Considering the diverse origins of the Israelites the large numbers of conversions into and out of the Jewish community and major disasters which have befallen Jewish communities throughout history what is the genetic composition of Jewish communities today?

In the days before genetic testing the famous Jewish anthropologist Raphael Patai used cephalic indexes and blood groups to show the similarities between Jews and other groups He and a number of other scholars discussed the mixed origins of the ancient Hebrews and the major extent to which male Hebrews married women from diverse ethnic groups (1971) Shaye Cohen has shown that in antiquity there was not a strong boundary between Jews and Gentiles By the second century BCE there was a boundary but it could be crossed and “gentiles crossed it and became Jews in a variety of ways whether by political enfranchisement religious conversion veneration of the Jewish God observance of Jewish rituals association with Jews or other means” (1999: 342) For the first time there was now the notion of conversion to Judaism and religion overcame ethnicity In the second century CE the concept of matrilineal descent was begun Debate continues over the reasons but Patai notes that it was only after the Roman Exile when “violation and impregnation of Jewish women by foreign conquerors invaders armies bands or marauders” became common that Talmudic law changed to recognize matrilineal rather than patrilineal descent (1971: 61)

The genetic composition of the Jewish people became even more mixed after the major dispersions from Israel After the fall of Israel in 721 BCE (the dispersal of the ten northern tribes) the fall of Judah in 586 BCE (the Babylonian exile and the beginning of the Egyptian Diaspora) and during and after the fall of the Second Commonwealth in 70 CE “conversion of individuals and groups to Judaism became if not frequent at least not exceptional” There are at least three reported cases of groups converting to Judaism: the Kingdom of Abiabene of Iraq in the first century CE (Wexler 1996: 28) the Himyars in Yemen in the third to fifth centuries CE (BenZvi 1957) and the Khazars of Georgia (Eastern Europe) in the ninth century CE (Brook1999) Patai and Patai note that in preIslamic Arabia “intermarriage between Jews and pagan Arabs was frequentWith the expansion of Islam Jews intermarried not only with Arabs but also with members of the nations drawn into the Muslim orbit by the Arab conquests” (1980: 103) As parts of Arabia were conquered by Islamic forces there also were numerous cases of Jews converting sometimes voluntarily but often involuntarily to Islam Stillman (1991) Patai (1971 1997) BenZvi (1957) Goitein (1974) and DeFelice (1985) give numerous examples Wexler especially gives examples of conversions going both ways

There are also examples of descendants of the lost tribes of Israel claiming Jewish origins with many of them now returning to Judaism So far there has been little DNA testing but regarding the Bene Israel Jews of the Bombay area of India Parfitt concludes that his DNA research “clearly suggests that the Bene Israel are a very ancient probably Jewish group” (2003: 11) He also concludes that he has “likely evidence” that the Black Jews of Cochin are descendants of “an early migration of what were probably Jews from the Near East to India in ancient times” (p 15) The examples of Jews converting to Christianity in the last thousand years or so are too numerous to mention and there is no question that millions of people who identify as nonJewish today have Jewish ancestry The Jewish community while bemoaning the loss of so many people frequently because of discrimination or oppression also has not sufficiently recognized the large number of people who have joined Jewish communities The world Jewish population in the first century of the Common Era (CE) was about four to five million with 15 to two million in Israel Massive conversions persecutions and murders have led to drastic population decreases which also have affected the specific genetic distribution of worldwide Jewry (because some Jewish groups and areas have suffered more than others)

The extent of interaction of Jews and nonJews has been the topic of a number of genetic studies with the majority of researchers suggesting little interaction and others suggesting substantial interaction Part of the controversial differences are because of different loci (points on the genetic chain) being tested different levels of comparisons being utilized or small samples which can lead to variable results Space prohibits discussion of all of the genetic studies on this topic but for an idea of the overall findings results of some major studies follow

