Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The complex ancestry of European Jews

A clearer picture is finally emerging of the ethnic origins of European Jewish populations. And it seems that the connections to the Near East are more tenuous than previously thought.

An important new study examining Ashkenazi lineages by decoding and analyzing entire mitochondrial genomes has found that the female lines derive predominantly from European rather than Levantine populations.* The four major and most of the minor Ashkenazi maternal lineages form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Y-chromosome analysis has, on the other hand, revealed distinctive patterns which suggest that male European Jewish lineages may trace back to the large Jewish population of ancient Rome, though complicating the picture is the fact that large numbers of those practising Judaism in the ancient world were converts. Interestingly, of all general present-day European populations, Northern Italians exhibit the greatest proximity to Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations on the basis of whole-genome analysis.

So the story that seems to be emerging is that single males traveled (as traders?) from Italy and adjacent areas (as well as from the Levant, presumably) deep into various parts of Europe and married and converted local women. And it was basically from this process that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations of Europe arose.

A simplification, no doubt. But, if the broad outlines of this view are confirmed by future research, the myth of a clearcut racially-based Jewish identity – still entertained by certain Jewish as well as anti-Semitic groups – will be further undermined.

Social myths can be benign. But the myths associated with Jewish origins and identity have been – and unfortunately still are – being used to foment fear, hatred and division.

For example, Islamist groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood draw on traditional European as well as non-European sources which impute demonic powers to Jews whom they define as much by race as by religion.

This sort of medieval thinking has no place in the modern world, and it a great pity that some Jewish groups seem to draw on similarly implausible myths to define themselves and to justify territorial claims and political strategies.

I don't want to get involved in a discussion about Israel and its neighbours – I have never lived there and don't know enough about it. But, like many other Western observers, I regret the fact that Israeli moderates and secularists have in recent years apparently lost ground to Jewish religious groupings whose views seem at times to have more in common with their despised Islamic fundamentalist neighbours than with their moderate and secular brethren.

* See also Nicholas Wade's New York Times article.