Ashkenazi Jewish women descended mostly from Italian converts, new study asserts

| October 8, 2013 |
via Forbes via Forbes

Are most modern Jews primarily of European or Middle and Near Eastern ancestry? That controversial subject—at the heart of the debate over the historical ‘right of return’ claimed by many religious Jews—is back in the headlines with the release of a massive new study published in Nature Communications challenging some established views of the origins of European Jewry.

The total Ashkenazi population is estimated at around 8 million people. The estimated world Jewish population is about 13 million.

Before the advent of advanced DNA research, it had been thought by some historians that European Jewry traced to the largely pagan population of ancient Khazaria in the Caucuses, whose leadership was believed to have converted to Judaism beginning around 700 AD. But that theory—known as the Khazarian hypothesis—has been largely discredited by DNA research. One geneticist, Eran Elhaik, has recently attempted to revive the theory, but his research has been sharply challenged.

A groundbreaking paper published in 2000 by Harry Ostrer, a professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer showed that most modern Jews are descended on their male side from a core population of approximately 20,000 Jews who migrated from Italy over the first millennium and eventually settled in Eastern Europe.

“All European [Ashkenazi] Jews seem connected on the order of fourth or fifth cousins,” Ostrer has said.

Known as the so-called “Rhineland hypothesis,” the consensus research holds that most Ashkenazi Jews, as well as many Jews tracing their lineage to Italy, North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Kurdish regions and Yemen, share common paternal haplotypes also found among many Arabs from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. Only a small percentage of the Y-DNA of Ashkenazi Jews—less than 25 percent—originated outside of the Near East, presumably as converts.

This historical and genetic mosaic has provided support for the controversial concept of a “Jewish people.” The Law of Return, the Israeli law that established the right of Jews around the world to settle in Israel and which remains in force today, was a central tenet of Zionism. It is invoked by some religious Jews to support territorial claims (even though, based on this research, many Arabs, including Palestinians, where therefore also have a genetic ‘right of return’).

But what about the female lineage? That history is more obscure and contentiously debated. Duke University’s David Goldstein and Mark Thomas of the Center for Genetic Anthropology in London reported in 2002 that much of the mitochondrial DNA of women in Jewish communities around the world that they examined did not seem to be of Middle or Near Eastern origin, and indeed each community had its own genetic pattern. This suggested that migrating Jewish men might have taken on local wives, who converted to Judaism. The estimates of the percentage of Ashkenazi women of European image was probably more than 50 percent, they estimated, but the data was too murky to come up with a firm estimate.

But a subsequent and more extensive study in 2006 by a team based at Technion and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa suggested that Ashkenazi women—40 percent or more—may indeed have had ancient Near and Middle Eastern roots, and may have accompanied their husbands as part of families migrating together.

The new study published in Nature Communications aligns itself more closely with the 2002 hypothesis, although there are differences. Professor Martin Richards, who heads the University of Huddersfield’s Archaeogenetics Research Group (and who participated in the 2002 study), and colleagues sequenced 74 mitochondrial genomes and analyzed more than 3,500 mitochondrial genomes – far more data than the 2006 survey, which reviewed only a short length of the mitochondrial DNA, containing just 1,000 or so of its 16,600 DNA units, in all their subjects.

Richards and his team claim that maternal lineages did not originate in the Near or Middle East or the Khazarian Caucasus but rather, for the most part, within Mediterranean Europe. Another twist in the findings: Jewish women may have been assimilated in Europe as far back as 2,000 years ago—earlier than most other studies have projected. The researchers believe the DNA could trace back to the early Roman Empire, when as much as 10 percent of the population practiced Judaism, many of them converts. Overall, they claim, at least 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe while 8 percent originated in the Near East, with the rest uncertain.

According to Nicholas Wade of the New York Times, Doron Behar, one of the key authors of the 2006 analysis, said he disagreed with the conclusions, but has provided no detailed critique as yet.

