By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Are all present day Jews really the biological descendants of the Jews who inhabited the Land of Israel 3.000 years ago? Yes and No.
A new genetic analysis supports the historical record of Middle Eastern Jews settling in North Africa during Classical Antiquity, actively proselytizing and marrying local populations, and, in the process, forming distinct populations that stayed largely intact for more than 2,000 years.
The study, led by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
However, as anyone who has been to present day Israel knows, Jews come in many shades and looks.
This is because even in the diaspora, and even against the will of the ruling non-Jewish religious authorities, Jews have almost always proselytized their neighbors, and quietly welcomed converts into the Jewish community, even against the formal rules of medieval rabbis.
That is why most Jews in different geographical locations tend to look similar to the local majority after several generations. The rabbinical rule that one should not refer to any Jew’s convert status is evidence of the desire of Jewish leaders to keep proselytizing activities secret from the ruling religious authorities..
In a previous genetic analysis, the researchers showed that modern-day Sephardic (Greek and Turkish), Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Mizrahi (Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian) Jews that originated in Europe and the Middle East are more related to each other than to their contemporary non-Jewish neighbors, with each group forming its own cluster within the larger Jewish population.
Further, each of the four geographical groups genes, demonstrated Middle-Eastern ancestry, plus varying degrees of inclusion of converts to Judaism from the surrounding populations. This is true even though two of the major Jewish populations — Middle Eastern and European Jews — were found to have diverged from each other approximately 2,500 years ago.
The current study which extended the analysis to North African Jews, the second largest Jewish Diaspora group found that they also were more related to each other than to their contemporary non-Jewish North African neighbors.
The current study also included members of Jewish communities in Ethiopia, Yemen and Georgia.
In all, the researchers analyzed the genetic make-up of 509 Jews from 15 populations along with genetic data on 114 individuals from seven North African non-Jewish populations.
North African Jews exhibited a high degree of endogamy, or marriage within their own religious group in accordance with Jewish custom. Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations also formed distinctive genetically linked clusters, as did Georgian Jews.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com