Scientific Semitism: Exceptional or Exemplary?

For at least 1,500 years, the Jewish people have defined themselves through genealogical practices: according to Jewish law, a person is Jewish simply because he or she is born of a Jewish mother. If ...

For at least 1,500 years, the Jewish people have defined themselves through genealogical practices: according to Jewish law, a person is Jewish simply because he or she is born of a Jewish mother. If there is one belief that defines Judaism and the Jewish people, it is belief in the existence of Jewish collectivity, genealogically defined. It is difficult, then, to disentangle this central tautology from the circular logic at work in scientific attempts to prove the reality of Jewish relatedness: both the scientific and the religious practices seek to affirm the Jewish collectivity beyond any doubt. In her new book, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology, Nadia Abu El-Haj examines recent attempts to establish Jewish genealogy through what she calls “genetic history” research, part of an “increasingly pervasive and powerful field of scientific research and social practice” that—through the authority of science—seeks to establish facts beyond the politically tinged debates of religion, culture, or history.

Abu El-Haj opens with a story about another book, The Invention of the Jewish People (2009), by the Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand. In Abu El-Haj’s retelling, one of Sand’s most notorious claims was that “there is no evidence that a collectivity called ‘The Jewish People’ was exiled from ancient Palestine or that descendants of that collectivity lived for generations in the diaspora and then returned to the Land of Israel and founded the modern Jewish state.” Though widely accepted in contemporary archaeological and biblical studies (albeit in a milder form, perhaps), such claims rankled many of Sand’s readers, some of whom countered by pointing to (apparently) accumulating genetic evidence to “prove” that the Jewish people “really” do exist, biologically, historically, and continuously—as if such evidence could override the doubts and debates of other fields. And yet, these doubts and debates do not disappear when they are addressed by science. As Abu El-Haj demonstrates in both the new book and in her first book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, researchers in archaeology and the emergent field of genetic history are caught up in “a circular logic of discovery, evidence, and proof” that ultimately redefines what is regarded as scientific, historical, political, and religious.

In a book about individuals’ perceived and imagined descent, it is thus curious that abu el-haj does not address the fact that she is known, or at least perceived, as a person of Palestinian lineage and how this might shape her own approach to the materials at hand.

Despite the resonance between the work of Sand and of Abu El-Haj, the political overtones of their work are quite distinct: where Sand’s explicit purpose is to reveal the unholy alliances between Israeli national politics, archaeology, and biblical studies, Abu El-Haj’s approach is far more nuanced and cautious. Part of this distinction is due to the very different situations of the two authors: as a Jewish Israeli citizen, Sand confidently speaks as an insider, a researcher commenting on “his own people,” even as he questions the historical reality of that people. Sand proclaims that he wrote the book “First, as an Israeli, to democratize the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism.”1 Even if Abu El-Haj has the very same political goals as Sand, she does not have the defense of self-critique. In a 2008 New Yorker article about Abu El-Haj’s tenure process at Barnard, the author commented that she was certainly not the first to call attention to the politics of archeology in Israel; “But she was arguably the first with a name like Abu El-Haj.”2 In a book about individuals’ perceived and imagined descent, it is thus curious that she does not address the fact that she is known, or at least perceived, as a person of Palestinian lineage and how this might shape her own approach to the materials at hand. Clearly she has plenty of good reasons to avoid such matters; and yet, her work itself demonstrates the impossibility of avoiding politics.

Throughout the new book, Abu El-Haj analyzes the ways in which her subjects try to evade the political implications of their work, such that the effect is mesmerizingly “non-political,” or “pre-political,” even as the research could be “activated” in certain political contexts. While Abu El-Haj holds her cards close to her chest, it is not clear whether she has the power to not play them (or have them played for her). And this is the heart of the problem: both Sand and Abu El-Haj implicitly suggest that there is no absolute truth to the distinctions between who is “in” and who is “out”—neither science nor God nor history can ever put an end to the questions that (inadequately) define the borders. And yet, we do have working definitions: we have passports and names and perceptions and affiliations, and these have real effects in the world, regardless of whether we take such definitions to be constructed, subjective, objective, divine, biological, mythological, historical, or cultural.