Wade also talked to David Goldstein, who said he believed the estimate that 80 percent of Ashkenazi Jewry originated in Europe was too high considering the unpredictability of mitochondrial DNA data.

The new research underscores an emerging consensus that wandering Jewish men, from the Near East, established a mosaic of small Jewish communities—first in Italy and then scattered throughout Europe, often taking on local gentile wives and raising their children as Jews.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

Additional Resource:

Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People, Jon Entine

  • August Pamplona

    Where do Sephardic Jews fit into this (if at all)?

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Good question. From a genetic perspective, Sephardim are not as distinct a group, as there has been more intermarriage with non Jews over the centuries…so the data is harder to isolate. This particular study suggests that the common markers for Ashkenazi women are from the Near East and from Roman Jews…those populations preceded the founding of what became Sephardic Jewry. Many of these same markers are in Sephardic Jews as well.

      • L.M.

        I am one of the Ashkenazi Jews(100%) and I agree with this research,as we are different from Sephardic mentally and visually. We are more close to Italian or Roman people.
        It is absolutely incredible, how we are survive against assimilation !!! Believe me it was mostly from mother’s side – not to assimilate. Family pressure on kids to choose suppose from Ashkenazi Jews transferred with blood. It is even more important than keeping traditions.
        You can eat what you want , you can dress up how you want, we will prefer , if you remember at least some of Jewish Holidays(no pressure), but you must to marry to same, as you are. You are growing up with it and just believe in you hard that you will be more happy with suppose from same kind, as you are. The funny thing that I became same, as I became a mother…
        It doesn’t matter how many researches will be done in the world , we are here, we are existing, we are surviving and it is making us unique…..

        • Kavod And Kaved

          I don’t even know where to start with this. No wonder I can’t stand being around most Ashkenazim. It’s the inbreeding…

          • kenzey

            what does that mean Kavod? Why is it you can’t stand to be around them? Thier people just like you and myself. Am I missing something?

        • kenzey

          I was just informed I was a Ashkenazi
          Jewish.. I’m getting ready to turn 62 yrs and I had no clue of this until a week ago.. I would love to learn more. Is there a place I can find out about my heritage? My e mail address is Kenzeyg823@gmail.com I read there is 8 to 10, 000 left. Does that mean we are all related?

        • lucy

          I think it’s a mistake. The link to Italians goes back much much further. My dad was Italian and his line started out in Sumer. If I had talent as a writer, I would write about how Abraham was the neighbor of the people that would become the Italians and Greeks back in Sumer the first city.

  • hwshy

    Hitler didnt seem to mind where a “Jew” came from, going after even those with only one Jewish grandparent. In this aim, he had a deep complicity and working relationship with the leader of the Muslims in Palestine (the region in question where no Jews apparently ever came from), known as the Mufti of Jerusalem, who was also a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Now if we didn’t come from Palestine, why does my European Jewish granddaddy bear a certain resemblance to this Mufti?!!! And why do I get mistakenly asked if I am Arab every time I choose to grow a beard? :)

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      First, this study is contested by others. If it is accurate, it refers only to Ashkenazi women (again, other scientists dispute these findings, say the data suggests that 50% or more of Ashkenazi Jewish women do have Near East ancestry). No one that I know of disputes that most Jewish men–upwards of 75%–have Near East ancestral roots. So that could explain your Semitic looks!

    • American Firster

      Doesnt Israel also practice the “one grandparent policy”?

      • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

        The Law of Return was modified in 1970 to extend the right of return to non-Jews with a Jewish grandparent.

        • Jonah Lissner

          Errata:

          “The total Ashkenazi population is estimated at around 8 million people. The estimated world Jewish population is about 13 million.”

          That is an old census figure. I have estimated at least 20 million Jews worldwide. The total, albeit sourced from Wikipedia, is somewhere between 14 to 18 million. Notice that the estimates tend to accrue on the low side:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_ancestry

          That number is neither including Crypto-Jews of Europe or the Americas, nor Lost Tribes like the Amhara or Nilotic Israelites in Africa, let alone Asia’s Kurds or Pashtun.

