Wired Runs Disingenuous “23andMe Excludes Palestine” Piece
Wired has run a piece titled Mohammed is Palestinian. Why does 23andMe think he’s Egyptian? in which many people identifying as “Palestinian” have complained that DNA testing company 23andMe has returned results not including “Palestine”.
While some customers may have been satisfied with the 23andMe’s more granular results, some Palestinians like Ahmad are unhappy with being labelled under other countries in the Levant region (which includes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine) as well as states in the Arabian Peninsula (which include Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates). “I found it interesting how they name every country surrounding Palestine but Palestine,” Ahmad says, “It was disheartening to find out that Palestine wasn’t being mentioned.”
In 2020, an online petition was started on Change.org titled “Recognise Palestinians – 23andMe”. The petition author argues that 23andMe has cast Palestinians as “genetically stateless” by excluding the region from its reports. It ends: “We are Palestinians. We exist. We are still here and we will never go away or be erased from history.” Over 2,400 people have signed the online petition.
There are some reasons given for the results, none of which seem to be the result of any anti-palestinian sentiment or purposeful erasure of identity.
Categorising people’s genetic ancestry is notoriously difficult and subject to all kinds of biases, but the technique that 23andMe uses hinges around reference populations: a group of people whose genetic similarities represent a country or region that a new customer can then be compared to. The company uses samples from public databases as well as samples from their customers to form these reference populations. Using something called “principle component analysis” (PCA), 23andMe studies the genetic variation across these samples. What scientists tend to see is that people with geographically close ancestors tend to be more genetically similar. People who were born in Sweden may be more genetically similar to one another than people who were born in Italy, for instance. And if we were to plot people as data points, those who come from the same places tend to form “clusters”.
If 23andMe notes that a cluster has many individuals who all state that their grandparents came from, say, Country X, then the company may label that cluster “Country X” and the people within that cluster become X’s reference population. This methodology inherently relies on people identifying where their recent ancestors came from to help 23andMe label clusters appropriately. This becomes difficult if recent ancestors came from states with fluctuating borders.
“If ‘Palestine’ and ‘Israel’ mean different things to different people, depending on when your grandparents were born and where, exactly, they were born, then it becomes difficult to define clear Palestine and Israel reference populations using our existing ‘Recent Ancestor Location’ methodology,” says Esselmann.
Even if Palestine was a fully recognised state, Esselmann says Palestinians do not form a distinct cluster under the company’s current analysis. “The individuals who said they were from Palestine, in our analysis, were clustering with people who were from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria etc,” Esselmann says, “Even though we had Palestinian samples, there was no distinct cluster that we were able to distinguish with confidence that included only people from Palestine.”
Here’s a thought: perhaps these results occur because those who consider themselves from “Palestine” had ancestors who originally came from elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the piece also contains this:
“At the end of the day cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Jericho and Hebron have had inhabitants for thousands of years,” says Amber-Rose Kedem, another 23andMe customer. When Kedem first took the test in 2019, her two largest percentages were Peninsular Arab (25 per cent) and Levantine (15 per cent). But when she decided to check her updated reports earlier in this year, Kedem was categorised as 37 per cent Peninsular Arab and only 0.8 per cent Levantine. “I see it as purposeful erasure,” she says.
Kedem is a Hebrew surname. Just saying.
And here’s the kicker:
Neither Palestine or Israel is listed as a possible country of ancestry in the company’s test results.
That’s right, Israel is not listed as a possible country of ancestry either. Yet Wired decided to go with the anti-Palestinian angle.