Jewishness is in the Blood and the Mitochondrial DNA

Please Note: there are two articles in this blog discussing this most interesting topic which confirm that “jewishness” is NOT just a religion. Jews are a race.


Source: Nearly Half Of Ashkenazi Jews Descended From Four ‘Founding Mothers’:

ScienceDaily (Jan. 17, 2006) — Some 3.5 million or 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four “founding mothers” who lived in Europe 1,000 years ago. The mothers were part of a small group who founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community, which was established in Europe as a result of migration from the Near East.

The studies that led to these findings were performed by Dr. Doron Behar as part of his doctoral thesis, and were done under the supervision of Prof. Karl Skorecki of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Research Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Prof. Skorecki is best known for his 1997 discovery of genetic evidence indicating that the majority of modern-day Jewish priests (Kohanim) are descendants of a single common male ancestor, consistent with the Biblical high priest, Aaron.
Researchers from other universities around the world contributed to the study, which was published online January 11 by the “American Journal of Human Genetics” and will appear in print in a forthcoming issue of the Journal.

The researchers’ conclusions are based on detailed comparative analysis of DNA sequence variation in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) region of the human genome. mtDNA is transmitted to descendants by the mother only.

The researchers found that the mtDNA of some 3.5 of the 8 million Ashkenazi Jews in the world can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNA of a type virtually absent in other populations. Non-Ashkenazi Jews also carry low frequencies of these distinct mtDNA types, providing evidence of shared maternal ancestry of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews. This is consistent with previous findings based on studies of the Y-chromosome, pointing to a similar pattern of shared paternal ancestry of global Jewish populations, originating in the Near East. The researchers concluded that the four founding mtDNA – likely of Middle Eastern origin – underwent a major overall expansion in Europe during the last millennium.

The Ashkenazi Jewish population has been the subject of numerous studies of human genetics because of the accumulation of some 20 recessive hereditary disorders that are concentrated in this population.

The human genome project has enabled mapping of human DNA sequence variation, which enables not only the prediction of certain genetic diseases, but also the identification of family and genealogical relationships (e.g. shared ancestries) among individuals. The human genome includes some 3 billion chemical letters, known as nucleotides – which comprise the sequence of nucleic acids in DNA in almost every cell of the human body.

Most of the human genome is diploid, containing representation of both parents. The Y-chromosome and mitochondria DNA are haploid, containing DNA transmitted from only one parent. Thus, the Y-chromosome provides information about paternal ancestry while mtDNA provides information about maternal ancestry. As a result, DNA sequence analyses of these two regions of the human genome are important tools in phylogenetics – the study of global populations through genetic analysis.


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Illustration (above and at top of article) by Avi Katz
ToI investigates/Radically altering the process of determining Jewishness?

Source Article:

Rabbinate DNA tests seek Jewishness in the blood, become a bone of contention

Controversial method began in Moscow, spread to Jerusalem and Sydney, as a private bid to confirm ex-Soviets as Jews. Now it faces a High Court challenge and a thunderous outcry

The two ink-smudged, Soviet-era documents were the only official proofs they had of their Jewishness. The rest was memory and ash.

In 2000, Dinara Haya Isteleou and her mother, Galiya Rozendorf, immigrants to Israel from Kazakhstan, approached a rabbinical court in the central city of Bat Yam. They came under happy circumstances: to obtain a verification of Jewishness as part of a marital license application for Isteleou’s upcoming wedding, which in Israel must be overseen by the state’s Orthodox authorities, the Chief Rabbinate.

They left in tears, their evidence deemed a brazen forgery. A higher rabbinical court confiscated the papers and later fined them NIS 7,000 ($2,000) as a penalty. In protest, Isteleou never paid.

“They summoned my mother, and yelled at her there, ‘How dare you say you’re Jewish. You aren’t Jewish.’ In short, they laughed at her. She left there in tears. It was a… nightmare, disappointment, and we suffered, my mother and I. We didn’t know how we could prove we’re Jewish. We didn’t know whom to turn to,” she said.

