India’s Bene Israel community has Jewish roots: study

Jerusalem: Scientists have provided first genetic evidence to confirm the Jewish roots of the unique Bene Israel community living in the western part of India, whose history is largely unknown.

The Bene Israel community has always considered themselves Jewish, researchers said.

“Almost nothing is known about the Bene Israel community before the 18th century, when Cochin Jews and later Christian missionaries first came into contact with it,” said Yedael Waldman of both Tel Aviv University in Israel and Cornell University in the US.

“Beyond vague oral history and speculations, there has been no independent support for Bene Israel claims of Jewish ancestry, claims that have remained shrouded in legend,” said Waldman.

“Human genetics now has the potential to not only improve human health but also help us understand human history,” said Eran Halperin of TAU, who together with Alon Keinan of Cornell University advised Waldman.

According to their oral history, the Bene Israel people descended from 14 Jewish survivors of a shipwreck on India’s Konkan shore. The exact timing of this event and the origin and identity of the Jewish visitors are unknown. Some date the event to around 2,000 years ago. Others estimate that it took place in 175 BC. Still others believe their Jewish ancestors arrived as early as the 8th century BCE.

“In the last few decades, genetic information has become an important source for the study of human history,” said Keinan.

“It has been applied several times to the study of Jewish populations across diasporas, providing evidence of a shared ancestry,” he said. The research team based their study on data from the Jewish HapMap project, an international effort led by Harry Ostrer of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US, to determine the genetic history of worldwide Jewish diasporas.

They used sophisticated genetic tools to conduct comprehensive genome-wide analyses on the genetic markers of 18 Bene Israel individuals.

“We found that while Bene Israel individuals genetically resemble local Indian populations, they constitute a clearly separated and unique population in India,” Waldman said.

“The results point to Bene Israel being an ‘admixed’ population, with both Jewish and Indian ancestry. The genetic contribution of each of these ancestral populations is substantial,” said study co-lead author Arjun Biddanda of Cornell.

The results even indicate when the Jewish and Indian ancestors of Bene Israel “admixed”: some 19-33 generations (approximately 650-1,050 years) ago.

“We believe that the first encounter involved Middle-Eastern Jews and was followed by a high rate of tribal intermarriage,” said Waldman. The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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