A Tale of Two Hypotheses: Genetics and the Ethnogenesis of Ashkenazi Jewry

A Tale of Two Hypotheses: Genetics and the Ethnogenesis of Ashkenazi Jewry
Aram Yardumian

The debate over the ethnogenesis of Ashkenazi Jewry is longstanding, and has been hampered by a lack of Jewish historiographical work between the Biblical and the early Modern eras. Most historians, as well as geneticists, situate them as the descendants of Israelite tribes whose presence in Europe is owed to deportations during the Roman conquest of Palestine, as well as migration from Babylonia, and eventual settlement along the Rhine. By contrast, a few historians and other writers, most famously Arthur Koestler, have looked to migrations following the decline of the little-understood Medieval Jewish kingdom of Khazaria as the main source for Ashkenazi Jewry. A recent study of genetic variation in southeastern European populations (Elhaik 2012) also proposed a Khazarian origin for Ashkenazi Jews, eliciting considerable criticism from other scholars investigating Jewish ancestry who favor a Near Eastern origin of Ashkenazi populations. This paper re-examines the genetic data and analytical approaches used in these studies of Jewish ancestry, and situates them in the context of historical, linguistic, and archaeological evidence from the Caucasus, Europe and the Near East. Based on this reanalysis, it appears not only that the Khazar Hypothesis per se is without serious merit, but also the veracity of the ‘Rhineland Hypothesis’ may also be questionable.

1 thought on “A Tale of Two Hypotheses: Genetics and the Ethnogenesis of Ashkenazi Jewry

  1. It is an interesting review, although I would have expected more factoids (you know: graphs and tables) and a bit less of argumentation. More a paper and less an opinion article.

    But I do agree, based on what I have read of previous studies and my own tentative experimentation with ADMIXTURE, that Western Jews (i.e. those of Greco-Roman roots: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Moroccan, etc.) appear to have a main common root in Anatolia (and not further South in West Asia, certainly not in Palestine, except maybe for lesser elements). Greco-Roman Anatolia, which is also the main birthplace of that other branch of Judaism which is Christianity, was certainly at some point very much Judaized by proselytism. In the words of the author: “the peoples of Anatolia, who for a time, it appears, saw more Judaized Hellenes than Hellenified Jews”.

    But, as I said, I would have expected something more specific, because the genetic data is there for all us to see and compare, as happens with the historical data, and, in my understanding, all of it points to Anatolia as the main apparent origin for Western Jews. Other Jewish populations of Asia and Africa may have different origins either in diaspora or localized conversions (for example Yemeni Jews look pretty much Yemeni, as corresponds to a country that was also once Jewish, before Mohamed converted it to Islam). Beside Khazars, there were once a number of (convert) Jewish polities, until the consolidation of Christianity first and Islam later put an end to Rabbinic-Jewish proselytism, which was tolerated only as a self-contained “ghetto” community, which is the late Judaism that we know of. But for Western Jews the main point of origin seems to be not in any of those polities but in the Anatolian region, which was the most dense area of Jewish “diaspora” in the Greco-Roman era (most of which were almost certainly converts).

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