A genetic study has shown that being a Jew is not just about shared religion and culture, but shared biology.
Geneticist Harry Ostrer, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, led the study which examined the genomes of Jews from North Africa, home to the largest Jewish diaspora outside of Europe and the US. The work completes a series of studies into the origins of Jewish populations in Greece and Turkey, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The research shows that each group is genetically closer to their counterparts in the worldwide Jewish Diaspora than their immediate non-Jewish neighbours. Their distinct genetic grouping by country also suggests that they mostly married within their own religious and cultural circles and became closely interrelated.
Professor Ostrer’s work found that the Jewish populations of North Africa fall into 2 genetically distinct groups: those of Tunisia and Libya and those of Morocco and Algeria.
The DNA of Tunisian and Libyan Jews supports historical accounts of migrating biblical-era Israelites colonising the North African coast. In 312 BC Egypt’s king Alexander IV (son of Alexander the Great) began to settle Jews in Cyrenaica, in modern day Libya. By the 1st century AD there were 500,000 Jews there, according to the Jewish historian Josephus. After the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, 30,000 Jews were deported to Carthage, in modern day Tunisia.
Moroccan and Algerian Jews are genetically closer to their European counterparts than expected; they are the likely descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition in the 1490s.
Jewish populations tested in Georgia, located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, are closely related to those of the Middle East. Middle Eastern and European Jews were further found to have diverged from each other about 2,500 years ago, suggesting that Jewish populations migrated along the precursor to the Silk Road starting in the ancient Persian Empire.
Smaller Jewish communities were founded as far afield as India, Burma, and Ethiopia. The studies have shown that Ethiopian Jews are so distantly related to the rest of the Jewish Diaspora that their community must have been founded by just a few migrants who converted the local population to Judaism and then intermarried with them. DNA evidence also suggests that this occurred more than 2,000 years ago, explaining why Ethiopian Jews, airlifted to Israel during ‘Operation Moses‘ in 1984, had no idea about Hanukkah, which commemorates events dating back to the 2nd century BC, long after their ancestors had migrated from Israel.
The analysis is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was reported by Reuters.
Historical Migration of the Jewish Diaspora – image by lds.org