Rabbinate DNA tests seek Jewishness in the blood, become a bone of contention
Controversial method began in Moscow, spread to Jerusalem and Sydney, as a private bid to confirm ex-Soviets as Jews. Now it faces a High Court challenge and a thunderous outcry
The two ink-smudged, Soviet-era documents were the only official proofs they had of their Jewishness. The rest was memory and ash.
In 2000, Dinara Haya Isteleou and her mother, Galiya Rozendorf, immigrants to Israel from Kazakhstan, approached a rabbinical court in the central city of Bat Yam. They came under happy circumstances: to obtain a verification of Jewishness as part of a marital license application for Isteleou’s upcoming wedding, which in Israel must be overseen by the state’s Orthodox authorities, the Chief Rabbinate.
They left in tears, their evidence deemed a brazen forgery. A higher rabbinical court confiscated the papers and later fined them NIS 7,000 ($2,000) as a penalty. In protest, Isteleou never paid.
“They summoned my mother, and yelled at her there, ‘How dare you say you’re Jewish. You aren’t Jewish.’ In short, they laughed at her. She left there in tears. It was a… nightmare, disappointment, and we suffered, my mother and I. We didn’t know how we could prove we’re Jewish. We didn’t know whom to turn to,” she said.
In the wake of that devastating hearing, the bride-to-be and her mother, who had immigrated to Israel five years earlier, joined some 400,000 Israelis, primarily from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, whose Jewishness remains officially unrecognized or cast in doubt, a product of the parallel civil and rabbinical legal systems of the country.
The Law of Return grants near-automatic citizenship to immigrants with at least one Jewish grandparent, but the Chief Rabbinate only recognizes them as Jews if they conform to the standards of halacha, or Jewish law. That means they must have a Jewish mother. Since the 1990s, they have been required to furnish evidence to shore up their matrilineal ancestry, or be converted to Judaism under Orthodox authorities approved by the Chief Rabbinate.
For many who arrived in Israel in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union — some from communities decimated by the Holocaust — obtaining such authentication can be an impossibility. But without the stamp of approval from the rabbinate, they cannot legally marry, divorce, or be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel.
Registered as Jewish on official documents, most do not encounter the issue until, like Isteleou, they apply for a marriage license.
For Dinara Isteleou and her mother Galiya Rozendorf, there was little hope of unearthing new leads. Rozendorf’s parents had divorced when she was six months old and her mother had disappeared to begin a new life. Her father remarried a Muslim woman, who burned all the letters and evidence of the woman who came before her — except for a handful of photographs that Rozendorf, as a child, managed to stash away.
But her father told Rozendorf and her older sister they were Jews, and before his death handed over the two clipped official documents ostensibly linking them to their Jewish past.
In the 19 years since the hearing, Rozendorf sent letters from Israel to her mother’s hometown in Russia to find her, or to find possible half-siblings from a second marriage — in vain.
“We were told she doesn’t exist. It’s possible she changed her name, it’s possible she got remarried. But now she’s gone,” said Isteleou, adding that her grandmother, whom they presume dead, would be 89 years old.
They then turned to Shorashim, a tracing service run by the Tzohar organization that works with immigrants and rabbinical courts to locate documents, and whose researchers comb far-flung archives for traces of evidence — marriage and birth certificates, photos, documents of ancestors with Jewish-sounding names, graves.
But when the paper trail ran dry, Shorashim directed them to another, unconventional method quietly taking root among some rabbinical judges — in Israel and as far away as Australia and Russia: A private (non-rabbinate) rabbinical judge who founded a genetics lab would collect a cheek swab, they were told, and send it for testing. Should the results come out in their favor, it could be submitted as forensic evidence in the state rabbinical courts as proof of their Jewishness.
And with that, Isteleou and Rozendorf entered a world of controversy.
The introduction of two kinds of genetic testing in state rabbinical courts over the past few years — one that seeks Ashkenazi Jewish markers through mitochondrial DNA by comparing it to databases, and one to confirm a family tie — flew under the radar at first, but erupted into a massive uproar in March when several cases hit the headlines.
