‘It’s not about race’: Israel’s Rabbinical courts under fire for using DNA to prove ‘Jewishness’

‘It’s not about race’: Israel’s Rabbinical courts under fire for using DNA to prove ‘Jewishness’
Advocacy groups in Israel have criticized the increasing use of DNA tests to determine the ‘Jewishness’ of citizens, saying the practice disproportionately targets immigrants particularly those from the former Soviet Union.

In order for couples to be officially recognized as married in the state of Israel, they must go through the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate’s office. From there, couples can be referred to the rabbinical courts if insufficient documentation or certification exists proving the mother of the bride or groom was married through the Rabbinate.

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“It is really terrifying thinking where this could lead,” Elad Caplan, the director of the advocacy center at ITIM, told Haaretz.

“Judaism is about belonging and community – it’s not about race and blood, as our worst enemies have claimed,” Caplan continued, explaining that, under Jewish religious law, or halakha, a Jew is defined as the child of a Jewish mother.

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Over the past year, ITIM has received complaints from women forced to take DNA tests as they were born late in their mothers’ lives or long into their marriages. By this assessment, somewhere in the region of 400,000 Russian-speaking Israelis are not considered Jewish under halakha.

A 2006 study showed that roughly 40 percent of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women, dubbed the “founding mothers,” who lived more than 1,000 years ago. The researchers compared DNA sequences from approximately 2000 Jews with a control set of 11,500 gentiles in 67 populations around the world.

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Many of those referred to the Israeli rabbinical courts for DNA tests to determine their ‘Jewishness’ were immigrants from the former Soviet Union, or their offspring, seeking to marry.

“Thirty years ago, during the massive wave of aliyah (migration of Jews to Israel) from the former Soviet Union, the attitude… was that if these people say they’re Jewish, we should take their word for it,” Caplan told Haaretz. “But ever since the bar of suspicions is constantly being raised, and this is just the latest example.”

ITIM aims to “help the Israeli public to meet with the religious establishment, and strive to play a significant role in shaping and influencing policy” and claims it has already “helped tens of thousands of people” in this capacity.

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