      • Casey

        That’s a ridiculous comparison; the Nazis used it to make sure they could murder as many Jews as possible, Israel uses it to make sure everyone (whether they are Jewish or just descended from a Jew) is safe from antisemitism.

        • American Firster

          So much myth and hyperbole in your statement, but of course myth and hyperbole is the flavor of the day.

          • Kavod And Kaved

            Well, they got six million of us, but I guess that’s ok if for some reason, like needing that company for something, they left a few alive for the time being…and oh, let some go in exchange for bribes of course, let’s not forget that. As long as they just wanted to kill most of us….

            I’m sure you have a people of your own whose genetic purity could enthral you just as much.

          • Chaplain Michael

            Because it served their purpose. Why is it too hard to understand that ruthless people will use whomever they can, and then dispose of them. We see it everyday in lesser degrees.

          • http://www.queerevolutionary.net/QueeRevolutionaryBlog/queerevolutionary/ QueeRevolutionary

            Only Jesus Nazi Freaks think that Hitler did NOT kill enough Jews.

            NEVER AGAIN YOU CHRISTONAZI PIG

    • Samir Halabi

      The answer is simple the vast majority of Ashkenazim look Semitic and are Semites. Ashkenazim, Sephardim & Mizrahim all originated from the land of Israel. To be precise Judea. After the destruction of the 2nd temple 70AD and again after the Bar-Kokhba revolt against Rome the great Jewish dispersion took place, Jews were dispersed all over the Roman Empire, including the Rhineland, Gaul, Spain and later they spread further eastwards into Poland and Russia. However the overwhelming majority of these Jews from the Rhineland, France to Poland and Russia etc all looked semitic even though they were separated from their brethren who lived in the middle east, they still shared the same bloodlines which they didn’t share with their non jewish countrymen either in the Arab and Islamic world or in europe. This is the reason why people can mistake you for an Arab

  • Greek food enthusiast

    How come the DNA says the Ashkenazi are 54% Greek and 21% Iranian, using the new Genochip 2.0, and the Greek DNA has the same percentages as the Tuscan. Would the mtDNA actually be Tuscan Italian, which actually is Bronze-age Greek, since old Etruscan/Tuscan language is similar to Greek spoken prior to 1,500 BCE? Why Italian rather than Greek, when the Italians marrying the Middle-Eastern men most likely were Greek speaking, with the majority of synagogues in ancient Rome being Greek speaking and only 23 Latin speaking? Any ideas? Thanks.

    • Chaplain Michael

      The latest study claims they are central European.

  • Kenneth C.

    80% does not seem to be a rational or accurate estimate,I’ve read studies that have stated that a little more than half of Ashkenazi Jewish people do have levantine Mtdna from the near east…Why are they saying that it’s European and who came up with this supposed “conclusion”?

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Kenneth, some geneticists dispute the conclusions by the Richards’ team. Talked with Martin, and he’s very confident that the maternal line of about 65-80% of today’s Ashkenazi Jews has ancient European roots. Others say it could be as low as 40%, but it is sizable regardless. I’m working on a mega story analyzing the claims and counter claims, but it won’t be out for a month or so. Stay tuned!!

  • KYKNOC

    The problem here is that, the human genome is 99.9% identical between all humans, and that more variation is apparent in cellular process then racial indication. Syrians and Jewish DNA are more similar as they share a semetic background, Arabs are more Assyrian-Persian in nature, but they both share the same ancestor which is the Sumerian. The Sumerian is the common ancestor, but all humans originated in AFRICA 150,000 Years ago. And were all 99.9 similar, we should stop focusing on roots and racial identification and more on how we are all human. Not hes this type of jew, and hes this type of jew, and hes african and this guys arab. But hes a human being, and shes a human being, and I am a human being. JUST SAYING!!!