In the wake of that devastating hearing, the bride-to-be and her mother, who had immigrated to Israel five years earlier, joined some 400,000 Israelis, primarily from the former Soviet Union and their descendants, whose Jewishness remains officially unrecognized or cast in doubt, a product of the parallel civil and rabbinical legal systems of the country.

The Law of Return grants near-automatic citizenship to immigrants with at least one Jewish grandparent, but the Chief Rabbinate only recognizes them as Jews if they conform to the standards of halacha, or Jewish law. That means they must have a Jewish mother. Since the 1990s, they have been required to furnish evidence to shore up their matrilineal ancestry, or be converted to Judaism under Orthodox authorities approved by the Chief Rabbinate.

For many who arrived in Israel in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union — some from communities decimated by the Holocaust — obtaining such authentication can be an impossibility. But without the stamp of approval from the rabbinate, they cannot legally marry, divorce, or be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel.

Registered as Jewish on official documents, most do not encounter the issue until, like Isteleou, they apply for a marriage license.

‘How dare you say you’re Jewish. You aren’t Jewish’

For Dinara Isteleou and her mother Galiya Rozendorf, there was little hope of unearthing new leads. Rozendorf’s parents had divorced when she was six months old and her mother had disappeared to begin a new life. Her father remarried a Muslim woman, who burned all the letters and evidence of the woman who came before her — except for a handful of photographs that Rozendorf, as a child, managed to stash away.

But her father told Rozendorf and her older sister they were Jews, and before his death handed over the two clipped official documents ostensibly linking them to their Jewish past.

In the 19 years since the hearing, Rozendorf sent letters from Israel to her mother’s hometown in Russia to find her, or to find possible half-siblings from a second marriage — in vain.

“We were told she doesn’t exist. It’s possible she changed her name, it’s possible she got remarried. But now she’s gone,” said Isteleou, adding that her grandmother, whom they presume dead, would be 89 years old.

They then turned to Shorashim, a tracing service run by the Tzohar organization that works with immigrants and rabbinical courts to locate documents, and whose researchers comb far-flung archives for traces of evidence — marriage and birth certificates, photos, documents of ancestors with Jewish-sounding names, graves.

The testing has been pilloried by activists representing immigrants, by scientists, and by politicians as a chilling, pseudoscientific development more suited to eugenics-crazy Nazi Germany than the Jewish state, and that dangerously risks turning Jewishness into a racial, rather than religious or national, identity

But when the paper trail ran dry, Shorashim directed them to another, unconventional method quietly taking root among some rabbinical judges — in Israel and as far away as Australia and Russia: A private (non-rabbinate) rabbinical judge who founded a genetics lab would collect a cheek swab, they were told, and send it for testing. Should the results come out in their favor, it could be submitted as forensic evidence in the state rabbinical courts as proof of their Jewishness.

And with that, Isteleou and Rozendorf entered a world of controversy.

The introduction of two kinds of genetic testing in state rabbinical courts over the past few years — one that seeks Ashkenazi Jewish markers through mitochondrial DNA by comparing it to databases, and one to confirm a family tie  — flew under the radar at first, but erupted into a massive uproar in March when several cases hit the headlines.

The testing has been pilloried by activists representing immigrants, by scientists, and by politicians as a chilling, pseudoscientific development more suited to eugenics-crazy Nazi Germany than the Jewish state, and that dangerously risks turning Jewishness into a racial, rather than religious or national, identity.

Opponents have warned that the tests are discriminatory in that they are largely demanded by the rabbinate from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and also that they constitute an overreach of the rabbinical courts’ powers amid what the critics charge are deepening suspicions toward the immigrants and increasingly tough standards to prove Jewishness in recent years.

Now the practice faces a High Court of Justice challenge submitted by the Yisrael Beytenu party, which represents Russian-speaking immigrants, that seeks to ban the rabbinical courts from using genetic testing in its examinations of Jewishness. Yisrael Beytenu has also vowed to try and pass Knesset legislation outlawing it.

