Blog post

New scientific study rekindles the debate about Jewish genetic history and nationalist imaginations

Marianna Reis17 October 2013

In 2006, Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People stirred up controversy over its claim that most modern day Jews do not share an "unbroken genealogy," and are the descendants of Khazar converts to Judaism who originated from the north Caucasus region.  

But a recent study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature challenges the Khazar hypothesis put forward by Sand and other historians. The study claims that approximately 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jewish maternal ancestry can be traced to Europe, rather than the Middle East or the Caucasus. 

The claim of European ancestry challenges an integral part of Israel's  Jewish national identity and claims to territory—the need to trace Jewish origins back to a common genealogy based in what is now Israel. In her recent book The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology, anthropologist and Barnard College professor Nadia Abu El-Haj focuses on the way in which science and genetic research have shaped "cultural imaginations and political commitments."  

Although the latest findings challenge Sand's hypothesis that Jews are mostly descended from the Khazars, they do not undercut a fundamental argument that is sometimes overlooked by Sand's critics. The core concern that Sand, and even Abu El-Haj, puts forward lies with the instrumentalization of science for the purpose of constructing ethno-nationalist identities. Abu El-Haj notes:

What is apparent in the early work of Israeli researchers is a struggle to reconcile their belief in the biological unity-qua-shared historical origins of the Jews with the "fact" of phenotypic evidence to the contrary. The Jews were presumed to be "a people" descended from the Israelites who were exiled from ancient Palestine. That vision was crucial to the ideology of settler-nationhood—to an understanding of Jewish settlement in Palestine as a project of return—that formed the bedrock of the Israeli state. 

Many critics of Zionism, including Sand, argue that constructing Israel as a state of and for the Jewish people legitimizes the institutionalization of an exclusivist Zionist ontology and the subsequent racialization, categorization, and subordination of all non-Jewish citizens of Israel.  In response to his own critics, Sand asserts:

Israel, in the early twenty-first century, defines itself as the state of the Jews and as the property of the "Jewish people," in other words of Jews living anywhere in the world, and not a possession of the ensemble of Israeli citizens residing on its soil—which is why it is appropriate to define it as an ethnocracy rather than a democracy.

Foreign workers and their families, deprived of citizenship, have absolutely no possibility of being integrated into the social body, even if they have been living in Israel for decades, even if their children were born there and speak only Hebrew. As for the quarter of the population identified by the ministry of the interior as "non-Jewish," although they have citizenship they cannot claim Israel as "their" state.

Ultimately, whether Jewish origins can be traced to Europe, the Levant, or the Caucasus, Sand's goal is to challenge nationalism, racist ideologies, and the historical myths which these depend on. 

Visit Nature to read the study in full.

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