The testing has been pilloried by activists representing immigrants, by scientists, and by politicians as a chilling, pseudoscientific development more suited to eugenics-crazy Nazi Germany than the Jewish state, and that dangerously risks turning Jewishness into a racial, rather than religious or national, identity.
Opponents have warned that the tests are discriminatory in that they are largely demanded by the rabbinate from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and also that they constitute an overreach of the rabbinical courts’ powers amid what the critics charge are deepening suspicions toward the immigrants and increasingly tough standards to prove Jewishness in recent years.
Now the practice faces a High Court of Justice challenge submitted by the Yisrael Beytenu party, which represents Russian-speaking immigrants, that seeks to ban the rabbinical courts from using genetic testing in its examinations of Jewishness. Yisrael Beytenu has also vowed to try and pass Knesset legislation outlawing it.
With no other options, and the costs of the test (NIS 1,000) largely waived, Isteleou and her mother submitted to the DNA test earlier this year. Then they waited.
Three years earlier, in August 2016, a handful of scientists and senior rabbinical judges sat huddled in the Jerusalem headquarters of the Talmudic Encyclopedia.
It was an encounter of ancient Talmudic legal thinking and cutting-edge genetic population studies, with the religious authorities seeking information to break open the longstanding impasse faced by the thousands who cannot prove their Jewish origins to the satisfaction of the rabbinical courts but claim Jewish maternal ancestors. They wondered: When the dusty archives of the former Soviet Union are exhausted, could another long-buried trove, say an untapped genetic log, prove just as valid?
They began to discuss the four matriarchs — no, not the biblical matriarchs. Rather, the four women that a groundbreaking 2006 study contended were the founding maternal ancestors of some 40 percent of contemporary Ashkenazi Jewry, or 3.5 million people, some 1,000 years ago.
The August 2016 scientific presentation was led by Prof. Karl Skorecki, a Canadian-born nephrologist and genetic researcher who in 1997 identified the so-called priestly genetic markers shared by many Kohanim, or Jewish priests, who trace their ancestry to the biblical Aaron.
“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.
The rulings — cautiously praised by Israel’s chief Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis in the book’s opening pages — weren’t merely academic. In Moscow, Barenbaum had already begun applying them in his own rabbinical court at full throttle. “There were many dozens, if not hundreds of cases, where the information helped resolve doubts and prove Jewishness,” he wrote in an email to The Times of Israel, referring to both mitochondrial tests linking subjects to the four founders and tests pointing to a DNA link to Jewish relatives on their mother’s side.
He and Litke then began lobbying rabbinical judges in Israel and Europe, and, from 2017, presenting their position at the Chief Rabbinate’s annual conference of rabbinical judges and at a similar gathering in Amsterdam for European rabbinical judges. The process is slow-moving, conceded Litke, who noted that Israeli rabbinical judges have broad judicial discretion on whether to accept the halachic opinions and therefore must be persuaded individually.
Their motivations, the private rabbinical judges behind the drive maintained, were humanitarian: to ease the process for immigrants, many of whom are blindsided by the abrupt undermining of their Jewish status, often shortly before tying the knot.
“A person stands before his wedding and seeks to get married in accordance with Jewish tradition. The proofs he has are meager. The rabbinical judge could tell him: ‘I’m sorry, according to this meager evidence, I cannot change your status and thus close the case.’ But the rabbinical judge is often a human being, sensitive, and wants to help, so why should he not tell him, maybe try the option of DNA?” said Litke.
Did the ruling mark a revolutionary precedent in Jewish law? Litke and Barenbaum are split, with the former agreeing it was a significant shift.
“In my opinion, this is not a dramatic change,” countered Barenbaum. “Much as in the past new tools were used to resolve old problems, much as DNA tests are relied upon [in rabbinical courts] to identify bodies of deceased for the purposes of freeing a woman [from her marriage and allowing her to remarry], and this was not done 100 years ago; much as 100 years ago, they started relying on fingerprinting, which was not done 200 years ago; much as today, there are labs to examine shaatnez [mixtures of linen and wool that are forbidden under Jewish law] and there is the Dor Yesharim organization checking the genetic compatibility of a groom and bride, and countless other examples. Halacha always utilizes new tools if they can supply effective solutions.”