With no other options, and the costs of the test (NIS 1,000) largely waived,  Isteleou and her mother submitted to the DNA test earlier this year. Then they waited.

Searching for the (Ashkenazi) matriarchs

Three years earlier, in August 2016, a handful of scientists and senior rabbinical judges sat huddled in the Jerusalem headquarters of the Talmudic Encyclopedia.

It was an encounter of ancient Talmudic legal thinking and cutting-edge genetic population studies, with the religious authorities seeking information to break open the longstanding impasse faced by the thousands who cannot prove their Jewish origins to the satisfaction of the rabbinical courts but claim Jewish maternal ancestors. They wondered: When the dusty archives of the former Soviet Union are exhausted, could another long-buried trove, say an untapped genetic log, prove just as valid?

They began to discuss the four matriarchs — no, not the biblical matriarchs. Rather, the four women that a groundbreaking 2006 study contended were the founding maternal ancestors of some 40 percent of contemporary Ashkenazi Jewry, or 3.5 million people, some 1,000 years ago.

The August 2016 scientific presentation was led by Prof. Karl Skorecki, a Canadian-born nephrologist and genetic researcher who in 1997 identified the so-called priestly genetic markers shared by many Kohanim, or Jewish priests, who trace their ancestry to the biblical Aaron.

Illustrative photo of mitochondrial DNA testing at the State of California Department of Justice Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory in Richmond, Calif., Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

“We were called upon to explain the science to a group of authoritative rabbis,” said Skorecki, who oversaw the original study led by his then-doctoral student, Doron Behar.

He explained the source of the link: mitochondrial DNA, which unlike nuclear DNA is transmitted exclusively from mother to child, its paternal counterpart destroyed during fertilization. The 2006 study, and others that followed, pinpointed distinctive haplogroups carried by two-fifths of Ashkenazi Jews, linking them to just four founding mothers which — key for the rabbinical audience — are largely not found among Europeans without Jewish ancestry. One of the four sequences — K1a1b1a — alone could be found among some 20% of Ashkenazi Jewry, but is nearly absent among other Europeans.

“They asked questions, they asked very intelligent questions, they really delved deeply into the logic and science as much as they could. I was quite impressed at how careful and cautious they were,” said Skorecki of the rabbis, stressing that he was called upon to explain the science but did not “get involved in the other aspects, the halachic aspects, the societal aspects.”

Additional studies were conducted on other Jewish communities, including in North Africa and elsewhere, but “none were as striking in terms of a founder effect with such a large amplification as in the case of the European Jewish community, and that’s why it caught attention,” said Skorecki, currently the Dean of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine at Bar Ilan University.

The discussion on the proverbial (Jewish) mother of DNA, located in the mitochondria that produces energy from food, was met with keen interest.

The rabbinical scholars, another geneticist who consulted with them said, accepted the scientific conclusions completely.

From Moscow to Jerusalem to Sydney

In 2017, a year after the gathering, two of the participants, rabbis Isroel Barenbaum of Moscow’s top rabbinical court and Ze’ev Litke of a private rabbinical court in Jerusalem, released a book citing the scientific research and making the Jewish legal argument that tests of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, could sometimes be used as supplementary evidence to buttress claims of Jewishness, which under Orthodox tradition is transmitted from mother to child.

The book treads carefully in outlining the test’s possible application: It must strictly act as corroboration in cases where other documentation is available, and only as a last resort. Moreover, it stressed, while under certain conditions it could be used to confirm Jewishness, it could never be wielded to call someone’s Jewishness into question.

This was because fewer than half of Ashkenazi Jews (and far less of global Jewry) would carry the markers linking them to these four women (who had been determined as halachically Jewish), and because a conversion to Judaism in a previous generation would also not show up in the DNA.

