The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jewish genetics, Palestinians, and those Italian girls

Genetic evidence in the last several years has shown that most Ashkenazic Jews (most American Jews) are Middle Eastern-European hybrids. They are genetically descendent from the people of the Middle East. But a new study hints that there was a good bit of fooling around in southern Europe in the old days. Those Italian girls! And, guess who are their (our) closest genetic cousins? Palestinians.

Whether Jews are a people, a religion, a tribe, or a form of neurosis (my vote) has long been a matter of argument. One result, since the Holocaust, is the belief that the Jews were not really a people, just a religion. It also was speculated that most Jews may be descendants of converts like the
Khazars in the Caucuses and really share very little historically. See Arthur Koestler. But DNA evidence, going back almost a generation has disproven that notion. A new study confirms that. Ashkenazim around the word are mostly more alike among themselves then they are with non-Jews. Most can trace their ancestry back to what is now Israel and the surrounding areas.

Scientists in Israel and the U.S., using genetic markers called genomic
microsatellites (don’t ask), studied 78 individuals from four Jewish groups around the world and compared them to 321 individuals from 12 non-Jewish populations. They found:

Jewish populations showed a high level of genetic similarity to each other, clustering together in several types of analysis of population structure. Further, Bayesian clustering, neighbor-joining trees, and multidimensional scaling place the Jewish populations as intermediate between the non-Jewish Middle Eastern and European populations.

These results support the view that the Jewish populations largely

share a common Middle Eastern ancestry and that over their history they have undergone varying degrees of admixture with non-Jewish populations of European descent.

In other words, a shared ancestry. A peoplehood.

But here were two surprises in the study, published in BMC Genetics. One, although most Ashkenazim come from the northern part of Europe, most of the European genes come from southern Europe--Italy, Greece, Sardinia. One guess is that most of the intermarriages and assimilation happened after the Jews dispersed from the Middle East during the years of the Roman Empire, at least more so than in later years when they wound up in Germany and Poland during the Middle Ages. Then, they generally were sequestered in ghettos and in villages or parts of cities and had limited interaction with surrounding populations until the beginning of the 19th century.

And the second surprise is that the group of people closest genetically to the Jews are Palestinians. Both come from the Levant area and Mesopotamia. That could be that many Palestinians are likely of original Jewish or Samaritan origin.

Combatants in the Middle East might note.

[OK, the photo is Dominique Sanda and friend in "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," about an Italian-Jewish family in WW2. Seems appropriate. You'd rather see Khazars?]