Santachiara noted in 1993 that mtDNA (female) studies had already been published by Batsheva BonneTamir et al (1986) and by Tikochenski et al (1991) but that genetic comparisons for male Ashkenazim and Sephardim (Ychromosomes) had not been done (p 56) Tikochinski using Israeli samples had analyzed twentyone Ashkenazi women from Eastern Europe and thirtyeight Sephardi women (mostly from Morocco) Her data implied that these Jewish women descended from a diversity of maternal lineages that had been distinct for four to five thousand years Thomas et al in 2002 published data on Jewish women in nine geographically separated areas and concluded that contrary to nonJews there was greater differentiation for mtDNA than for the Ychromosome that “cultural practice – in this case femaledefined ethnicity – has had a pronounced effect on patterns of genetic variation” (p 1417) By the early 1990s however methodological advances were beginning to make it possible for Ychromosome studies also to be conducted In 1991 Livshits et al compared twelve pairs of Jewish and nonJewish populations from the Middle East North Africa and Europe with each Jewish/nonJewish pair sharing the same (or close) geographic area: Yemen Iran Iraq; Morocco and Libya; Poland Russia and Georgia; Germany and Czechoslovakia; Bulgaria and Turkey/Spain (Turkish Jews were compared to Spanish nonJews because most Turkish Jews were exiled from Spain by the Inquisition) Their conclusion: modern Jewish populations in general derived from an earlier common gene pool which had undergone relatively little admixture with nonJewish neighbors after dispersal from Israel Somewhat differently Kurdish Jews had experienced considerable interaction with nonJewish Kurds and Yemenite Jews may have had a substantial component of different genes from conversion into Judaism (p 145)

In 1993 Santachiara et al compared eightythree Sephardim (mostly from Tunisia and Morocco) eightythree Ashkenazim (mostly from Russia and Poland) and 105 nonJews from Czechoslovakia and made comparisons to nonJews from Lebanon They found strong genetic affinities between Sephardim and Ashkenazim almost no relationship with nonJews from Czechoslovakia and a very close relationship between Sephardim and Lebanese nonJews They found about 234% to 286% nonJewish Ychromosomes in the Ashkenazim and concluded that this represented about one percent or less of admixture per generation for the centuries the Ashkenazim had lived in Central or Northeastern Europe (p 63)

In 2000 Hammer et al compared seven Jewish groups (Ashkenazim Roman North African Kurdish Near Eastern [Iran and Iraq] Yemenite and Ethiopian) with sixteen nonJewish groups from similar geographical locations They concluded that most Jewish groups were similar to each other and had experienced little genetic admixture with nonJewish groups They found a strong genetic similarity between most Jews and Middle Eastern nonJews The Palestinians and Syrian nonJews were most closely related but Saudi Arabians Lebanese and Druze also were close The authors attributed the genetic closeness to ancient common Middle Eastern origins They estimated the admixture rate of Ashkenazim (for all haplotypes) to be 227% plus or minus 78% over a period of about eighty generations (p 6773) Interestingly Ethiopian Jews and the Lemba did not match closely with the cluster of Jewish groups (p 6774)

In 2001 Nebel et al compared three Jewish and three nonJewish groups from the Middle East: Ashkenazim Sephardim and Kurdish Jews from Israel; Muslim Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian Authority Area; Bedouin from the Negev; and Muslim Kurds They concluded that Sephardim and Kurdish Jews were genetically indistinguishable but that both were slightly significantly different from Ashkenazim (who were most closely related to the Muslim Kurds) Nebel et al had earlier (2000) found a large genetic relationship between Jews and Palestinians but in this study found an even higher relationship of Jews with Iraquis and Kurds They conclude that the common genetic background shared by Jews and other Middle Eastern groups predates the division of Middle Easterners into different ethnic groups (p 1106)

Interestingly Nebel et al (2001) also found that the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH) considered the most definitive Jewish haplotype was found among 101% of Kurdish Jews 76% of Ashkenazim 64% of Sephardim 21% of Palestianian Arabs and 11% of Muslim Kurds The CMH and the most frequent Muslim Kurdish haplotype (MKH) were the same on five markers (out of six) and very close on the other marker The MKH was shared by 95% of Muslim Kurds 26% of Sephardim 20% of Kurdish Jews 14% of Palestinian Arabs and 13% of Ashkenazim The general conclusion is that these similarities result mostly from the sharing of ancient genetic patterns and not from more recent admixture between the groups (p 1099) Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman has suggested that the CMH is “likely the marker of the Jews’ and Arabs’ shared Patriarch Abraham” (2004: 20) but much more analysis is needed on the CMH in populations throughout the world

In 2004 Behar et al compared data from Ashkenazi groups in ten different European areas (France Germany the Netherlands; AustriaHungary Byelorussia Lithuania Poland Romania Russia and Ukraine ) with data from nonJewish groups in seven different countries (France Germany Austria Hungary Poland Romania and Russia) They found that nine of the Jewish groups were similar with low rates of admixture with nonJewish groups but that these Ashkenazi groups were closely related to nonAshkenazi Jews and to some nonJewish Near Eastern groups Within Europe these authors suggested an admixture rate of 58% for all the Jewish nationality groups except Dutch Jews who had an admixture rate of 460% plus or minus 183% This supposedly resulted from a long history of relative tolerance from nonJews with Jewish women marrying nonJewish men (p 362)

