might be comfortable with using DNA to confirm Jewishness is because of an existing familiarity with genetic testing in the community to screen for rare genetic conditions. “Because Ashkenazi communities have a history of marrying in, they have this high risk for certain heritable diseases and have established genetic screening programs,” she explained. “So this has made it less fraught and problematic to talk about Jewish genetics in Ashkenazi communities.”

In fact, the Orthodox Jewish community is so comfortable with the idea of genetic identity that they have even put together their own international genetic database called Dor Yeshorim, which acts as both a dating service and public health initiative. When two members of the community are being set up for marriage, Mozersky explained, the matchmaker will check whether or not they are genetically compatible on the DNA database. “This means that the notion of genetics as a part of identity is deeply interwoven in many ways with communal life,” she said.

This is something I could identify with. When I was 16 and attending a Jewish day-school in Melbourne, Australia, we had what was called “mouth-swab day”. Everyone in my grade gathered on the basketball courts to provide spit samples that were sent off and screened for Tay-Sachs disease, a rare inherited disorder significantly more common among Ashkenazi Jews that eats away at the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. As we waited in line, we joked that this was our punishment for our ancestors marrying their cousins.

A few weeks later, after we got the results, I told my grandmother about “mouth-swab day”. I was interested in her thoughts on my newly discovered genetic identity, which seemed to connect me biologically to the world she grew up in, a world of insularity, religiosity, tradition, and trauma.

“It’s like I’ve always said,” she declared, after I told her that I wasn’t a carrier of this rare genetic mutation. “It’s important to mix the blood.”


How do you know if I have Jewish genes? ›

The only way to prove Jewish ancestry is by connecting your family tree to ancestors who are historically confirmed to have been Jewish. DNA can help you with this by connecting you with DNA Matches with whom you may share an ancestor of confirmed Jewish heritage.

What does Ashkenazi Jewish mean on 23andMe? ›

Ashkenazi Jewish genetic groups

This means that they share high genetic similarity with people in that genetic group. About 80 percent of our customers on the latest chip with more than 75 percent Ashkenazi ancestry will receive a match.

Can 23andMe tell me if I am Jewish? ›

23andMe's ancestry DNA test includes both autosomal testing, and maternal and paternal analysis. Their DNA test can reveal Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, though other Jewish ancestries will likely show up as “Middle Eastern & North African”, or another regional ethnicity.

What does it mean to have Ashkenazi Jewish DNA? ›

(ASH-keh-NAH-zee jooz) One of two major ancestral groups of Jewish people whose ancestors lived in France and Central and Eastern Europe, including Germany, Poland, and Russia. The other group is called Sephardic Jews and includes those whose ancestors lived in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Do Jews have genetic differences? ›

Y-DNA of Ashkenazi Jews. The Y chromosome of most Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews contains mutations that are common among Middle Eastern peoples, but uncommon in the general European population, according to a study of haplotypes of the Y chromosome by Michael Hammer, Harry Ostrer and others, published in 2000.

Why do doctors ask if you are Ashkenazi? ›

The Ashkenazi Jewish genetic panel can tell people if they have an increased chance of having a child with certain genetic diseases. This testing may be recommended for people with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage who plan to have children or are pregnant.

What genetic traits do Ashkenazi Jews have? ›

Individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent may carry pathogenic variants for Bloom syndrome, Canavan disease, cystic fibrosis, familial dysautonomia, familial hyperinsulinism, Fanconi anemia C, Gaucher disease, glycogen storage disease type 1A, Joubert syndrome type 2, maple syrup urine disease type 1B, mucolipidosis IV, ...

What is the most common genetic disorder in Ashkenazi Jews ancestry? ›

Niemann-Pick Disease

Type A is more common in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, with an estimated 1 in 90 carrier frequency. The gene is located on chromosome 11. Individuals with Niemann-Pick disease lack a substance called acid sphingomyelinase (ASM).

What are Ashkenazi eyes? ›

I have hazel-green eyes—“Ashkenazi eyes,” people tell me. These eyes and light skin conceal my Iraqi-Indian heritage, rendering half of me invisible. Before speaking with me about my experience or background, most people presume I am Jewish, and by that they mean Ashkenazi or white.

What diseases are Ashkenazi Jews prone to? ›

Ashkenazi Jewish Diseases
  • 3-Phosphoglycerate Dehydrogenase Deficiency.
  • Abetalipoproteinemia.
  • Alport Syndrome.
  • Arthrogryposis, Mental Retardation and Seizures.
  • Bardet-Biedl Syndrome.
  • Bloom Syndrome.
  • Canavan Disease.
  • Carnitine Palmitoyltransferase ll Deficiency.

