Jewish Racialization in Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing in the United States

Jewish Racialization, the “Jewish Gene,” and the Perpetuation of Ashkenormativity in Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing Ashkenormativity in Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing  in the United States in the United States by Sabina Ali

Jewish identity has been defined and redefined, negotiated and renegotiated, among Jews and non-Jews in various parts of the world. The tensions around the ongoing question of “Who is a Jew?” arise from the fact that Jewish identity encompasses numerous combinations of religion, commitment, nation, kinship, peoplehood, culture, ethnicity, and memory. This thesis will examine the way Jewishness has been and continues to be racialized in the United States by Jews and non-Jews. Specifically, I look at how direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing companies, such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA, present a racialized view of Jewish identity to consumers and perpetuate the social construction of a Jewish race by claiming detectable “Jewish genes” in their ancestry reports. Additionally, since these companies often provide reports on European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish ancestry, excluding non-Ashkenazi Jewish ancestries, they contribute to an Ashkenormative narrative of Jewish history, heritage, and identity.


Ali aims to study Jewish racialization in the US, particularly in light of genetic testing. She relies heavily on the works of Eric Goldstein and Nadia Abu El-Haj; this is a bit problematic as the latter provides an inaccurate and outdated view of how genetic ancestry tests are done or reports are provided. For example, the author concludes that:

While Jewishness continues to be racialized to mean whiteness in the United States, and as American Jews continue to incorporate “gene talk” into the social construction of what it means to be Jewish, direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests “reinforce the idea that [Ashkenazi Jews] are the real Jews” and conceal all others, including Jews “with ancestry from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean” as well as “adoptees and converts,” from the conversation. After all, a 23andMe or AncestryDNA genetic ancestry report does not provide non-Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity or ancestry estimates and, therefore, does not seem to validate non-Ashkenazi Jewishness on a genetic level.

However, many companies report Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Other than that, I agree with the conclusions, and the review makes an interesting mainly if you are not familiar with the subject. If you are familiar with the subject, don’t expect major surprises, particularly as the author hesitates in understanding the motivation of genetic testing companies, despite its clear aim to do so:

Therefore, consciously or not, direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing companies perpetuate an already dominant Ashkenormative understanding of Jewish history, heritage, and identity in the United States.

This blog records several very conscious instances to manipulate data to appeal to Jewish narratives. These companies are not in the business of publishing their actual motivation, so a bit more investigative journalism work is needed from anyone aiming to cover the subject.



Ali, Sabina, “Jewish Racialization, the “Jewish Gene,” and the Perpetuation of Ashkenormativity in Directto-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing in the United States.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2020.






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3 Responses to Jewish Racialization in Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Ancestry Testing in the United States

  1. larryzb says:

    Are uniquely Jewish behavioral traits caused by Jewish genes?

  2. TH says:


    “Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer 24 [Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer; PdRE. c. 830 AD] contains the Midrash on Noah’s blessings to his sons. Shem and his sons are described as ‘black and comely’ (shehoritn ve-naim), Japheth and his sons as ‘white and handsome’ (levanim ve-yafim), while Ham and his sons are ‘black as the raven’ (shehorim ka*orev). In the original, Shem’s blackness is expressed in a positive way, by association with ‘black and comely’ in the Song of Songs, though Ham’s blackness becomes negative through association with the raven. This, however, did not satisfy the copiers and compilers of the printed versions. They found it hard to accept Shem as black, with the concomitant danger of blurring the difference between him and Ham. As a result, some versions tended to ‘whiten’ Shem. As early as the thirteenth century, a manuscript described Shem as white. In the Venetian edition (second printing, 1544) and in the second Venetian edition (1608) the original version appears in the body of the text.

    In the table of contents, however, we find ‘blessed Shem and Japheth with whiteness (Javnitt) … and Ham with blackness (shaharut)’. Shem becomes white in all respects, and instead of the dangerous common denominator with black Ham, he gets to resemble the attractive white Japheth. In parallel fashion, Japheth’s whiteness becomes more positive in the early printed versions (Constantinople 1514, Venice 1544 and Sabbioneta 1567), when the adjective ‘handsome’ (yafeh) is added to ‘white’. Furthermore, the ambiguous description given of Ham as ‘black as the raven’ is replaced instead by the unequivocal ‘black and ugly’. Jews were trying to resemble the fair white Japheth, i.e. the European identified as the model to emulate, and thus more handsome and ‘cultured’, a process discerned elsewhere as well.6”
    –Dr.Abraham Melamed. The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other. pg 213

  3. Steve says:

    Another major issue with 23andMe is their so called “Southern European” designation.
    This includes Greek & Balkan, Italian, Sardinian, Spain & Portugal, but not Ashkenazi Jews.
    On an autosomal level which this site tests Ashkenazi Jews squarely fall into the Southern European Genetic cohort.

    23andMe describes Ashkenazi Jews as follows: “Ashkenazi Jewish people settled in Central and Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages, but their modern descendants remain genetically more similar to other Jewish populations than to their European neighbors,”

    This is directly contradicted by Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin’s study:
    “The origin of Eastern European Jews revealed by autosomal, sex chromosomal and mtDNA polymorphisms”

    “According to the autosomal polymorphisms the investigated Jewish populations do not share a common origin, and EEJ are closer to Italians in particular and to Europeans in general than to the other Jewish populations.”

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