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.
“It’s unusual. It’s all unusual. Here in Israel it’s all new, it’s slow-moving. But I’ve already had cases that were approved just based on this,” he said.
The mtDNA test results are examined on a case-by-case basis and can frequently prove inconclusive or difficult to parse. What Litke looks for is a statistical majority of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, as compared to genetic databases.
Whereas Jewish law reasons that a person who comes from a city whose majority population is not Jewish is presumed not Jewish until proven otherwise, “After this test, I am arguing that today, the majority [population] of the city is not relevant… because after I conduct the test I see that the majority [DNA] does not belong to the city, so what does it matter what city he’s from? What matters is his genetic family. If I see that the vast majority of their genetic line is Jewish, then I can determine that he is Jewish.”
“We’ll never be able to help everyone [with this method],” Litke stressed, but I hope that if we invest in the research, we’ll be able to expand the percentage of those we can help.”
He also has a grander vision of where the genetic testing for Jewishness could lead. In the future, Litke maintained that with additional research and expanded global databases, Jews whose ancestors were exiled, forcibly converted after the Spanish Inquisition and otherwise made to neglect their Jewish identity, could trace their Jewish roots with certainty. “The moment there will be more studies… on a broader scale, I am certain we will find hundreds of thousands of kosher Jews,” he said.
In 2017, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, head of the Jerusalem-based Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, which trains rabbinical judges, penned a legal opinion on the case of a Munich-based daughter of Holocaust survivors saying that Jewishness can be confirmed by these Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA markers, and implored the Chief Rabbinate to adopt the method.
“We have a golden opportunity here to link Torah and science, well-founded science — not the science of the 19th century, the science of the 21st century — and it can only help people, it doesn’t hurt anyone,” Carmel, who was in contact with Litke and Barenbaum and consulted with numerous geneticists on the issue, explained to The Times of Israel.
“It can’t hurt, because those that come up negative, it can’t be used against them, it is forbidden to use it against them. It says nothing negative about them. They could well be kosher l’mehadrin [ultra-kosher] Jews. We just don’t have proof,” added Carmel.
Stressing that the tests could not be coerced, Carmel added: “We know the solution of conversion [to Judaism] hasn’t worked. Very few have undergone conversion and we’re talking about a problem affecting hundreds of thousands. This can spare a lot of people misery and resolve [the issue]… for many people who are Jewish but don’t have proof.”
Also present during the 2016 meeting in Jerusalem were Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, a retired member of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court, and Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, a senior rabbinical judge from the Sydney beit din, who in the years since has utilized the method to establish Jewishness in several dozen cases. Lamenting the “politicization” of the issue in Israel, Ulman said he was approached largely by people from overseas, most of them not of former Soviet extraction, who sought to prove their Jewishness but had no means to do so.
“It’s completely misrepresented in how it’s being used and for what purposes it’s being used. It’s being used only to assist people that are asking for it because they cannot find proof,” he said, emphasizing that the evidence was carefully appraised on a case-by-case basis.
“Many times, it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work, we don’t pronounce anyone non-Jewish,” he added.
The use of the method is a “beautiful example” of how scientific research can aid Jewish legal quandaries, he added.
“Whenever new things come up in science that may assist halacha — it doesn’t change halacha but it can assist halacha — to be able to find new avenues and new angles, it should be not pushed away, it should be definitely explored, how it can be used, if it can help people.”
Israeli experts, however, have railed against what they describe as the unholy matrimony of genetic tests and national and religious identity, with some warning it was liable to snowball and in the future be used to disqualify Jews as Jewish over the quality of their bloodline.
“Religion is a sociocultural construct, not a biological or genetic trait. Historically, only the worst enemies of the Jewish people attempted a genetic classification of Jews, half-Jews etc.” said Prof. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, who heads the Fuld Department of Medical Genetics at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
“The current state of affairs is simply a reflection of failure of the rabbinical authorities to address the needs of individuals who see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people. This has led scientists to offer genetic ‘solutions.’ I have no doubt that the scientists who are offering to use genetic information are doing so out of good will and with a positive intent to assist people, but in doing so, I believe they are undermining an important essence of Judaism,” she said in an email.
