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

This post builds on the research article “Genetic Diaspora: Producing Knowledge of Genes and Jews in Rural South Africa,” which was published in the August 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on genetic knowledge and race, including John Hartigan’s “Mexican Genomics and the Roots of Racial Thinking” (2013); Amade M'charek’s “Beyond Fact or Fiction: On the Materiality of Race in Practice” (2013); Alondra Nelson’s “DNA Ethnicity as Black Social Action?” (2013); and Michael J. Montoya’s “Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research” (2007).

The journal has also published articles on South Africa, including Jason Hickel’s “‘Xenophobia’ in South Africa: Order, Chaos, and the Moral Economy of Witchcraft” (2014); Antina Von Schnitzler’s “Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa” (2013); Susan Cook and Rebecca Hardin’s “Performing Royalty in Contemporary Africa” (2013); and Donald L. Donham’s “Freeing South Africa: The ‘Modernization’ of Male-Male Sexuality in Soweto” (2008).

About the Author

Noah Tamarkin is an assistant professor of comparative studies at the Ohio State University. He received his PhD in cultural anthropology from University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2011. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Humanities Forum and taught in the anthropology departments of University of Pennsylvania and Brandeis University. His ethnographic examination of the social circulation of DNA connects questions about genetic identities and politics to debates about postcolonial citizenship. Tamarkin is currently working on a book manuscript, Jewish Blood, African Bones: The Afterlives of Genetic Ancestry, about the politics of race, religion, and recognition among Lemba South Africans leading up to and in the aftermath of their participation in genetic tests that aimed to demonstrate their links to Jews.

Other Works by the Author

2014. “African Indigenous Citizenship,” co-authored with Rachel Giraudo. In The Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, edited by Engin F. Isin and Peter Nyers. New York: Routledge.

2011. “Religion as Race, Recognition as Democracy: Lemba ‘Black Jews’ in South Africa.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, no. 637: 148–64.

Interview with Noah Tamarkin

Charles McDonald: How did you become interested in the Lemba and the forms of knowledge production that attend the question of their Jewishness?

Noah Tamarkin: South Africa is incredibly compelling as a place to consider race, politics, and knowledge production, and likewise Jewishness has long been a generative topic for thinking about these questions. I was interested in how the long-standing ambiguity of how people think about Jewish identity, and especially the racial politics of Jewishness, might intersect with apartheid legacies and post-apartheid transformations. In the early 2000s, I read a few articles about the Lemba genetic studies, and what was notably absent was a robust sense of who these people were, why they were interested in being part of this type of research, and what it meant to define ancestry in genetic terms in the context of South Africa. Questions were raised for me that I felt could only be answered ethnographically.

CM: As you make clear in your article, there has been a blossoming in recent years of ethnographic research on race and genetics, yet only a handful of these have addressed how these technologies impinge on and make possible Jewish identification (most notably Nadia Abu El-Haj’s 2012 monograph, but also Jessica Mozersky’s [2013] research on breast cancer and Jewish identity). Can you discuss a bit more how Jews and Judaism might offer a different vantage on how and why what you call “genetic diasporas” are being forged?

NT: For me, what is most important about this work is that it foregrounds people who have made genetic ancestry tests possible by providing bodily samples to researchers. We have excellent ethnographic accounts of scientists and increasingly also of American consumers of genetic testing, whether as a medical technology or as a genealogical tool. But the genetic samples that then become part of global comparisons come from somewhere, and after samples have been collected, the people who contributed them continue to produce their own genetic knowledge. Jews and Judaism provide an interesting lens here because there is a widespread expectation of Jewish connection across geographic difference, and there is also a fairly widespread expectation that genetics can say something meaningful about identity. But what I want to highlight with the concept “genetic diaspora” is that genetic ancestry tests produce new relationships that are fraught precisely because the expectation that genetic testing can accurately ascertain genetic ancestry, which then should and will result in similarities and connections, is often not matched in practice. This is partially because our understanding of genetic knowledge production is too narrow, and partially because genetics and diaspora can both be powerfully essentializing discourses.

CM: You write that the Lemba you worked with “did not use the concept of diaspora to explain their connection to each other or to Jews,” but instead as a way of securing claims to “Lemba ethic recognition in South Africa and Lemba communication of their own knowledge production about genes and Jews.” It’s clear in the article that there is a gap between the international interest generated by documentaries about the “origins” of the Lemba and the lack of interest in the knowledge that they produce amongst themselves. But could you elaborate more on your other point: how do the people with whom you worked imagine this potential recognition by the South African state, or by others? My sense from your article is that at the moment the Lemba have not been unambiguously embraced and legitimated by either the South African state, the Jewish diaspora, or the Israeli state. I’m thinking, for example, of Don Seeman’s (2010) ethnography of Ethiopian-Israelis and the “Feres Mura,” in which the claims by some people to Jewish ancestry have been legitimated and have resulted in immigration to Israel, while others continue to lobby for such recognition, even as they contest its terms.