    • Kavod And Kaved

      Studies of Arabian peninsula DNA, of people who have been there a long time, show a different story to yours. Iranian and Iraqi DNA are close to Levantine DNA (Syria, Palestinian, etc) while Arab peninsula DNA is distinct and closer to N. African. However it all depends WHICH DNA you are looking at, Y chromosome, MtDNA, or any given specific marker. People kept moving around and invading and leaving their DNA behind in bits and pieces. We’re all mongrels, and all DNA can tell us is which groups of people we’re likely to be more related to.

      And when you have to deal with all kinds of people suggesting you’re not really Jewish but a Khazarian simply because you have ancestors from Europe (as if all European Jews are Ashkenazi) you’d appreciate having the proof with which to say, Thanks for your ignorant opinion, but **** off now, because explaining that that’s not even how Judaism works just doesn’t seem to sink into their blood purity obsessed little left-wing racialist racist skulls.
      Obviously you have the luxury of not having who you are questioned daily, or perhaps you’ve bought into that whole self-hating white liberal deracinating shtick that insists that white people have no culture or distinction and only brown and black people can have cultures or be distinct and unique. You’re obviously a liberal, the fact that you are spending your time on dna sites for specific groups (obviously interested yourself, hypocrite) and then lecturing other people and telling them what to do and what to think makes that clear.
      Personally I find genetics fascinating, All the distinctions, and yet all the interrelationships. Like a magnificent cloth woven of multiple different colours. You go be colour-blind and see humanity as a big blob of undifferentiated communist grey if you want to. JUST SAYING!!!
      Twit.

    • botti

      You could make the same claim that humans and mice are 90% identical.

      The reality is that population genetics is very good at identifying ancestral groupings with a high degree of confidence.

      http://genomebiology.com/2002/3/7/comment/2007

  • xi557xi

    John, typo: in paragraph 9 you say Ramban Medical Center. It’s Rambam.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Thanks!

  • http://ha-historion.blogspot.com/ Joel Davidi

    Jersey Shore, Five Towns Edition, coming up?

  • James

    Hi! Where is the follow up article on this topic? I can’t find it.

  • disqus_Xvrb9JcPCz

    You are correct in that we are all the family of Man and genealogy is a
    stupid way to judge people (Book of Timothy and Titus calls it foolish).
    Unfortunately
    there is a war being fought based on claims of bloodlines and claims to
    a land (blood of Abraham) in God’s name. The irony is that those being
    displaced may have more kinship to Abraham than those doing the
    displacement.

  • Lucy

    No I don’t think so. The Italians and Jews are related MUCH further back in time. I think they all started out in Sumer. My dad’s Y dna started out in Iraq, he’s Italian, went to Island of Crete. Remember the Abraham story he started out there too.

  • Hening

    A hypothesis based on a study this old is useless.

  • Jonah Lissner

    In agreement with Dr. Entine.

    It is unlikely that Ashkenazim, named for the Kurdo-Parthian Empire “Ashkuza” after the defeat of the Persian Empire by the Parthians, [Lissner, ibid] had cultural similarities to Southern Sephardim and Mitzrahim, although there have been citations for Ashkenaz in-migration to pre-Inquisition Spain and Italy, and out-migration of Sephardim and Mitzrahim to Jewish region of Europe:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazars#Aftermath:_impact.2C_decline_and_dispersion

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazar_Correspondence

    http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Sephardim

    Since 2006, and certainly before [Nebel, et. al., 2001] c. 2009 in the paper, “Genomic microsatellites identify shared Jewish ancestry intermediate between Middle Eastern and European populations”,

    Nebel, Filon, et. al. “The Y Chromosome of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East”. http://bioanthropology.huji.ac.il/pdf/Nebel_2001b.pdf