Throughout her larger historical narrative, Abu El-Haj pursues the theme of circular reasoning, first in European, American, and Zionist race science at the turn of the twentieth century; then in mid-twentieth-century Israeli population genetics research that aimed to provide scientific evidence for the “fact” of Jewish peoplehood; and finally in contemporary genetic history projects, particularly those that seek to prove the Jewishness of far-flung non-white groups and to integrate them into “mainstream” Judaism in Israel. In the first chapter, Abu El-Haj discusses recent projects that attempt to demonstrate the continuity of the Jewish priestly caste, whose members have passed on their status from one generation to the next via patrilineage. By examining portions of the Y-chromosome prevalent in today’s Jewish populations (that is, populations accepted as Jewish by “mainstream” rabbis), researchers such as Karl Skorecki and Michael Hammer contend that they can demonstrate “the historical relatedness of contemporary Jewish communities, the veracity of the history of the Jewish people as a history of diaspora born out of exile from ancient Palestine, and the claims of ‘potential’ Jews, groups of Jews who believe they are descendants of ancient Israel.” Based on samples from just 188 Israeli, British, and North American Jewish men who self-identified as Cohanim, Skorecki and Hammer found an “observable” difference between the chromosomes of these individuals and those from their lay-counterparts. Beginning with self-identified Cohanim may seem a reasonable starting point to prove relatedness, but there is no way to prove that any one of the 188 original samples is truly the offspring of ancient Cohanim. The “fact” of their descent is a collective act of faith. Such acts of faith constitute the foundational data upon which much Jewish genetic research is built, distinguishing it from research on other racial/ethnic groups who may be defined by self-identification, but also by physiology, geography, and government records.

Abu El-Haj focuses on how such research differs from early twentieth-century race science, both in the kinds of information it seeks and in the categories it constructs and sustains. By contrast, other critics tend to argue that recent research generally replicates patterns of racialization and biologization that race science set in motion.3 According to Abu El-Haj, since the mid-twentieth century, researchers engaged in various genetic history projects have attempted to distance themselves from race science and, more broadly, to avoid politics altogether. This was done in part by focusing on supposedly “non-coding” portions of the genome and on descent (as opposed to behavior or other observable qualities that could be used to judge one group against another). Since the 1950s, researchers have looked for internal “observable differences” in the genome itself—the regions that are apparently meaningless in terms of the individual yet full of meaning in terms of identifying (or confirming) the relatedness of particular populations. By contrast, race science focused on categorizing human groups in terms of observable qualities—geographic, phenotypic, linguistic, and behavioral. Researchers of Jewish genetic history have sought to overcome such differences by proving the genetic unity of a diasporic people made up of populations across radically different linguistic, geographic, phenotypic, and behavioral characteristics.

Within the humanities and social sciences it has become de rigeur for scholars to acknowledge their positions and the impossibility of absolute critical distance.

Contemporary genetic history projects are also distinct from the race science of old because both researchers and their subjects largely self-identify as members of the communities being studied. For researchers, self-identification “allows one to produce knowledge about the biological difference of, in this instance, the Jews and yet maintain one’s distance from the specter and dangers of race science. In our multicultural age studying ‘the self’ is increasingly providing an alibi for studies of group-based human genetic diversity in the biological sciences, helping to fashion such studies as politically safe, at times even as politically valuable, and often it seems as simply ‘fun.’” In many scientific and legal contexts, such declarations of “personal attachments” might detract from the perception of “expert detachment.” Within the humanities and social sciences, however, it has become de rigeur for scholars to acknowledge their positions and the impossibility of absolute critical distance. And yet, even with such open admissions, the complicated relationship between one’s personal “attachments” and one’s scholarship is often overlooked: given that there is no absolute critical stance—no God’s eye view—there is no way to know how one’s position may or may not affect one’s scholarship or politics. Knowing that certain researchers regard themselves as Jewish, for example, does not tell us anything about why they believe themselves to be Jewish, or what this means to them, or how they regard the political situation in the Middle East. The only thing we know from such declarations is that they see their Jewishness as a matter of fact, even as their research is deeply engaged in “proving” such attachments as facts.