“It is clear that there will also be opportunities for misuse of this information, and it is easy to foresee lists of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ Jews based on their genetic makeup, but irrespective of this ‘slippery slope’ the main issue, in my opinion, is the conversion of a social construct into a biological-genetic one. Social problems should be solved using social and cultural tools,” she added.
Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, argued in an op-ed that the change must be “nipped in the bud.”
“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.”
A 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. Some 3,868 were sent to a Jewishness examination in 2017, and 3,451 in 2018.
The private rabbinical judges have countered the claims of a slippery slope by underlining that it cannot be used to cast doubt on someone’s Jewishness.
For Jews with a tradition of their lineage and a legal confirmation, “no amount of DNA” will ever undermine that, added Ulman of the Sydney beit din.
Litke said the claim that the DNA tests would lead to disqualification was “untrue scientifically, untrue halachically, and not fair,” stressing that many Jews won’t have the marker, and highlighting that Jewish history was peppered with converts to the faith, including, according to lore, ancestors of the prominent sages Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir.
“I checked myself and I currently can’t prove my Jewishness genetically and I don’t feel that I’m any less Jewish,” added Litke.
“I don’t see any concern about this, so long as the rabbinical judges are reasonable, since in any case we must consider all the information that is possible to obtain,” wrote Barenbaum. “If other proofs will be sufficient, there is no need for genetic tests. Only if there is a reasonable concern of nochriut [non-Jewishness] for various reasons, then a genetic test can help resolve it.”
“To the contrary,” he added, “digging your head in the sand and ignoring information seems to me quite absurd.”
The wedding hall was booked in June 2018 when Oleg, 32, approached the rabbinical court in the southern city of Ashdod to open a marriage file. “I went there with photographs, documents, everything I have that proves that I’m Jewish, the whole family is Jewish dating a few generations back,” he said.
It wasn’t enough.
During the proceedings, which dragged on for several weeks, Oleg was told to establish a genetic link between his grandmother — who suffers from Alzheimer’s — and his deceased great-grandmother, who gave birth at the end of the Holocaust, as she returned to her hometown in the former Soviet Union from the Uzbekistan border where she fled during the war.
“They raised the suspicion, ‘how can it be that your great-grandmother, while she was pregnant, went from point A to point B and there gave birth to your grandmother,'” he said.
Many refugees traversed incredible distances at the time, countered Oleg, a Yavne resident who spent a decade in the Israel Defense Forces.
The Jewishness examiner told him they suspected his grandmother was adopted and ordered him to provide additional documented proof or confirm their relationship through a DNA test.
“So I explain to them, my great-grandmother is no longer alive. All of my great-grandmother’s relatives perished in the Holocaust. I have no one I can locate, no one I can do a test on. It’s not that I don’t want to — I don’t have the option of doing it,” he said.
When he returned empty-handed, the rabbinical court placed him on a blacklist barring him from getting married, citing their fears that his grandmother was adopted and not biologically Jewish.
“They didn’t only add me [to the list], but rather my whole family: My mother, my aunt, her children, they were all added automatically to the list, even though they didn’t even approach the rabbinate and didn’t request anything.”
Frustrated, Oleg and his fiancée traveled to Georgia, where they got married in a civil marriage. (Israel recognizes civil unions performed abroad.)
In July, with the help of ITIM, the Supreme Rabbinical Court overturned the case and confirmed his Jewishness on the basis of the documents. In the decision, they expressed consternation over the Ashdod judges’ order for DNA testing, he said.
Oleg’s case is representative of the second form of genetic tests rabbinate judges have recently been known to instruct: Confirming ties with Jewish family members.
ITIM’s Farber said the DNA tests were sought on an “isolated basis” over the past two years and did not yet represent a broader rabbinate policy. Most of the cases that came to his attention were people told to take the test to establish a link with a relative who was confirmed Jewish, with rabbinical judges unsatisfied with their evidence or raising spurious suspicions of adoption, he said.
