Why Jewish Blood Runs in Modern Spaniards

By Shelomo Alfassa / December 7, 2008

On December 5, 2008, the New York Times reported that 20% of the population
of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) had Sephardic Jewish
ancestry and 11% had 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

Jews most likely arrived in what is today Spain, sailing from the holy land
with both the Phoenician sea traders and later with the Greeks. Prior to the
Phoenicians arriving on the shores of Iberia, many different groups
inhabited the peninsula. The Greeks took up sea going trade, much like the
Phoenicians, sometime between 500 and 800 BCE. The potential for the Greeks,
much like the Phoenicians, to have carried along Ioudaios (Jews) on their
sailing vessels is quite plausible. The Greeks set up emporiums (trade
centers) in Iberia and traditional Greek-style colonies in at least one city
as early as 800-700 BCE. Among these Hellenistic city-states, it is known
Jews made up a considerable portion of the population.

Long before the Spanish language came into being or before the Catholic
religion ever came to the Iberian Peninsula, Jews existed there. Jews lived
under oppressive and successive dominant societies, including the Romans,
the Germanic tribes (Vandals, Visigoths and others), the Islamic tribes
consisting of Arabs and Berbers, and eventually under the Catholic Kings,
the ancestors of the modern monarchy of Spain.

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, and
they either controlled or could at least influence those, which were in
charge of communal infrastructure. 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 which 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 common place for hundreds of years. These attacks were often
brought about by Catholic clergyman which 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 Inquistions. 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
1930's indicating that there was probably no one in present Spanish society
of which a tincture of Jewish blood did not run.

In addition of 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, in North Africa. Sephardic Jews comprise the second
largest group in the worldwide Jewish population after Ashkenazic Jews that
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 France, Turkey and Israel. Smaller populations exist in The Netherlands,
Britain and the Balkans.

Shelomo Alfassa is a historian and writer concentrating on Sephardic Jewry.

He has written several books, including: "Ethnic Sephardic Jews in the
Medical Literature." www.alfassa. com

This essay is available for syndication

C Shelomo Alfassa

http://www.alfassa. com/dna.html