As in Facts on the Ground, here Abu El-Haj highlights the difficulties when researchers attempt to scientifically validate truths established and sustained in non-scientific realms. Without judging the science, she demonstrates that “these genetic historical investigations of Jewish origins and unity can never live up to their positivist commitment. Despite experimental designs, the original hypothesis that there is a ‘population’—a race, a people—of ‘Jews’ that traces its roots to ancient Palestine can never be undermined. For contemporary Jewish communities, the truth of Jewish unity and identity lies elsewhere. It resides in biblical texts and in religious beliefs and practices. It resides in cultural and political commitments.” Abu El-Haj’s reluctance to go along with the truth-claims of her researchers is drawn from within a critique of the science itself; however, the notion of Jewish collectivity is hardly a mere hypothesis for Jews—that is, for people who regard their Jewishness as a matter of fact.

the question of how to define the Jews—as a religion, ethnicity, race, or nation—has been an open one for as long as these terms have been in circulation.

The existence of a Jewish collectivity is perhaps the singular truth with which Jews of all stripes can generally agree. In short, Jews do not generally agree on the existence or definition of God, but (as Jews) they agree that the Jews exist as a people: the belief in the Jewish collectivity is close to the heart of what we might call a “religion” of Judaism in the same sense that a belief in Jesus Christ is at the heart of most forms of Christianity.4 Thus, while researchers’ and their subjects’ self-identification may seem politically and religiously neutral, self-identification itself functions as a belief structured by the Jewish religion.

However, the question of how to define the Jews—as a religion, ethnicity, race, or nation—has been an open one for as long as these terms have been in circulation. As Abu El-Haj demonstrates in both The Genealogical Science and Facts on the Ground, the question was especially pressing for early European Zionists and for the newly formed state of Israel as soon as it was founded in 1948. Before political Zionism emerged in the late nineteenth century,5 there was no need to appeal to the modern epistemological frameworks of history, evidence, and science; the notion that all Jews descended from exiled ancient Israelites could remain in a speculative realm alongside the belief in divine election.6 The possibility of realizing the dream of returning to the Land of Israel gave researchers a new purpose: to prove to the world (and to themselves) that Jewish unity was real in biological and historical terms. According to Abu El-Haj, by the 1950s, Israeli population geneticists had moved beyond the question of whether the Jews are a biological collective; the question now “was merely a matter of details: Which biological markers distinguished Jewish from non-Jewish populations? Which Jewish communities were outliers in the Jewish genetic map?”

While Abu El-Haj generally situates Jewish genetic history research in terms of the broader issue of identity politics, she provides ample material for further discussion about the exceptionality of the Jewish case in general and about the relationships between religion and truth. Both of these matters emerge in the most compelling section of her book, where she discusses how genetic history research has been utilized by Kulanu, a US-based Jewish organization whose mission is to unify all Jews worldwide. Abu El-Haj shows that even for those who find this research useful, there is an intense ambivalence about the possibility that such research could be used to adjudicate matters of belonging. Instead, the research provides the grounds for “reasonable debate” about whether groups such as the Lemba (of South Africa) or the Bnei Menashe (of the northeastern border states in India) are true descendents of the Ancient Israelites alongside the “known” Jewish populations. In recent years, Kulanu has mobilized such research in its attempts to convince worldwide Jewry to embrace—or at least to recognize—non-white Jewish communities whose Jewish status has been doubted by various authorities.7