While rabbinical authorities have said no one is forced to take the test, advocates maintain that by threatening to withhold the ability to get married (or in at least one case, divorced), the recommendation is tantamount to an order.
“Only in the minority of cases (17 in the last five years) does the Bet-Din issue a formal order to conduct a DNA test. In most cases, the Bet-Din ‘recommends’ the test, but makes clear that without proof of Jewish DNA the family will be blacklisted in a database of persons who have doubt about their genealogy and are forbidden to marry in Israel. Three hundred and sixteen people were put on this list in 2018,” Farber told The Times of Israel.
“The main point is that they say ‘we don’t force anyone…’ But the facts are that when they say ‘we recommend that you take a test and without that we can’t certify you to get married,’ they are essentially forcing it.”
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.
The State of Israel defended the practice.
On behalf of the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts, state attorneys, in a statement to the court, cited a 2000 law on genetic testing that grants that authority to both civil family courts and its parallel religious authorities, with consent.
The state maintained there were only 17 cases since 2013 in which genetic testing was utilized to establish a family link, according to the rabbinical courts’ records of requests to the supreme rabbinical court to authorize the tests. The DNA tests were performed with the written permission of those undergoing the tests and only after the documentation was deemed insufficient, the state said. It said the tests were only raised after all other options were exhausted, were not forced, and were not discriminatory toward ex-Soviets since they were applied equally to all those who failed to provide proofs. The state attorneys’ statement addressed only DNA testing to confirm ties to family members.
Hendel, quizzing the petitioners’ lawyer, warned they had better clarify their claim, citing the 2000 law. He also criticized the petition, saying none of the cases brought before the court was sufficient to match its legal request.
“I recognize there is a danger that it will be used excessively,” he noted of the genetic tests, before later adding, “We don’t have an appropriate case here, that’s what is frustrating.”
But he also acknowledged that the method, as presented by the religious authorities, successfully eased the process for some. He pressed the rabbinate legal representatives to establish across-the-board guidelines on the use of genetic testing in Jewishness checks, including what weight the evidence is given, and what happens to those who refuse.
“I have a problem with it being Torah sheba’al pe [oral Torah] and not written Torah,” he quipped dryly, implying the rabbinate must regulate its use of DNA testing in written guidelines, much as Jewish sages codified oral jewish legal traditions into the Mishna and Talmud some two millennia ago.
A ruling in the case has yet to be handed down.
But should the court order rabbinate-drafted guidelines for the practice, it may have the very attendant consequence feared by its critics: turning a private initiative adopted by a handful of rabbinical judges into official Chief Rabbinate policy.
Israel’s grappling with questions raised by genetic testing, ancestry, and identity did not emerge in a vacuum. The issue comes as the popularity of recreational over-the-counter DNA tests like 23andMe, AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA has exploded abroad; some 26 million people have submitted cheek swabs or saliva samples to databases for answers on their genealogy. The home kit tests — which remain illegal in Israel — have also been used to track down serial killers through relatives curious about their family trees, exposed family secrets and unknown siblings, and left users reeling over the prospects of contracting various diseases, raising a host of ethical and privacy questions.
While the Jewishness genetic tests have been the focus of fury in Israel, some have suggested that they are obscuring the larger question: The connection between Israel’s religious authorities and the right to marry.
“Genetic testing for genealogy purposes is happening all over the world and on a massive scale, and is solidly supported by scientific research,” said Dr. Shai Carmi, a geneticist and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I think it’s legitimate for every person to undergo a genetic test to learn about his or her family history,” he said. “In the context of Jewishness checks, the real reason it is so controversial is, in my opinion, not the genetic test itself but the fact that it is being used, or liable to be used, as a condition for basic civil rights, and this in my view should be the focus of the discussion.”
Skorecki also opposed forcing a test, but maintained individuals should have the right to inquire about their family tree.
