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Israeli Rabbis Are Using DNA Testing To Police Civil Rights. This Shouldn’t Shock You.

On Tuesday, Judy Maltz reported in Haaretz that the Israeli Rabbinate, which controls conversion, marriage and divorce in Israel, is using DNA testing to verify a person’s Jewishness. Since a person who isn’t Jewish can’t marry a Jew in Israel, which has no civil marriage, the rabbinate is using the DNA test to deny people they consider non-Jews the civil right of marriage.

It’s a horrifying state of affairs. An immigrant advocacy center called ITIM has filed six complaints about the tests, mostly for former Soviet Jews. As Elad Caplan, the center’s director, told Maltz, “Judaism is about belonging and community – it’s not about race and blood, as our worst enemies have claimed.”

And yet, this shouldn’t surprise us. For starters, this isn’t the only civil rights abuse that the Rabbinate, which is led by ultra-Orthodox clerics, perpetrates. In addition to refusing non-Jews the right to legally marry Jews in Israel, the rabbinate continues to bar women from getting a divorce without their husbands’ consent, creating the disaster of “chained women” who languish for years, sometimes decades, neither married nor divorced. (Men, too need the consent of their wives, but the rabbis have found loopholes to free men.)

Adopting science in order to define who is a Jew is one consequence of granting clerics state power in the 21st century.

But the revelations about rabbis using DNA testing have a political component, too. For this is also part and parcel of a rightward turn Israel has fostered under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a turn that has Israel increasingly embracing ethno-nationalist policies.

And where ethno-nationalism goes, there follows the policing of bloodlines, of who is in and who is out, who is us and who is them.

In recent years, Israel has increasingly been departing from the secular, expansive Zionist dreams of its founders, supplanting those with Netanyahu’s hawkish, protectionist, revisionist Zionism. Under the auspices of Netanyahu’s pessimism, Israel has been building its future, and its definition of what it means to be a Jew, on strictly policed and rigidly ethnic terms, against the backdrop of which the use of DNA science is merely a ratification rather than a revolution.

You can see this with things like the Nation State bill that explicitly privileges Jewish citizens of Israel over non-Jewish citizens. You see it in the entrenched and never-ending occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, who are sent to different courts than their Jewish neighbors. And you see it in the capitulation to the haredim on issues of religious pluralism, like when they demanded that the Western Wall be available exclusively for Orthodox prayer.

Of course, not all Israelis support these measures. And yet, even those who don’t acknowledge that Israel is moving in this direction, with no checks on this rightward turn. In the current election cycle, no left-wing party is even remotely competitive; all the parties in play are fighting for voters in the center-right.

A recent poll had more bad news: 79% of Israelis felt that Jews should have preferential treatment in Israel.

That same poll found that while Israeli Jews were split about whether they identified first as a Jew or as an Israeli, those who identified as Jewish were much more likely to be hawkish politically; they mistrust the Palestinians more than other Israelis, and are skeptical about the chances for peace. In other words, for Israelis, being a Jew is not a religious identity based on values so much as a racial, ethnic one; one that views Jews in opposition to a hostile world around them and an ethno-state as the solution to that fundamental existence; and one that views this identity as subject to scientific testing.

The same worldview that allows a DNA test to determine whether an immigrant will get civil rights is at play in Israel’s denial of civil rights to millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. It’s this same worldview that forces non-Jews who want to marry Jews to fly to Cyprus to do so. It’s a worldview that denies that someone who is Jewish through her father is a Jew, denies the Jewishness of someone who converted through the main streams of American Judaism.

In other words, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature of Netanyahu’s Israel. The question isn’t how they could have allowed rabbis to use DNA testing to determine someone’s Jewishness. It’s how it took them so long.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.

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