Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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18 Teves 5766 - January 18, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Study Proves European Jews Have Genetically Pure Heritage

by M. Plaut

A new study, published online in The American Journal of Human Genetics, indicates on genetic grounds that the first European Jews originated in the same area as their wives. The secular bias of most researchers had led them to assume up until now that the Ashkenazi communities of Northern and Central Europe were founded by men who came from the Middle East, and then took wives from each local population whom they perhaps converted to Judaism. Even a superficial familiarity with the current social and religious strictures of Jewish life, and the simple knowledge that these mores were observed unchanged for thousands of years, should have suggested that the men and women traveled together.

Doron Behar and Karl Skorecki of the Technion and Ramban Medical Center in Haifa, and colleagues elsewhere, reported that just four women, who may have lived 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, appear genetically to have been the ancestors of 40 percent of Ashkenazis alive today. The Technion team's analysis was based on mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element that is separate from the genes held in the cell's nucleus and that is inherited only through the female line. Because of changes that build up on the mitochondrial DNA — which do not have any known observable physical consequences — people can be assigned to branches that are defined by which mutations they carry.

The researchers found that many branches of current Ashkenazi Jews coalesced to single trees, and they were able to reduce them to four female ancestors. The similarity to the four Matriarchs is striking, but the genetic evidence indicates that these four women lived one or two thousand years after the time of the Matriarchs.

They found that some people in Egypt, Arabia and the Levant also carried the set of mutations that defines one of the four women and they thus argue that all four probably came originally from the Middle East.

A study by Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona five years ago showed that the men in many Jewish communities around the world bear Y chromosomes that were Middle Eastern in origin. This finding is widely accepted by geneticists as genetic proof of the Middle Eastern origin of the men, and also of the purity of the Jewish family throughout the ages in exile, but there is less consensus about the women's origins.

David Goldstein, now of Duke University, said in 2002 that the mitochondrial DNA of women in Jewish communities around the world did not seem to be Middle Eastern. According to him, each community has its own genetic pattern and in some cases the mitochondrial DNA is related to that of the host community. It was Dr. Goldstein and his colleagues who publicly suggested that Jewish men had arrived from the Middle East, taken wives from the host population and converted them to Judaism, after which he conceded that the genetic evidence showed clearly that there was no further intermarriage with non-Jews.

The Technion team suggests that the women too are of Middle Eastern origin, and would presumably have accompanied their husbands to Europe. Though this has not yet been shown for all Jewish communities around the world, at least the Ashkenazi Jewish community would have been formed by families of Jewish men and women migrating together.

Dr. Hammer told the New York Times that the new study "moves us forward in trying to understand Jewish population history." His own recent research, he said, suggests that the Ashkenazi population expanded through a series of bottlenecks — events that squeeze a population down to small numbers — perhaps as it migrated from the Middle East after the destruction of the Second Temple in around 70 CE to Italy, reaching the Rhine Valley in the 10th century.

Dr. Goldstein told the New York Times that the new report did not force him to alter his previous conclusion. In his view, the Technion team has shown that genetic drift - - that mitochondrial DNA's of a small, isolated population tend to change rapidly as some lineages fall extinct and others become more common — has played a major role in shaping Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA, but the linkage with Middle Eastern populations is not statistically significant.

Dr. Goldstein argues that because of genetic drift, Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNAs have developed their own pattern, which makes it very hard to tell their source. In the patrilineal case, however, even Dr. Goldstein concedes that there is no question of a Middle Eastern origin.


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