Researchers frequently have used haplogroups to measure the genetic distance between various groups in the world and combined data allows the comparison of these three Jewish groups – Ashkenazim Sephardim and Kurdish Jews – with sixtynine nonJewish Eurasian populations The lower the number the less genetic distance there is between the groups ie the closer the groups are related genetically The lowest number for the Jewish groups (closet relationship) was 18 and the highest number (least relationship) was 88 It is important to note that these relative average genetic distances will differ as more samples are added as data from different methodological techniques are evaluated and as different judgments are made on adjusting different studies to make them comparable to each other Genetic research is a relatively recent and rapidly evolving area of research and there will be constant refinements and adjustments as more research is added

Of all the groups the Ashkenazim are most closely related in order to Palestinian Arabs (18) Muslim Kurds (21) Cypriots (22) Greeks (23) Kurdish Jews (25) Bedouin (26) Sephardi Jews (27) Egyptians (27) Turks (28) and Pakistani Parsi (31) Sephardim are most closely related to Italians (18) Turks (20) Ossetians Georgia (20) Kurdish Jews (22) Muslim Kurds (24) Greeks (24) Armenians (26) Cypriots (26) Ashkenazi Jews (27) and Pakistani Parsi (28) Kurdish Jews are most closely related to Sephardi Jews (22) and Muslim Kurds (22) Pakistani Parsi (23) Ashkenazi Jews (25) Turks (26) Palestinian Arabs (28) Ossetians (30) Cypriots (31) Greeks (32) and Armenians (35) On the other hand for nineteen Central and Eastern European populations the Ashkenazim averaged 551 the Sephardim averaged 482 and the Kurdish Jews averaged 555 The Georgia Ossetians (X=297) and the Romanians (X=330) were the closest to all three of the Jewish groups For thirteen western European populations the Ashkenazim averaged 716 the Sephardim averaged 479 and the Kurdish Jews averaged 630 The Sephardim were most closely related to the Southern Portuguese (33) Dutch (36) and French (36) and Northern Portuguese (40) None of these were particularly close but they were much closer than they were for Ashkenazim or Kurdish Jews

The genetic distances shown in the previous paragraph are in general agreement with the studies reported in this article showing that all three Jewish groups are relatively closely related to each other The close relationship between Sephardim and Kurdish Jews is possibly at least partly a result of the significant interaction between the Jews of Iraq and the Jews of Spain and North Africa especially from the eighth to the tenth centuries CE The three Jewish groups differ in their rankings with their closest ten groups but generally the differences in rankings for the closet ten groups are small and subject to changes in ranking as more samples are added All three Jewish groups are closely related to Kurdish Muslims the closest neighbors of the Kurdish Jews Kurdish Jews were close to Muslim Kurds but so were Ashkenazim and Sephardim suggesting that much if not most of the genetic similarity between Jewish and Muslim Kurds is from ancient times Considering their physical closeness however it is reasonable to believe that there has been some genetic admixture not picked up because the two groups started with similar genetic patterns

Ashkenazim are not closely related to their Central and Eastern European neighbors or to any group outside the Middle East or Near East Sephardim are more closely related to their neighbors than are the Ashkenazim but the Sephardim still are much more closely related to the other two Jewish groups the other Middle Easterners and the Mediterraneans than they are to their western European neighbors The Jewish community in the Netherlands is the most obvious example of genetic admixture a pattern which will be seen more often due to major increases in intermarriages The other side of the coin the extent to which Jewish genetic patterns have entered nonJewish groups is also a topic which needs much more specific research

Recently there also has been specific archaeological interest given to the origins of the early Israelites a controversial topic within archaeology Dever has recently written that the protoIsraelites consisted of local pastoral nomads refugees fleeing Egyptian injustice social rebels and social “bandits” urban dropouts escaping exploitation corruption and inefficiency former soldiers and mercenaries and others (pp 181182) He concludes that the solidarity formed by these people was ideological not biological


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ABRAHAM D LAVENDER former president of SCJS is Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology Florida International University Miami He has addressed Society conferences as well as written articles and papers on related topics