Are Ashkenazi Jews genetically different? ›

It was recently shown that the genetic distinction between self-identified Ashkenazi Jewish and non-Jewish individuals is a prominent component of genome-wide patterns of genetic variation in European Americans.

Why are Ashkenazi Jews at higher risk? ›

One in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women has a BRCA gene mutation. Mutations in BRCA genes raise a person's risk for getting breast cancer at a young age, and also for getting ovarian and other cancers. That is why Ashkenazi Jewish women are at higher risk for breast cancer at a young age.

Why do Ashkenazi have so many health problems? ›

Researchers think Ashkenazi genetic diseases arise because of the common ancestry many Jews share. While people from any ethnic group can develop genetic diseases, Ashkenazi Jews are at higher risk for certain diseases because of specific gene mutations.

What is special about Ashkenazi? ›

Most people with Ashkenazi ancestry trace their DNA to Eastern and Central Europe. But many also have Middle Eastern ancestry, which is just one reason for their genetic “uniqueness.” It's clear that people with European ancestry are genetically distinct from those of Asian or African descent.

What does the Bible say about Ashkenazi? ›

“Ashkenaz” is one of the most disputed Biblical placenames. It appears in the Hebrew Bible as the name of one of Noah's descendants (Genesis 10:3) and as a reference to the kingdom of Ashkenaz, prophesied to be called together with Ararat and Minnai to wage war against Babylon (Jeremiah 51:27).

How do you know if you are Ashkenazi? ›

What is Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry? Individuals whose Jewish relatives come from Eastern Europe are known as Ashkenazim. Until recently, for the purposes of determining who met criteria for coverage of genetic testing, Ashkenazi Jewish (AJ) ancestry was considered having four Jewish grandparents.

What color eyes do most Jews have? ›

by us are presented in table 111.
  • According to our figures more Jewesses (64.46 percent) than.
  • Jews (58.41 per cent) have dark eyes. Pure blue eyes also appear.
  • to be more frequent among the men (24.08 percent) than among the.

What nationality has green eyes? ›

The highest concentration of people with green eyes is found in Ireland, Scotland, and northern Europe. In fact, in Ireland and Scotland, more than three-fourths of the population has blue or green eyes – 86 percent! Many factors go into having green eyes.

What is the rarest eyes? ›

The rarest eye color in the world is likely violet or red—and yes, those colors can occur without the help of contacts. Many factors can influence eye color, including genetics and even certain medical conditions.

Do Ashkenazi live longer? ›

Researchers found that among Ashkenazi Jews, those who survived past age 95 were much more likely than their peers to possess one of two similar mutations in the gene for insulinlike growth factor 1 receptor (IGF1R).

What are Ashkenazi Jews known for? ›

By the 11th century, when Rashi of Troyes wrote his commentaries, Jews in what came to be known as "Ashkenaz" were known for their halakhic learning, and Talmudic studies.

Are Ashkenazi Jews genetically European? ›

A number of recent studies have shown that Ashkenazi individuals have genetic ancestry intermediate between European (EU) and Middle-Eastern (ME) sources [4–8], consistent with the long-held theory of a Levantine origin followed by partial assimilation in Europe.

Have Ashkenazi Jews become more genetically similar over time? ›

The analysis, the first of its kind from a Jewish burial ground and the product of yearslong negotiations among scientists, historians and religious leaders, shows that Ashkenazim have become more genetically similar over the past seven centuries.

What tribe do Ashkenazi come from? ›

Who are Ashkenazi Jews? The term Ashkenazi refers to a group of Jews who lived in the Rhineland valley and in neighbouring France before their migration eastward to Slavic lands (e.g., Poland, Lithuania, and Russia) after the Crusades (11th–13th century) and their descendants.

What percentage of Israel is Ashkenazi? ›

Among Israel's Jewish population, over 25 percent of schoolchildren and over 35 percent of all newborns are of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi/Mizrahi descent, and these figures have been increasing by approximately 0.5 percent annually.
1st century estimate2,500,000
2017 census6,556,000
20 more rows

What are the different types of Jews? ›

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that nearly all Israeli Jews self-identify with one of four subgroups: Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), Dati (“religious”), Masorti (“traditional”) and Hiloni (“secular”).


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