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Rabbinate DNA tests seek Jewishness in the blood – a bone of contention

Please read the full article on The Times of Israel

Here are just some excerpts:

“We were called upon to explain the science to a group of authoritative rabbis,” said Skorecki, who oversaw the original study led by his then-doctoral student, Doron Behar.

He explained the source of the link: mitochondrial DNA, which unlike nuclear DNA is transmitted exclusively from mother to child, its paternal counterpart destroyed during fertilization. The 2006 study, and others that followed, pinpointed distinctive haplogroups carried by two-fifths of Ashkenazi Jews, linking them to just four founding mothers which — key for the rabbinical audience — are largely not found among Europeans without Jewish ancestry. One of the four sequences — K1a1b1a — alone could be found among some 20% of Ashkenazi Jewry, but is nearly absent among other Europeans.

“They asked questions, they asked very intelligent questions, they really delved deeply into the logic and science as much as they could. I was quite impressed at how careful and cautious they were,” said Skorecki of the rabbis, stressing that he was called upon to explain the science but did not “get involved in the other aspects, the halachic aspects, the societal aspects.”

Additional studies were conducted on other Jewish communities, including in North Africa and elsewhere, but “none were as striking in terms of a founder effect with such a large amplification as in the case of the European Jewish community, and that’s why it caught attention,” said Skorecki, currently the Dean of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine at Bar Ilan University.

The discussion on the proverbial (Jewish) mother of DNA, located in the mitochondria that produces energy from food, was met with keen interest.

The rabbinical scholars, another geneticist who consulted with them said, accepted the scientific conclusions completely.

In 2017, a year after the gathering, two of the participants, rabbis Isroel Barenbaum of Moscow’s top rabbinical court and Ze’ev Litke of a private rabbinical court in Jerusalem, released a book citing the scientific research and making the Jewish legal argument that tests of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, could sometimes be used as supplementary evidence to buttress claims of Jewishness, which under Orthodox tradition is transmitted from mother to child.

The book treads carefully in outlining the test’s possible application: It must strictly act as corroboration in cases where other documentation is available, and only as a last resort. Moreover, it stressed, while under certain conditions it could be used to confirm Jewishness, it could never be wielded to call someone’s Jewishness into question.

This was because fewer than half of Ashkenazi Jews (and far less of global Jewry) would carry the markers linking them to these four women (who had been determined as halachically Jewish), and because a conversion to Judaism in a previous generation would also not show up in the DNA.

Last year, Litke founded the Simanim Institute to administer the mitochondrial DNA tests and send it to a genetic lab for results. The private rabbinical judge serves as an expert witness in the state religious courts, accompanying the cases.

“There have been 20 cases in the past year [in Israel] in which the test gave them a positive result and their Judaism was approved [by the authorities],” he said.

Although their book conservatively stated the mtDNA tests should only be used as a last resort to substantiate other evidence, in practice, there have been several “unusual” cases in Israel in which some people have been confirmed Jewish based on the genetic results alone, said Litke.

“The willingness by an official body to adopt genetic testing as proof of Jewishness marks the first step in the creation of a genetically based Judaism and the widespread use of genetic databases. Beyond the fact that the use of genetics to prove Jewishness is distasteful, it constitutes a dramatic deterioration in the way we define the Jewish people. This is a revolution that must be nipped in the bud,” wrote Friedman.

In relying on genetic testing, the Chief Rabbinate is “radically altering traditional Jewish practice” in determining Jewishness, said Rabbi Seth Farber, whose ITIM organization helps Israelis navigate religious bureaucracy in the rabbinate.

He argued the rabbinical judges could resolve these cases through creative interpretations of Jewish law, saying, “The halacha has a dynamism that enables us to help people” prove their Jewishness, and [the rabbinate] need not resort to dubious scientific practices that “would undermine the very character of the Jewish community.”

study recently released by ITIM and the IDI said rabbinical courts were making it increasingly difficult for immigrants to prove their Jewishness, with DNA testing introduced against the backdrop of more stringent standards. Prior to the 1990s, with the influx of immigration from Soviet countries, rabbinical courts did not demand extensive documentation and relied on declarations of Jewishness by immigrants, it noted.

In the years since, the policy has shifted from what might be summed up as “Jewish until proven otherwise” to “non-Jewish until proven Jewish,” with immigrants eyed with increasing suspicion, the study argued.

Proponents of the Jewishness checks within the rabbinical court system say that unlike previous waves of immigration and due to the oppressive Communist regime, most of those from the former Soviet Union did not arrive from established Jewish communities that could attest to their members’ Jewishness, and claim many official documents were later found to be forgeries, thus requiring a more rigorous vetting process.

According to ITIM-IDI research, the proportion of cases that ended with a ruling that the applicant was not Jewish rose from 2.9 percent in 2011 to 6.1 percent in 2016 to 6.7 percent in 2017.

Figures submitted to the High Court of Justice by the rabbinical courts, which declined to comment for this article, said 96%-97% of all Jewishness checks in the past two years have ended with a certificate of Jewishness, with most checks concluded in a month.

On September 23, under the domed ceilings of the High Court of Justice, three justices heard a petition filed by Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party on behalf of some 11 petitioners who protested the use of genetic testing in the rabbinate. Two of the justices — Neal Handel, Noam Sohlberg — are Orthodox Jews, while the third, George Kara, is an Arab Christian. All three identically dug their fingers into their right cheeks as they listened. Liberman did not appear.

The petition sought an injunction banning the rabbinical courts from seeking genetic tests, both for family ties and mitochondrial DNA, citing the system’s lack of internal guidelines on when it uses these tests. It also sought to have the court prohibit the rabbinical courts from reopening investigations of Jewishness for those who have previously been confirmed Jewish, as was the case for most of the petitioners.