Tuesday, June 17, 2008

DNA and the Jewishness of Ethiopians and purported Conversos

The following is an excerpt of an interview (published in the June 2008 Reform Judaism magazine) with Jon Entine concerning the latest DNA findings and conjecture about their meaning for the origin of the Jews. Please note that this is not halachic data - especially when the DNA shows patrilinear descent - which has no standing in being a Jew.

He says that so far, genetic detective work among Jews reveals:

  • The majority of Jewish males shares a Middle East ancestry that dates back 4,000 years.
  • Only about 50% of Jewish females are genetically linked to the Middle East; the others appear to be descended from gentiles.
  • Some 30% of the Ashkenazi gene pool has genetic markers from a variety of local, non-Jewish populations among which Jews lived.
  • Most Jewish men claiming to be kohanim (of priestly descent) carry markers that originated about 3,000 years ago.
  • The African Lemba tribe carries Jewish markers, including a 53% frequency of kohanim markers among the tribe's priests, supporting the tribe's claim of Israelite descent.
  • Markers among Asia's Indian Jews suggest that they descended from biblical Israelites.
  • Despite their tradition of Solomonic descent, Ethiopian Jews carry no Jewish marker.
  • Many Southwestern conversos and Hispanos descend from Sephardim on the male side.
  • One in four Ashkenazi Jews carries genetic risk for diseases like Tay-Sachs, Familial Dysautonomia, and Cystic Fibrosis.
  • Some forms of breast cancer are found only in Jews and their descendents.


What does the genetic evidence show about the Jewish origins of Ethiopian Jewry?

The Black Jews of Ethiopia, who were airlifted to Israel in the mid 1980s as part of a massive Jewish rescue of what many believed was a mythical Lost Tribe, have steadfastly claimed a biblical royal pedigree tied to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. At the urging of many Orthodox Jews, Israel’s chief rabbis embraced this account and granted them official status as descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. But more recent DNA evidence is not so generous: Ethiopian Jews do not have the Jewish genetic markers seen in all other Jewish groups, which tells us that they don’t have genetic roots in ancient Israel. This finding is in line with historical evidence suggesting that in the 5th or 6th century C.E. a fairly sizable number of Ethiopians, including some of the royalty, converted to Judaism. Still, they have remained faithful to Judaism for 1,500 years—longer than the history of Ashkenazic Jewry.

For the groups that have received DNA confirmation of their Jewish ancestry, the news must be empowering.

Oh yes, having genetic witness to their ancestral Israelite roots has provided these communities with cultural cohesiveness, a sense of real pride—no one can take it away from them now—and a new level of respect from other Jews.

What does DNA evidence reveal about the conversos in the Southwest United States?

For years a host of anecdotal reports have appeared about people in the American Southwest and northern Mexico who practice Jewish rituals such as lighting candles on Friday evenings and covering the mirrors after a family member has died. Occasionally some claimed they were descendants of Jews, but few people took them very seriously. Cultural anthropologists tended to believe they had adopted the rituals from Jewish traders. Thanks to genetic research, however, we can now confirm that many of these individuals and pocket communities do, in fact, have Jewish roots. In my book I tell the story of William Sanchez from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who had always wondered about the Jewish-like rituals in his family. After he saw a story on genetic genealogy on PBS he sent in a DNA sample for testing. When the lab reached him on the phone and said, “Mr. Sanchez, we found some interesting results from your DNA; you may be descended from or closely related to priests,” Sanchez replied, “That makes perfect sense, because I am a priest.” There was stunned silence on the phone because William Sanchez was, in fact, a Catholic priest. He and many of his family members have since pieced together their family history and discovered that they—as well as many Hispanos in Sanchez’s congregation and in communities throughout the Southwest—are the descendants on their male side of Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism and then settled in the New World, where they took on Native American wives. Over time the descendants’ Jewish practices atrophied and they became Christian in belief. Nowadays, to celebrate their Jewish heri­tage alongside their Catholic beliefs, Sanchez and many of his parishioners wear a Star of David with a cross in the middle. Interestingly, too, a few of his family members have been touched so deeply by this revelation, they have converted to Judaism.

No comments :

Post a Comment

please use either your real name or a pseudonym.