For the larger part of history, the status of such non-white Jewish groups would not have been an issue. Without a worldwide Jewish structure of authority, there was no “head” rabbinate who would pronounce on such matters of belonging. Only with the Israeli state and its law delineating a right of “return” for all Jews does “recognition” matter; rabbinical adjudication now offers possibilities of citizenship and economic opportunity. The realities of statehood change the stakes of belonging. Such cultural work requires both money and resources and Kulanu marshals genetic history research to convince international political bodies, funding agencies, and national governments that they must engage in questions around Jewish inclusion. Kulanu’s goals are more ambitious than simply counting and cataloguing “would-be” Jews: they are also intensely interested in bringing them back, “re”-educating them in the ways of the Jewish people. Kulanu also helps these groups to assimilate into worldwide Jewry: the groups must learn to shed their cultural and religious practices (which often include elements of Islam and Christianity) and to take on normative contemporary Jewish practices. For Abu El-Haj, there is a troubling split at the heart of Kulanu’s project. In her words, Kulanu is “a multicultural project configured through the lens of an identity politics that grounds itself in a genealogical self.”

The consequences of Kulanu’s missionary project are not without problems: in order to achieve their goals of repatriation of non-white Jews, Kulanu has had to make peace with settling “returning” Jews in the Occupied Territories (where it is much cheaper to settle than within the established borders of State of Israel). Thus, even as they seek to right past racist and colonialist wrongs (the forced Christian conversion of the Bnei Menashe, for example), they come face to face with such wrongs from the other side. Instead of forced conversion, the genealogical definition of community results in (equally problematic) exclusion, violence, and non-recognition of Palestinian residents.

Whether religious universalism, Enlightenment philosophy, or other “secular humanist” movements, there are always prerequisites for assimilating into the apparently universal community.

In other words, Kulanu’s “self-declared anti-racist, multicultural, and humanist political stance” is anything but universally humanistic: they are not necessarily interested in unifying all humans, but rather in “helping one’s own at the direct expense of those not within one’s expanding—and no longer exclusively ‘white’—Jewish world.” Abu El-Haj teases out the bizarre alliances and inconsistences of Kulanu’s project. And yet, such inconsistencies are hardly unique to Kulanu’s mission. Similar limitations beset all universalisms. Consider Pauline Christianity: where Christ’s message had been limited to the Jews, the apostle opened it up to the Gentiles, to any and everyone who chose to join the brotherhood of Christ. The only problem was that there were—and continue to be—people who “choose” not to join this brotherhood or to accept its basic tenets.8 Whether religious universalism, Enlightenment philosophy, or other “secular humanist” movements, there are always prerequisites for assimilating into the apparently universal community. And there are always exceptions, people who differentiate themselves, whether sartorially, ritually, philosophically, or otherwise.

Abu El-Haj convincingly shows that the epistemological questions raised by recent genetic history research are markedly different from those of an earlier era, when concepts of “race” and genealogy overlapped far more with racist political projects. But what might happen if the terms of comparisons shifted? Rather than seeing Jewish genetic history research as exemplary of other identitarian projects, what if we were to look at the genealogical definition of Jewishness as exceptional throughout history? And what if we were to consider the era of race science as equally exceptional in the broad historical outline of how humans have understood differences between populations?9 Instead of focusing on the ways in which early twentieth-century race science was used both to prop up and to fight against racisms, we might begin to see the ways in which Jewish definitions shaped twentieth- and twenty-first-century understandings of human difference, by placing the emphasis on genealogy over and above physiology, rituals, or language.

Throughout, The Geneological Science raises the question of the uniqueness of the Jewish case. As Abu El-Haj argues in her introduction, “genetic historical studies of Jewish origins are an especially productive angle through which to ask broad questions about the new phylogenetic turn”; in addition, “‘the Jewish population’ has long been considered an ideal epistemic object” in the context of research in genetic etiologies of particular illnesses as well as biological diversity. Unlike other communities who were also objects of racial scientific study at the turn of the twentieth century, Jewish scholars have been in a position “intellectually, politically, and economically—to study themselves in a far more sustained manner than were Europe’s other racial Others.” What Abu El-Haj avoids are the questions that would be raised by the longer history of Jewish genealogical self-definition. Jews have been drawn to such projects more extensively than other communities not only because of economic and political circumstances, but also because of 1,500-plus years of religious and cultural practice.

