How DNA testing can reveal Jewish ancestry and bolster the Zionist narrative

Click photo to download. Caption: This summer, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) presented a set of recommendations on genetic testing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and the Israeli cabinet (pictured here at its weekly meeting on June 29, 2014). JPPI recommended that the Israeli government, Jewish communities, and Jewish organizations provide information and points of connection for individuals who have discovered some Jewish ancestry through direct-to-consumer DNA testing. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90.

By Michele Alperin/JNS.org

When Noah Slepkov started using online genealogical tools to build a family tree, little did he know that his personal exploration might have significant implications for all of the Jewish people—including those not even aware of their Jewish roots.

But when Slepkov heard from a colleague about 23andMe—a genetic kit that performs a DNA test on saliva to learn what percent of a person’s DNA comes from different global populations, and then provides contacts of potential relatives—he was hooked. 

“I was fascinated by the ability of normal genealogical tools to find relatives,” says Slepkov, an associate fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) think tank in Jerusalem. “When I realized the potential of combining that with DNA techniques, it is quite amazing what can be done.”

Slepkov proposed including a chapter in JPPI’s annual assessment that explores different dimensions of the Jewish people: geopolitics, demography, and identity. The ensuing report he authored, titled “Crowd Sourced Genealogy and Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing: Implications for the Jewish People,” was the basis for a set of recommendations presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire Israeli cabinet this summer. JPPI recommended that the Israeli government, Jewish communities, and Jewish organizations provide information and points of connection for individuals who have discovered some Jewish ancestry through direct-to-consumer DNA testing. 

“I thought this was appropriate for Jewish identity because of all the people doing these tests without doing it for Jewish purposes or an interest in their Judaism,” Slepkov tells JNS.org. “When they do the tests and find out they have Jewish-sounding relatives, it might spark their interest.”

Slepkov performed serious research to validate the potential he saw in the tests, because otherwise, he says, “When people hear about it, their immediate assumption, the skeptical people, is, ‘It is snake oil—how do you really know if these are your relatives?’”

Slepkov consulted with Bennett Greenspan, owner of Family Tree DNA, who explained that if one extrapolates from the number of Jews estimated by the historian Josephus to be alive in the first century A.D., then “you would expect to have more Jews than there are today,” says Slepkov.

Click photo to download. Caption: Noah Slepkov, an associate fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) think tank in Jerusalem and the author of “Crowd Sourced Genealogy and Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing: Implications for the Jewish People.” Credit: JPPI.

“It made me realize how many people out there actually have Jewish ancestors,” he says. “If you think about it exponentially, you can have one ancestor who is Jewish, and he could have hundreds of thousands of descendants.”

Slepkov also conducted a personal DNA test, and the results were typical of such research. He cites a paper by Doron Behar in the scientific journal Nature that shows how the female lineage of Ashkenazi Jews is European, dating back 30,000 years, whereas the male lineage is from the Middle East and more recent. 

“It suggests that men left the Middle East and married non-Jewish wives and converted them, and their descendants all became Jews,” says Slepkov, noting that his own test matches Behar’s data, which is included in the Family Tree DNA database.

Slepkov says this DNA testing “has huge geopolitical consequences.”

“Doron Behar wrote in his article that DNA tests confirm the Zionist narrative of Jews once living in the historic land of Israel and going through an exile,” he says. A graph included in Behar’s article shows where different Jewish communities fit genealogically within the global population. The graph also includes the Palestinians, who have more African ancestry in their genetic data than do Ashkenazi Jews.

This data, suggests Slepkov, sheds an interesting light on a much-debated topic at JPPI—the delegitimization of Israel and how to combat it. 

“One of the narratives you hear is that Jewish people have no business being in the Middle East, and that they are European and should go back to Europe,” Slepkov says. “With the exception of one scholar who has tried to suggest that Jews are really descendants of the Khazars, most scientists would agree that there is in fact evidence within the genome of the Jewish people that different Jews from around the world do come from the Middle East.”

These findings give Slepkov some ammunition in conversations with left-wing Jews who may reject Zionism and are surprised about why he made aliyah. The Canadian-born Slepkov tells them, “One of the reasons I made aliyah is because I believe I am actually from this area, and I do feel like I’m returning home.” Now, in response to the typical reaction he gets to that assertion—“You don’t believe that!”—Slepkov can inform the skeptics about the results of his DNA test. 

Slepkov ended up contacting three relatives as a result of his genetic test results. One was a second cousin of his father that he came across while working on the family tree. 

“They had spent summers together in Crystal Beach and hadn’t been in touch for 40 years,” says Slepkov. “I got them back in touch.” 

But finding connections wasn’t straightforward. Slepkov had to narrow these contacts down from 2,000 names of potential relatives, based on the DNA tests. “Without knowing exactly who your relatives are in advance, it’s hard to know for certain how closely related you are or whether you are related—unless they are second or third cousins,” Slepkov says.

In instances where the genetic tests showed very close relationships, Slepkov sent emails to the contacts he discovered, but sometimes he never heard back. “It could mean they are not interested, or they know for a fact that they are not related and don’t want to respond,” he says.

Slepkov was raised in a small town in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada. Growing up in a small Jewish community had a profound effect on him.

“Judaism has always been a huge part of who I am and my identity,” he says. “Being one of three Jews in your cohort really defines who you are, in my opinion.” 

After a Conservative movement upbringing, Camp Ramah, Jewish studies at Toronto’s York University, and Israel advocacy work, Slepkov was primed for aliyah—for three reasons. One is Jewish continuity for his familial line. 

“After flirting with being religious, I found myself being more and more secular in my ideology and my view of the world, and I decided the best place to be a secular Jew and remain a Jew and live a ‘Jewish life’ is in Israel,” he says. Israel also seemed to be a good place to satisfy Slepkov’s interest in politics and foreign affairs. Thirdly, given the economic status of the Western world, he figured he and his future children would have as good a life in Israel as they would in North America. 

Slepkov met his current boss—JPPI senior fellow and former MK Einat Wilf (Labor)—while he was doing Israel advocacy work at the University of Western Ontario. After making aliyah, he became Wilf’s assistant in the Knesset, and after she left the Israeli legislature he moved with her to JPPI.

From his own experience with DNA tests, Slepkov has learned to be more open to emails from strangers who tell you they might be your relative. 

“Don’t be too dismissive of these people,” he says. “They could be right, and you never know at what point they are in exploring their Jewish identity. We’re not a proselytizing religion, but if there are people who are really interested in exploring what it means that they have Jewish ancestors, you shouldn’t discourage them, but should help them and embrace their desire to search for their Jewish roots.” 

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Posted on September 19, 2014 and filed under Jewish Life, Israel, Features.