The Problem With the Term ‘Ethnic Jew’

If I took a DNA test tomorrow, it would not magically return 98% Ashkenazi Jewish. But that does not change the fact that I am a Jewish woman.

Lately I have been uneasily following the growing interest in DNA and being “ethnically Jewish,” i.e. determining one’s Jewishness strictly by bloodline. This categorization is new for me, as through the years leading up to my conversion I was only aware of “born Jews” (those Jewish by birth) and “Jews by choice” (converts).

One common issue with the term “born Jews” is that it can be ambiguous in who is included. Those adhering to traditional readings of halacha (Jewish law) consider a child born Jewish only if it is born of a Jewish mother, regardless of the father’s own religion or halachic status. More progressive spaces, either religious or secular, will officially recognize as Jewish any child with at least one Jewish parent, mother or father. The continual refusal of more traditional or Orthodox Jewish spaces to recognize children with non-Jewish mothers means that “patrilineal Jews” are marginalized in observant Jewish life.

In some ways, “ethnic Jew” can be a helpful response to these problems, especially where restrictive rules of traditional halacha often exclude patrilineal Jews. It also helps to dispel notions that Judaism is a religion instead of a people. It takes care of the ambiguity by recognizing anyone with a sizeable amount of Jewish ancestry (having a Jewish parent, for example) to be included.

That being said, there are unwelcoming implications for Jews by choice under this system. Converts remain halachically Jewish, but some born Jews claim that converts cannot be ethnic Jews, as they do not carry the requisite Jewish blood or Jewish DNA. (I won’t even get into the fact that ethnicity is not and has never been defined by DNA.) I have seen one Instagram content creator claim that there is such as thing as an “ethnic convert,” as if a certain percentage of DNA will tip the balance of a new Jew’s identity from non-Jew to Jew. (Being a student of history well attuned to historical methods of minority exclusion by ancestry, I had to keep myself from asking this person if they preferred the one drop or blood quantum system for determining an ethnic convert or just a regular one.)

I have seen another popular Instagram account state that converts should “listen to ethnic Jews” on issues like Jewish history, as converts presumably lack the requisite blood status to fully understand or speak on the Jewish historical experience. During my conversion studies, I must have missed when we started relying on blood percentage in secular spaces instead of accepting everyone as they are, halachic status or not, Jew by birth or not. I have since unfollowed these people, as enough time as a Jew by choice has taught me to surround myself with those who treat me as just another member of the tribe.

I want to be very, very clear. I do not believe that these fellow Jews are ill-intentioned. I do believe, however, that they fundamentally misunderstand what it means to become Jewish. This is understandable, seeing as they have not experienced the particular transformation that is joining the Jewish people. However, it is their responsibility to speak to (and listen to) Jews by choice when discussing how we fit within the Jewish world instead of speaking on our behalf.

When someone becomes Jewish, they do not simply adopt another people’s spiritual practice; they join that people. Converts to Judaism inherit Jewish history, traditions, and any connection to a Jewish homeland the same as any born Jew. They become a Jew in “every sense of the word.” This, as well as the sheer variety of ethnicities and racial backgrounds within modern Jewry, implies that any convert who joins this ethno-religion also contributes to the varied genealogy and diversity of the Jewish people.

Converts found their own Jewish family tree, the same as any born Jew and their ancestors. DNA does not play a role. If anything, DNA inherited from non-Jewish parents becomes Jewish by the simple fact that its human carrier is now a Jew. A convert who stops practicing Judaism, for example, is still wholly a Jew by the nature of Jewish conversion. A convert that marries another convert will have fully Jewish children who are as part of the ethno-religion as any child of two born Jews.

If I took a DNA test tomorrow, it would not magically return 98% Ashkenazi Jewish. But that does not change the fact that the entirety of what I am, body and soul, is a Jewish woman who is a member of the Jewish people in every way. Pointing to Jews like myself and saying we “can’t change our DNA” misses the point. Dividing up whose “DNA starts in Israel” and thus has a supposedly fuller claim to the Land of Israel also misses the point.

This is not just a modern anomaly. The integration of converts into the Jewish people has always been a part of Jewish history. Part of this is religious tradition: Abraham and Sarah, our patriarch and matriarch, were converts. The most famous convert, Ruth, told her mother-in-law Naomi that not only would Naomi’s God be her God, but that her “people would be my people.”

But beyond the Bible, converts still started their own lines. According to Anita Diamont’s book Choosing a Jewish Life, some scholars attribute the large increase in Jews from 586 BCE to the first century of the Common Era — from 150,000 to 8 million — to be due to large numbers of converts. Conversions have taken place throughout the entirety of Jewish history in many different Jewish diasporic communities, with certain centuries producing more converts than others depending on political climate or region.

The existence of conversion throughout Jewish history means that not all ancestors of born Jews would trace back to Israel, and that some could have more converts in their past than others. This does not make them less Jewish or less connected to our ancestral traditions or homeland.

Converts today are simply carrying on this tradition of integrating fully into the Jewish people. It also means there is no single “Jewish ethnicity,” but rather a multitude of ethnic backgrounds that help constitute the “ethno” part of the ethno-religion of Judaism.

I also want to be clear that discovering, revelling in, and loving Jewish ancestry can be very affirming for those who fall outside traditional halacha or observance. The problem is when this affirmation gleaned from familial history, instead of being directed inwards, turns outwards to categorize others as outsiders. Ethnic Jew as a stand-in for born Jew, even if affirming the inclusion of patrilineal Jews, quietly excludes converts and relegates them outside of the Jewish people.

Again, I want to be clear that no one is denying our differences in experience. Sometimes this is necessary to discuss, such as in the case of ashkenormativity or LGBTQ+ Jews. But telling someone “you are religiously Jewish” is insinuating they are not a Jew, body and soul, but rather a non-Jew who has picked up someone else’s traditions. This may not be the intention. That does not change the implications.

Jews by choice are Jews. Judaism is our tradition. The Jews are our people. Jewish history is our history. Jewish culture is our culture. Any Jewish homeland is our homeland. Jewish joy is ours. Jewish trauma is also ours. Telling us our DNA tells a different story denies history, tradition, and our very selves. We have given up belonging elsewhere to join the Jews. We have always been here, and we do not need born Jews to decide our story for us or continue to set us apart.

Yehudit Peters

Yehudit Peters (she/her) is a law student in Toronto but finished her first two degrees in European studies with a healthy dose of religion. When she is not contemplating Jewish identity, she is practicing yoga or petting a cat.

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