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On The Genetic Trail Of The Bene Israel
The Healthcare Issue

On The Genetic Trail Of The Bene Israel

Researchers find ties that members of an Indian community likely originated from a group of Jews from the Middle East.

India’s Jewish community, with roots in three cities, is believed to date back several hundred years. Wikimedia Commons
India’s Jewish community, with roots in three cities, is believed to date back several hundred years. Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem —  When tens of thousands of members of the Bene Israel Jewish community moved from western India to Israel in the years following the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, some prominent IsraelI rabbis openly doubted the community members’ Jewishness.

They exhibited so much doubt, in fact, that in the early 1960s the notoriously stringent Chief Rabbinate instructed its marriage registrars to investigate the lineage of all Bene Israel community members who applied for marriage licenses in order to determine near ancestors were indeed Jewish.

It was not until 1964, after community members held rallies decrying the rabbinate’s practice and accusing government officials of racism, that the rabbinate declared that Bene Israel were “full Jews.”

But the rabbinate’s recognition of the Bene Israel, one of three Jewish communities in India (alongside the Cochin and Baghdadi communities) didn’t end the curiosity about the community’s roots. Where were they from originally? When did they arrive in India? And were they truly genetically descended from the Jewish people?

Using the latest tools in population genetics, a team of American and Israeli researchers were able to determine that the Bene Israel have significant Jewish ancestry that likely originated from a group of Jews from the Middle East.

Dr. Harry Oster of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine led a study of the genetic background of Indian Jews.

Although the research has had no practical effect on this ancient Jewish community — which has always insisted that it is Jewish — it has provided some intriguing answers.

The Bene Israel study was part of a larger project that aims to explore the genetic structure and history of the Jewish people across the different diasporas. This project, called The Jewish HapMap, is led by Professor Harry Ostrer from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Together with Professor Eitan Friedman from Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel, he collects the DNA of Jews from different diasporas to analyze the genetic similarities and differences between them and other, non-Jewish populations.

The Bene Israel researchers, whose paper was published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2016, used genetic tools to address the ancestry of the community which, they said, has been “shrouded in legend”: speculation over the arrival time of its Jewish ancestors varies widely between the eighth century BCE and the sixth century CE, mainly based on different oral traditions.

Members of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community from across northeastern India gather in Churachandpur, in the state of Manipur, to celebrate Hanukkah on Dec. 8, 2015. (Shavei Israel)

These oral accounts maintain that the community is descended from shipwrecked Jews and that the seven men and seven women who survived were taken in by local villagers. The Jews adopted many of the villagers’ ways but maintained their observance of Shabbat and circumcision.

“We wanted to tell the story of a community, not a story of a family.”

“The exact timing of this event, as well as the origin and identity of the survivors are not part of this oral history,” the study notes. “Some date it around two millennia ago, whereas others suggest a specific date and origin: around 175 BCE, where the survivors were Jews living in the northern parts of the land of Israel that left their homes during the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes.”

Complicating matters is the fact that a similar story of seven surviving couples is found in the oral histories of other Indian populations.

Still others believe the Bene Israel’s ancestors came from Yemen or Persia or southern Arabia to India as early as the eighth century BCE. A letter written by Maimonides around 1200 CE mentions a Jewish community in India and may have referred to them.

Indian Bnei Menashe Jews baking matzah recently in Churachandpur, India. Courtesy of Shavei Israel

Earlier genetic testing based on uniparental Y chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA markers on many Jewish groups worldwide found that most diasporas “share ancestry that can be traced back to the Middle East,” the report notes, but results for the Bene Israel were inconclusive.

This time around, utilizing enhanced statistical genetics models, the scientists conducted a comprehensive genome-wide analysis by examining the genetic makeup of 18 people from the Bene Israel community, 486 people from 41 other Jewish, Indian and Pakistani populations, as well as additional individuals from worldwide populations.

Dr. Yedael Waldman, the study’s co-lead author (together with Arjun Biddanda), conducted the research under the guidance of Professor Alon Keinan from Cornell University and Professor Eran Halperin from Tel Aviv University. Waldman said the individuals chosen for the analysis among the Bene Israel, who number less than 100,000 worldwide, were unrelated and did not come from a specific family, so they could represent the entire community.

“Our analysis is related to genetics and ancestry. We don’t determine whether a person is Jewish.”

“We wanted to tell the story of a community, not a story of a family.”

The study’s analysis showed genetic markers of Bene Israel members “were close to those of members of other Indian populations but were also the closest to samples from Jewish populations among all Indian samples.”

“Broadly speaking they looked similar to the non-Jewish Indian populations,” said Waldman. “But when we looked deeper, we saw that they are different from other Indian populations and were significantly similar to other Jewish populations.”

Based on their findings, Waldman and his colleagues believe the Bene Israel’s descendants arrived in India anywhere from 600 to 1,000 years ago — more recently than the Bene Israel have long believed.

The Jewish immigrants “probably married local women” when they moved to India, Waldman said, but did not venture into the question of whether these women converted to Judaism.

“Our analysis is related to genetics and ancestry. We don’t determine whether a person is Jewish.”

Asked about the discrepancy between the community’s oral history and the relatively recent arrival time indicated by the study, Waldman said the study “detects the time of marriage between the Jewish and Indian ancestors of Bene Israel, but the Jewish ancestors may have come earlier. In addition, we may be detecting the most recent wave of immigration to India rather than the first.”

It’s quite possible, he said, that future advances in genetic science will enable researchers to distinguish between these waves and provide ever deeper information about various communities.

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