NT: There have been some very specific forms of recognition that Lemba people have sought, and I discuss these in more detail in my article, “Religion as Race, Recognition as Democracy: Lemba ‘Black Jews’ in South Africa” (Tamarkin 2011). Under apartheid, some Lemba people sought the right to be labeled as Lemba in their passbooks; instead, they were labeled according to the homeland to which they were assigned. The struggles for South African recognition of Lemba traditional leadership began at that time and still continue. There are a few active land claims that if won would also be a form of recognition. Many Lemba people who have been active in these long-standing efforts also became involved in a collective claim for reburial of human remains at the world heritage site Mapungubwe. The remains spanned the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and were excavated beginning in the 1930s. When their claim was successful and the reburial took place in 2007, many saw that as an important form of state recognition.

In my ethnographic research, I found that Jewish visitors to the Lemba wondered about the possibility of Lemba acceptance as Jews by the Israeli state, and this question also often comes up when I present papers. This is precisely why it is so interesting that Lemba recognition efforts are not oriented towards Israel. Lemba reframing of Jewish history, culture, and identity as African disrupts the narrative that seeking affirmation of Jewish identity necessarily results in seeking Israeli citizenship, especially among those imagined to want to leave where they are. This is how the context in which I work is different from Seeman's ethnographic context: each of us point to key questions about belonging, but the “Feres Mura” struggles that Seeman presents can be read as part of the Israeli citizenship narrative and the Lemba struggles that I present here really cannot. Lemba counter-narratives of belonging and recognition necessitate new ways to think about diaspora, Jewish or otherwise. The idea of genetic diaspora helps us to see and critically examine assumptions about both diasporic belonging and the meaning of genetic ancestry: genetics can reinforce normative assumptions for some people while the same data viewed differently simultaneously supports other notions of origins, destinations, and ancestral connection.

CM: Since your research cuts across questions of postcoloniality, race, and religion that have been quite differently broaches in fields like anthropology, history, and Jewish studies, have you found it challenging to carve out a space for this kind of inquiry? It often seems that one of the few things that seems to be common for anthropologists is a kind of disciplinary discomfort, or being somehow askew. What is your relationship to anthropology as a discipline and to ethnography?

NT: I’m trained as a cultural anthropologist, and I strongly value ethnography for the intellectual rigor and nuance that it facilitates. One of the strengths of anthropology as a discipline is that it nurtures these kinds of cross-cutting projects that contribute in important ways to interdisciplinary research and multidisciplinary spaces. It hasn’t been difficult to carve out space for this kind of inquiry, but it has entailed reading widely and learning to listen carefully to disciplinary differences in how topics like postcoloniality, race, and religion matter. But again, I think this is something that most anthropologists working today aim to do, and many do it exceptionally well.

CM: What projects are on the horizon for you next?

NT: I’m working on my book manuscript, Jewish Blood African Bones: The Afterlives of Genetic Ancestry. It examines how Lemba people have repositioned their liminal status in relation to Jewish diasporic, African indigenous, and South African national citizenship formations, both before and after their association with Jewish DNA. I’ve also begun research on a new project about criminal DNA forensics in South Africa. Both projects seek to account for the social and political lives of DNA. With my new research, I am thinking through the intersection of genetics and postcolonial governmentality. The project asks what happens when DNA becomes part of a normative legal framework in a postcolonial space where science and law have both been deeply contested.


Abu El-Haj, Nadia. 2012. The Genealogical Science: the Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mozersky, Jessica. 2013. Risky Genes: Genetics, Breast Cancer, and Jewish Identity. New York: Routledge.

Seeman, Don. 2010. One People, One Blood: Ethiopian-Israelis and the Return to Judaism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Additional Reading

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. 2012. The Genealogical Science: the Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Braun, Lundy, and Evelynn Hammonds. 2008. “Race, Populations, and Genomics: Africa as Laboratory.” Social Science & Medicine 67, no. 10: 1580–88.

Brodkin, Karen. 2002. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Dubow, Saul. 2006. A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geschiere, Peter. 2009. The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harding, Sandra, ed. 2011. The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Nancy K. Miller. 2011. Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jackson, John L. 2013. Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Marks, Jonathan. 2013. “The Nature/Culture of Genetic Facts.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42:247–67.

Posel, Deborah. 2001. “Race as Common Sense: Racial Classification in Twentieth-Century South Africa.” African Studies Review 44, no. 2: 87–113.

Reardon, Jenny. 2007. “Democratic Mishaps: The Problem of Democratization in a Time of Biopolitics.” Biosocieties 2, no. 2: 239–56.

Sand, Shlomo. 2009. The Invention of the Jewish People. London: Verso.

TallBear, Kim. 2013. Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.