    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2156/10/80

    the gradations of genetic similarity between all contemporary Jews, and their contemporary Near Eastern neighbors, including Levantine Arabs, Kurds and Adyghe, are measured still closer to one another than to their neighboring populations, including Italkim, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. The genetic distance from classical era Jews and their Near Eastern neighbors was not measured. All Kurds and Jews also have a very high genetic correspondence, cit. Lavendar, [Nebel, et. al.]:

    http://cryptojews.com/comparing-dna-patterns-of-sephardi-ashkenazi-kurdish-jews

    The Moorish invasions of the Near East and Southern Europe likely altered the face of the inhabitants, including possible intermarriage with Berbers or Arabs. Furthermore the lineage of Sephardim may include Berbers or Carthaginians, in low infiltrations due to the length of duration of their colonies in Iberian regions. However, Italkim have been demonstrated to have the highest genetic correspondence to Ashkenazim c. 2010, “Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity”:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/science/10jews.html?_r=0

    Moreover, common to all modern Jewish populations are the c. 5%++ North, West, Central and East African genetic contributions to Hebrew, Israelite and Jewish populations, especially until c. 100 CE and the global Exile from Israel:

    Moorjani, et. al. “The History of African Gene Flow into Southern Europeans, Levantines, and Jews”. http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.1001373

    Therefore it is certain that very few Russian migrants from before the Communist Era have very much more mixed ancestry, than Italkim. Some contemporary Russian migrants, let alone Italian or Sephardic migrants from Latin America with mixed Latino-Jewish ancestry, are studied before Aliyah and their mixed lineage is noted as parentage having converts or Gerim, making it unlikely that even small groups of total, pre-1920 Italian or Russian Jews, are of a strong mixed ancestry, if they have kept their lineage from Judaic or Israeli exile genetic founding populations in their current nations of landing all of which sharing strong Afro-Asiatic, Near Eastern Y- and MtDNA lines.

    Jonah Lissner
    Independent Researcher of Sciences, PhD Student
    http://Lissnerresearch.weebly.com

  • T Bennett

    Problem with denying the Khazar theory can be seen in how the article admits near the end that over 80% of the Ashkenazi Jews are indigenous to Europe 2000 years ago….where did they migrate from to Europe? Judea and Samaria? Or Khazar? A large number of Khazars migrated to Europe during that time period. Clarification was not really given. Just promoting the Rhine theory, which has been criticized just as much, if not more than the Khazar theory.

  • Grey

    That’s correct KYKNOC.

  • Another Mike

    I’m really surprised that the genetic researchers could detect that the Italian foremothers converted to Judaism. What kind of genetic marker does halachic conversion leave? Some sort of mutation?

    Absent such a genetic marker, Is there any paperwork showing these women converted? Which rabbis decided these women had validly converted, and what are their bona fides?

    No, as far as the evidence shows, since being a Jew depends on having a Jewish mother, most likely the European “Jews” are not Jewish at all. Surely Orthodox Jews would not recognize them as Jewish, which means Orthodox Jews with European mothers/grandmothers/etc. should not recognize themselves as Jewish.

    More importantly, merely living as if one were Jewish does not make you Jewish. You need to convert. But surely conversions performed by a Gentile rabbi would be invalid, as would ordinations, etc.

    If I were an Ashkenazi Conservative or Orthodox Jew, I would surely convert under a Mizrahi rabbi as soon as humanly possible, to remove the uncertainty.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      There is no uncertainty. Under rabbinical law, genetic heritage cannot be considered to determine Jewishness. If one has been a Jew for a set number of generations–3-6 is often used.

      • Another Mike

        So, by now most rabbis have accepted the Black Hebrew Israelites as Jews, because they have been living as Jews since 1896. Good to know.

      • Another Mike

        You do realize, that any rabbinical law created by Gentile rabbis would be invalid. So how far back does this rabbinical law go?

      • Isaiah

        A person is a Jew if that person is a descendant of Jacob (Israel). If not, then absolutely that person is not a Jew at all. Just a mindkick saying.