“One has to be socially responsible, of course, but I do believe that people have a right to know about themselves. I’m against someone — government agency, company, employer, whatever — imposing on others some kind of test,” he said.
Behar, who as a doctorate student was behind the paper on the founder effect of Ashkenazi Jewish women, runs a Tirat HaCarmel-based genetic health data startup, iGentify, He is a founder and chief scientific officer of Gene by Gene, whose FamilyTreeDNA tests are among the most widely used — and which touts world’s largest mtDNA database. He has declined to consult with the rabbinical judges, but defended the scientific conclusions in the now 13-year-old paper.
Carmi, too, dismissed recent studies that mitochondrial DNA could be transmitted from the paternal line. But Sklorecki wasn’t quite so sure.
“The science is pretty solid as it’s presented,” said Skorecki, “but there’s a very interesting publication… showing that there might be — it requires validation still and a lot of people are working on it — that once in a while, paternal DNA, mitochondrial DNA, can enter.”
If proven, it is likely so rare “so as not to impinge on our scientific results,” he added. It likely won’t undermine the rabbinical conclusions which rely on the majority. But that could change, someday, he acknowledged.
“When I wear a scientific hat, I just look at the evidence and deal with it and wherever it leads and be prepared always for correction of previous scientific conclusion.
“The thing about science is that is it not etched in stone… things are dynamic in science. So everything we found could be refuted by some smarter scientist in the future and that’s fine, that’s how it should be. It’s not a religion.”
And then there are Litke’s triumphs, cases such as Veronika Zacharova.
Eight years ago, Zacharova, pregnant with her first child, went to the rabbinate in Tel Aviv to open a marriage file ahead of her wedding.
“Obviously I was sure everything was fine, since everywhere I checked, I was registered as Jewish,” she said.
But Zacharova and her brother, who moved to Israel alone in 1998, didn’t have any original documents, only photocopies.
The legal process was drawn out — and included “painful” remarks by the authorities on her unborn child, she said — until they ultimately disqualified them as Jews.
“They didn’t really want to hear, they assumed that because we don’t have original documents, there’s nothing we can do. They didn’t refer me to other sources for help or tell me to convert,” she said.
After connecting to Shorashim, to little avail at the time, “I sort of gave up,” she said.
In 2016, she traveled to Russia after internet searches reconnected her with her lost relatives, including an older brother, she said. At that time, she obtained her original birth certificates. But that, too, didn’t prove enough and she was referred to Litke’s lab for a DNA test, with a donor covering the costs.
Eight years on, a rabbinical court confirmed what the 31-year-old mother-of-two knew all along: She was a Jew.
She and her partner plan to finally get married in May, she said.
Dinara Haya Isteleou, 42, did not end up getting married.
At the time that the rabbinate refused to accept her Jewishness in 2000, she and her intended held a party in a hall, but without a ceremony. They later separated. Now a single mother, she lives in Holon with her mother, Rozendorf, and her daughter.
“When we got the results back from the DNA, my mother started crying: ‘My whole life has passed, and now I need proof, now, when I’m, pardon me, ‘with one foot in the grave…? And only now there’s proof that I’m Jewish?!'”
Isteleou insisted they press on with the bureaucracy, for her own young daughter’s sake. “I’m thinking about her future. If not you, if not I, if we didn’t manage to build our lives, to get married, at least the girl will have a good future,” she told her mother.
The test came back positive for both Isteleou and Rozendorf, and though their case remains pending, Litke is confident they will shortly be confirmed Jewish, a quarter-century after moving to Israel.
“Liberman — we heard him on the radio — [speaking] against these DNA tests,” said Isteleou. “On some level, he’s right, but in my situation, it’s good that there is this test… But if there are families with a lot of proof, documents, then obviously, for those, they don’t need a DNA [test],” she said.
They had no documents to speak of that would be accepted by the authorities. But the evidence was there all along. They are three generations of Jewish women, all bearers of their mothers’ genetic code, finally set to be linked to the past in the eyes of the Jewish state, to the woman who vanished six decades ago in the former Soviet Union…and back, and back, and back.
Marissa Newman, October 7, 2019