Sephardim and Modern Spaniards

On December 5, 2008, the New York Times reported that 20% of the population of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11% has DNA markers reflecting Islamic ancestors. To those familiar with the long and dark history of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, this is not of tremendous surprise. To understand the history of the Sephardic Jews is to understand why the genetic testing returned such results.

The Jews in Spain, prior to the Expulsion of 1492, were a successful people, many were part of the aristocracy of the country. If we look at a comparison, the Spanish Jews of 1340 were no less influential and vital to cities in Spain as were the Jews to New York City in 1940; the same can be said of the Jews of Baghdad of the same year. They were judicial and political leaders, heads of government, they held legislative power. Like the Jews of Baghdad and New York City of 1940, the Jewish community in Spain some 600 years earlier possessed many wealthy and powerful individuals, both serving in the private sector as well as for the government.

The events leading up to the final Expulsion of the Jews from Iberia between 1492-1497 are written in the book of the darkest days of the Jewish people; this period was the worst period for the Jewish people since the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and prior to the Holocaust. If they did not leave by threat of expulsion, those Jews who did not straightforwardly welcome Christianity into their lives (and those that were accused by the Catholic Church of being heretics) were often sentenced to lifelong punishment and occasionally sentenced to death by burning or asphyxiation. Burning and looting Jewish homes, property, stores, community buildings and houses of prayer were commonplace for hundreds of years. These attacks were often brought about by Catholic clergyman who preached fire and brimstone against the Jewish communities. Not being able to observe their religion, scores of Jews fled, many others converted to Christianity, ahead of and during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Near 50,000 or more were said to have outright converted in Barcelona alone during the pogroms of 1391 – this, in a city which a couple hundred years earlier was the Western center of all Diaspora Jewry.

The late editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Oxford historian Prof. Cecil Roth, said that in Spain, on some occasions, entire Jewish communities, led by their rabbis, converted to Christianity instead of facing punishment and surrendering everything they possessed. In Portugal, Roth indicated that Jews made up such a large population that to be called a “Portuguese” meant that you were a Jew. Roth made a proclamation in the 1930s indicating that there was probably no one in present Spanish society of which a tincture of Jewish blood did not run.

In addition to conversion of Jews (and Muslims) to Christianity, centuries of rape and intermarriage certainly have clouded the gene pool of those living on Iberia. Genetic research technology is evolving at an exponential rate. The science of genetics remains a subject which continues to develop rapidly in both scientific terms as well as societal. In this branch of biology that deals with heredity, especially the mechanisms of hereditary transmission and the variation of inherited characteristics among similar or related organisms, the genetic constitution of an individual, class or group (in this case the Sephardim) is being increasingly explored. The report that 20% of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry is not surprising.

Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews were geographically and religiously separate populations; these two populations often display significant differences in the incidence of genetic diseases and medical conditions, as well as markers which can be isolated through testing of their blood groups, chromosomal testing and through the examination of maternal mitochondrial DNA.

The Sephardic Jews make up the second largest division of the Jewish population; they have their historic roots in Spain, Portugal, as well as, due to migrations, North Africa. Sephardic Jews comprise the second largest group in the worldwide Jewish population after Ashkenazic Jews, who stem from Central and Eastern Europe. They have developed and possess a shared relationship based upon unique religious traditions, collective ideals, customs and ethnicity. Today, Sephardic Jews inhabit all corners of the Earth, with large populations living in North and South America, as well as in France, Turkey and Israel. Smaller populations exist in The Netherlands, Britain and the Balkans.


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