Illustration (above and at top of article) by Avi Katz

The rulings — cautiously praised by Israel’s chief Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis in the book’s opening pages — weren’t merely academic. In Moscow, Barenbaum had already begun applying them in his own rabbinical court at full throttle. “There were many dozens, if not hundreds of cases, where the information helped resolve doubts and prove Jewishness,” he wrote in an email to The Times of Israel, referring to both mitochondrial tests linking subjects to the four founders and tests pointing to a DNA link to Jewish relatives on their mother’s side.

He and Litke then began lobbying rabbinical judges in Israel and Europe, and, from 2017, presenting their position at the Chief Rabbinate’s annual conference of rabbinical judges and at a similar gathering in Amsterdam for European rabbinical judges. The process is slow-moving, conceded Litke, who noted that Israeli rabbinical judges have broad judicial discretion on whether to accept the halachic opinions and therefore must be persuaded individually.

Their motivations, the private rabbinical judges behind the drive maintained, were humanitarian: to ease the process for immigrants, many of whom are blindsided by the abrupt undermining of their Jewish status, often shortly before tying the knot.

“A person stands before his wedding and seeks to get married in accordance with Jewish tradition. The proofs he has are meager. The rabbinical judge could tell him: ‘I’m sorry, according to this meager evidence, I cannot change your status and thus close the case.’ But the rabbinical judge is often a human being, sensitive, and wants to help, so why should he not tell him, maybe try the option of DNA?” said Litke.

Did the ruling mark a revolutionary precedent in Jewish law? Litke and Barenbaum are split, with the former agreeing it was a significant shift.

“In my opinion, this is not a dramatic change,” countered Barenbaum. “Much as in the past new tools were used to resolve old problems, much as DNA tests are relied upon [in rabbinical courts] to identify bodies of deceased for the purposes of freeing a woman [from her marriage and allowing her to remarry], and this was not done 100 years ago; much as 100 years ago, they started relying on fingerprinting, which was not done 200 years ago; much as today, there are labs to examine shaatnez [mixtures of linen and wool that are forbidden under Jewish law] and there is the Dor Yesharim organization checking the genetic compatibility of a groom and bride, and countless other examples. Halacha always utilizes new tools if they can supply effective solutions.”

Last year, Litke founded the Simanim Institute to administer the mitochondrial DNA tests and send it to a genetic lab for results. The private rabbinical judge serves as an expert witness in the state religious courts, accompanying the cases.

“There have been 20 cases in the past year [in Israel] in which the test gave them a positive result and their Judaism was approved [by the authorities],” he said.

Although their book conservatively stated the mtDNA tests should only be used as a last resort to substantiate other evidence, in practice, there have been several “unusual” cases in Israel in which some people have been confirmed Jewish based on the genetic results alone, said Litke.

“It’s unusual. It’s all unusual. Here in Israel it’s all new, it’s slow-moving. But I’ve already had cases that were approved just based on this,” he said.

The mtDNA test results are examined on a case-by-case basis and can frequently prove inconclusive or difficult to parse. What Litke looks for is a statistical majority of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, as compared to genetic databases.

Whereas Jewish law reasons that a person who comes from a city whose majority population is not Jewish is presumed not Jewish until proven otherwise, “After this test, I am arguing that today, the majority [population] of the city is not relevant… because after I conduct the test I see that the majority [DNA] does not belong to the city, so what does it matter what city he’s from? What matters is his genetic family. If I see that the vast majority of their genetic line is Jewish, then I can determine that he is Jewish.”

‘There have been 20 cases in the past year in which the test gave them a positive result and their Judaism was approved’

“We’ll never be able to help everyone [with this method],” Litke stressed, but I hope that if we invest in the research, we’ll be able to expand the percentage of those we can help.”

He also has a grander vision of where the genetic testing for Jewishness could lead. In the future, Litke maintained that with additional research and expanded global databases, Jews whose ancestors were exiled, forcibly converted after the Spanish Inquisition and otherwise made to neglect their Jewish identity, could trace their Jewish roots with certainty. “The moment there will be more studies… on a broader scale, I am certain we will find hundreds of thousands of kosher Jews,” he said.



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