A new genetic study presents valuable information about the origin of the Indian Bene Israel community, and reveals clues about its distant past. The new study, which was published about two weeks ago in the scientific journal PLOS ONE asserts that the community originated in one of the Jewish communities in the Middle East. According to the researchers, they arrived in India 19 to 33 generations ago — 600 to 1,000 years ago — much later than estimates of community members. Over 70,000 members of the Bene Israel community live in Israel today, making it the largest Indian Jewish group in the world.
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The researchers scanned the genetic markers of 18 community members and with the use of advanced tools compared them to those of 486 people from 41 different population groups, including Indians, Pakistanis and Jews from many diasporas (Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Ashkenaz — northern France and western Germany — Libya, Djerba, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria) along with several samplings from all over the world, including non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations.
The rich representation of Indian populations demonstrated that although genetically there is great similarity between the Bene Israel and other Indian groups, its members have a genetic component not found on the Indian spectrum, hinting a different origin. Other analyses demonstrated that this origin is apparently Jewish.
The study was headed by Dr. Yedael Waldman of Cornell University with an international team of scholars from the laboratory of Dr. Alon Keinan at the university’s Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology in the United States, and the lab of Prof. Eran Halperin of the Department of Molectular Biology and Biotechnology in Tel Aviv University, along with other researchers from the U.S. and Israel.
The Bene Israel is one of the three groups of Indian Jews in Israel, along with the smaller Cochin and Baghdadi communities. In 1952, when the first members of the group, numbering a few thousand, immigrated to Israel, doubt was cast on their Jewishness. Then-Chief Rabbi Nissim, who was from Baghdad, thought they were not like the Baghdadi community and refused to recognize them as Jews and allow them to marry in the Jewish tradition. In 1964 their Jewishness was officially recognized, solving the problem of their affiliation and their national and religious identity, but there was never historical proof of their story.
“In some of the analyses the similarity between the Bene Israel and other Jewish communities was not manifestly greater than that to other populations, mainly Pakistani. But a more precise analysis, which examines the connections between various proximate genetic markers, demonstrate that the community is genetically more similar to other Jewish communities than are all the Indian and Pakistani communities,” explains Waldman.
“Apparently, whereas the similarity of Indian and Jewish groups to Jewish communities and Middle Eastern nations stems from an early common ancestry for all the nations of the Middle East and Central Asia, the similarity of the Bene Israel to Jewish communities is unique, and stems from the fact that they are descendants of Jews. The researchers also found that the percentage of segments that the Bene Israel genome shares with of non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations (Bedouin, Druze and Palestinian) is low compared to the percentage of similarity with Jewish communities.”
The genetic findings allowed the researchers to assume that the transition from the Middle East to India was accomplished mainly by men who arrived and married local women, possibly after their conversion — although genetics doesn’t provide an answer to that. After establishing the community, the Bene Israel preserved their unique genetic character, married only within the community and refrained from integrating with other non-Jewish Indian groups.
There are many theories about the Bene Israel and their arrival in India. In the early 19th century they told the Christian missionaries that their ancestors had arrived in India about 1,600 years earlier. Tradition has it that their boat was shipwrecked near the coast of Konkan — and only seven men and seven women survived. They were rescued by local fisherman and brought to the village of Navgaon.
The villages along the coast of Konkan became the community’s place of settlement. They adopted the local language and their family names were derived from the names of the villages where they lived, with the addition of the suffix “kar,” which has been preserved to this day. Outwardly they looked like the locals, but they were differentiated by their observance of basic components of Jewish tradition such as Shabbat, the main festivals and circumcision. Apparently the religious traditions, which were also reflected in endogamous marriages, were able to preserve the community’s genetic uniqueness.
There are many accounts describing the circumstances that brought the members of the community to India. Some consider themselves descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes who were exiled by the Assyrians from Samaria in 722 B.C.E. They were known as “Bene Israel” (Sons of Israel) because they originated in the Kingdom of Israel. Another version has it that they fled from the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 B.C.E. through Eilat and Suez to India, and according to another story their ancestors fled the Land of Israel prior to or at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
Others still claimed that the group settled in India some time between the first and seventh centuries C.E., after fleeing from forced conversions in Yemen and Persia. But the findings of the study indicate that the community arrived much later than that.
The question of the origins of the Bene Israel and their settlement in India was unresolved for years and would probably have remained so had it not been for the Jewish HapMap. The international project, which began in 2009, aims to genetically map the Jewish people and all their diasporas and communities in order to trace their wandering throughout the generations. Geneticist Prof. Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City is the project leader and is also among the participants of the Bene Israel study. His 2012 book, “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” claims that the differences between different Jews groups is not solely external and that Jews have a clear genetic stamp.
Recent genetic studies show that although India has a clear division according to castes, which don’t intermarry, several thousand years ago there were two main source populations. Most of the ethnic groups in India today are a blend of these two groups.
“The challenge in examining the connection of the Bene Israel to other Jewish communities is twofold,” says Waldman. “First, even if we find a genetic basis among the Bene Israel that is shared by other Jewish communities, we have to demonstrate that it does not stem from the same overall Indian blending, since the population of ancient northern India has a certain genetic similarity to Middle Eastern populations, including Jewish communities. In addition, even if we find a genetic basis that doesn’t exist in other Indian populations, we have to demonstrate that it’s related to Jewish communities and not only to peoples originating in the Middle East.”