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Genetic Diaspora: Producing Knowledge of Genes and Jews in Rural South Africa

By Noah Tamarkin

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Cite As:
Tamarkin, Noah. 2014. “Genetic Diaspora: Producing Knowledge of Genes and Jews in Rural South Africa”. Cultural Anthropology 29 (3), 552-74. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca29.3.06.

Abstract

After Lemba South Africans participated in genetic tests that aimed to demonstrate their ancient links to contemporary Jewish populations, American Jews began to visit the Lemba to connect with them on the basis of an assumed shared Judaism. Some Lemba people welcomed and endorsed these visits, but they also maintained their own ideas about the meaning of their “genetic Jewishness” and the terms of their new diasporic relationships, which often contradicted the understandings of visiting Jews. This article privileges the perspectives of Lemba South Africans, and the historical and ethnographic contexts through which Lemba genetic data emerged and circulated, to offer an alternative reading of the social and political significance of DNA. It poses the question: How do divergent genomic knowledges articulate with the politics of belonging and the pursuit of citizenship in South Africa and transnationally? I argue that DNA and diaspora converge to create new sites of political belonging, ones marked by precarious connections that balance on the production of knowledge and its refusal. I introduce the concept of genetic diaspora to theorize how these connections, marked by inequality, are tenuously forged through national, racial, and religious difference that is imagined to be the same. Genetic diaspora offers Lemba South Africans the possibility to produce and circulate their own new knowledge about Jewish history and genetic belonging. This article demonstrates that those implicated in genetic studies transform DNA into a resource that authorizes their own histories and politics of race and religion.

Keywords

genomics; genetic ancestry; diaspora; citizenship; race; religion; knowledge production; South Africa; Judaism; black Jews