For many other ethnic, national, and religious groups, genealogy (whether matri- or patrilineal) has not been the central defining factor in determining their own identities and the identities of others (who’s in and who’s out). In recent years, however, we have seen an easy integration of identity politics and genetic history research amongst numerous groups other than the Jews. In the recently published book, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History, for example, the editors bring together essays on a wide range of contexts, raising a number of questions similar to those of Abu El-Haj, but the collection almost entirely avoids the question of Jewish genetics research. At first, I found this surprising and confounding: Is it because the politics of Jewish research aligns with a colonialist regime and as such is difficult to assimilate with the subaltern politics of disenfranchised minority groups? Or is it because Jewish genetic history research exceptionally draws upon a much longer history of genealogically defining the collectivity? I am not arguing that the Jews have a special lease on this genealogical definition, but for nearly two millennia, the definition has so crucially—and often disastrously—defined the split between Jews and non-Jews that it behooves us to consider the particularity of these forms of identification, both of one’s own community and of those who stand outside it. icon

  1. Rafael Behr, “Shlomo Sand: An Enemy of the Jewish People?,” The Observer, January 16, 2010,
  2. Jane Kramer, “The Petition: Israel, Palestine, and a Tenure Battle at Barnard,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2008, pp. 50–59.
  3. See Jenny Reardon, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Katherine Lee, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012).
  4. Future research might shed light on these similarities by comparing the scientific research on Jewish origins to scientific research that attempts to prove the existence of God.
  5. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish researchers began to acknowledge the (phenotypic, linguistic, cultural) diversity of the Jewish people and used such evidence to counter anti-Semitic claims that the Jews were a purely degenerate race. Just as often, however, Jewish diversity was used to demonstrate that the Jewish people were a degenerate motley crew as opposed to the pure Aryan race. See Mitchell Bryan Hart, Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000) and John M. Efron, Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
  6. To identify as Jewish meant that you identified with descent from the ancient Israelites. One of the odd implications of political Zionism and contemporary genetic research is that it is now crucial to distinguish between a general religious/cultural identification with the ancient Israelites, for example, each year at Passover, and a belief in the actual—historical, biological—descent from these people. The search for greater evidence forces us to more clearly divide our own internal epistemologies … As a parent of a young child, I am perplexed about how to go about teaching the Passover story—can we tell our children that “we were slaves in Egypt” and simultaneously teach them to critically distance themselves from such stories—to regard such stories as myths, utterly distinct from scientific realities and political platforms?
  7. In his forthcoming work, John Jackson explores these questions in the context of one particular non-white group claiming ancient Israelite descent. See Jackson’s 45 Seconds from Forever: Ethnography, Immortality, and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).
  8. I put “choose” in italics, because even as I sympathize with Abu El-Haj’s description of Jewish genealogical practices as a matter of choice (the choice to identify oneself as Jewish and to pass this definition to one’s children), I am uncomfortable with the way in which this language seems to put the onus entirely on the individual. Religious truths, I think, confront their believers with realities that seem at once beyond debate and beyond individual choice—the call comes from beyond one’s self, from the outside, whether this “outside” is a matter of God’s voice or of genealogy (see Eliza Slavet, “A Matter of Distinction: On Recent Work by Jan Assmann,” AJS Review 34 (2010): 385–93). To reduce these realities to the issue of identity politics, where one can choose how to present oneself to others, is to push aside much larger (and perhaps insoluble) questions that are central to understanding the distinctions between religious and scientific epistemologies.
  9. I am aware that in asking these questions, my own arguments in Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009) may lose some teeth. In examining the Jewish case of genealogical and racial self-identification, I go back and forth between wanting to argue for the exemplary status of the Jewish case (on the one hand) and the exceptional status (on the other hand). If it is exemplary (as I suggested in Racial Fever), we would look at the ways in which all (or many) groups experience race as a matter of inherited memory; if it is exceptional, we would more deeply explore Jewish identity politics—including Israeli politics—as opposed to other understandings of group identity, such as those of Christian and Islamic groups, as well as various nations and tribes around the world. Rather than pretending that the case of Jewish identity and of Israeli citizenship policies are “just like any other group’s,” it behooves us to more extensively consider the exceptionality of Jewish definition.