23 chromosomes, 5776 years, 6 million Jews and my own 96.7% “purity”

Have you seen this viral video from the travel company Monomondo? It features a room full of people who talk to a panel of experts (and the camera) about their own nationalities and about the people from countries they don’t like.

After these attractive folks are all on the record about their own identities, they are offered DNA testing. Later they reconvene and the scientists reveal each participant’s genetic heritage. The English bloke who hated Germans? Yup, he has German ancestry. You can imagine the rest. It is genuinely heartwarming and the message is that our DNA reveals that we are all relatives. Spoiler alert: the video ends with two of the participants learning that they are actual cousins.

But this is not my story. And my story makes me think long and hard about the terrible history and current enthusiasm for using genetic testing to determine ancestry. Because unlike the photogenic folks in the video, I knew what my ancestry was before I spit into the 23andMe vial and sent it off to be analyzed.

And as I expected, it turns out I am an almost entirely “pure” Jew — in fact 96.7% of my DNA points to my Ashkenazi heritage. This doesn’t surprise me. My people were a self-contained community in Europe for centuries, partly by choice, often by force. Pogroms, poverty, and genocide have kept our religious and ethnic group small, isolated, and endangered. As a result, we have married each other — and now suffer from our own special genetic maladies, including Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis and BRCA mutations that can lead to breast and ovarian cancer. But I (luckily) have none of these and they are not what I concerns me right now.

I am thinking about the fact that the last time people were actively working to determine who was an Ashkenazi Jew, they were doing so in order to exterminate us. The Nazi obsession with Jewish genetic heritage was pathological, terrifying, and pretty damned effective. My grandparents all fled Eastern Europe. Had they stayed (in Poland and Belarus) they and their children would have been sent to concentration camps, to gas chambers or to “pick potatoes.”

Growing up, I thought about the Holocaust all the time and it felt very, very close. My father, who served in the Army Air Corps in Europe, told stories of overhearing German POWs talking about American Jews. And of course he understood them because, as the son of immigrants, his first language was Yiddish.

But genetic racism did not begin with the Nazis and its evil hits much closer geographically to my actual home in the United States. I recently learned more about this disgusting history by reading a biography of one of my favorite people, ever: Charles Darwin. [Note: Darwin was not a racist.]

The book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, explores the scientist’s personal history and finds that his family’s devotion to anti-slavery causes and his own experiences (both as a medical student in Edinburgh and during his travels around the world aboard the Beagle) led Darwin to seek out a unifying explanation for the diversity of life of earth and to prove that human beings were all descended from a common ancestor.

And this effort was incredibly controversial and potentially ruinous for him because the prevailing scientific opinion of Darwin’s day was that each “race” was descended from an entirely separate origin. No brotherhood or even cousinhood of man for these Victorian scientists! This thesis was, of course, designed expressly to validate the separate situations of the races, the enslavement of darker-skinned people, and colonial rule around the world.

I was so appalled by the scientific racist rhetoric that it took me months to plow through Darwin’s biography. I’d read a few pages of this poisonous doctrine and then have to put the book aside for a while.

One thing that kept troubling me was the viciousness and fervor of the racism of these scientists. Most disturbing to me was Louis Agassiz, the influential Swiss-American biologist and geologist — a man Darwin despised. When Agassiz visited the United States he had first encounter with an African-American (a waiter) and he wrote of his visceral revulsion:

In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of the palm of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away. And then they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than to dine with such service. 
— Louis Agassiz in a letter to his mother

This reminded me of the images of another “race,” mine. Several years ago I visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin and saw the terrifying images of Jews from the 1930s. Like Agassiz’s nightmarish and distorted vision of the black waiter, these Nazi cartoons turned people who looked like me—who shared my genetic and historical heritage—into hideous, subhuman creatures.

Anti-Semitic cartoons by Philip Rupprecht regularly appeared in the Der Sturmer newspaper.

I feel driven to write about this now because scientific racism is not an outmoded artifact of another age — like alchemy, applying leeches, or phrenology. As it has always been, science is deeply political. In the year 2016, our leaders routinely deny climate change—and their willful “ignorance” allows them to make laws that endanger our planet and the health and future of our people.

I am not going to stop and draw the lines between scientific racism, state oppression, and such ad-hoc attacks as pogroms and lynchings. Let’s just all agree that they all feed and are fed by each other. And as citizens of a country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, I am sure that we all see and feel the impact of these processes every day.

Just as we are reaching a point where medical information should be able to destroy the scientific myth of “race,” I fear that by distorting these results, political leaders will seek to reinforce our worst stereotypes and to set up and attack vulnerable genetic scapegoats.

I am deeply concerned that while we are now using DNA testing to celebrate our diversity and shared ancestry, there could come a time—and it could be soon—when my 96.7% Ashkenazi genetic heritage or the “drop of black blood” in so many of my friends and neighbors may be used to target us. I know of no way to inoculate us from a new era of scientific racism, except to urge us all to learn and teach about our bloody and sordid history.