The first-ever definitive study into the origins of North African Jews has revealed their hitherto-unknown relationship to the rest of the Jewish Diaspora.
The research project, led by Professor Harry Ostrer of the departments of pathology, genetics and paediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York’s Yeshiva University sought to discover how the Jewish Diaspora’s second largest group related to each other, to other Jewish ethnicities and to their non-Jewish North African neighbours.
Competing a series of studies into the origins of Sephardim (from Greece and Turkey), Ashkenazim (from Eastern Europe) and Mizrahim (from Iran, Iraq and Syria), previous research revealed those other groups bear more relation to their fellow Jews rather than their non-Jewish neighbours and each forms a distinct group within the larger Jewish Diaspora. Middle Eastern and European Jews were further found to have diverged from each other about 2,500 years ago.
The latest research revealed the North African Jewish community displays a high rate of marriage within their immediate community. Further subdividing North African Jewry into two groups – Moroccan/Algerian and Djerban (Tunisian/Libyan), it found closer ties between the Moroccan and Algerian communities and the European Diaspora, which it attributed to the 1492 Spanish Inquisition during which Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain, and many of whom emigrated to Morocco and Algeria.
According to Ostrer, an Einstein physician and director of genetic and genomic testing for the Department of Clinical Pathology at the Montefiore Medical Centre, establishing a definitive genetic analysis of different Jewish ethnic groups can help reveal genetic predispositions to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other widespread diseases, which helps treat them at an earlier stage.
“Our new findings define North African Jews, complete the overall population structure for the various groups of the Jewish Diaspora and enhance the case for a biological base for Jewishness,” he added.
In 1930, approximately 225,000 Jews were living in Morocco, constituting the largest North African Jewish population. Morocco protected its Jewish community from Nazi legislation during the Second World War, but an emerging anti-Semitism arose after the declaration of the State of Israel in 194!, leading to mass emigration of the country’s Jewish population, which further increased following Moroccan Independence in 1956. Today, approximately 3,500 are still living in the country.
The Jewish community in Tunisia was largely protected under its treaty with France, as many Tunisian Jews took up French citizenship. Following the WWII-era Vichy administration’s virulently anti-Semitic policies from 1940, however, the climate worsened significantly for the indigenous Jewish population as occupying Nazi German forces deported Tunisian Jews to North African Nazi camps. When Tunisia gained independence in 1956, its Jewish population further dwindled from approximately 100,000 to round 1,000 currently and remains the largest religious minority in the country.
French colonisation of Algeria in 1830 helped protect its indigenous Jewish population which had been present since the destruction of the first ancient Jewish temple, over 2,000 years previously. In the late 1930s, there were approximately 120,000 Jews living in Algeria, the majority of whom had taken up French citizenship. During WWII the Vichy administration annulled the citizenship of Algerian Jews, confiscated property and banning them from working in various professions. When Algeria gained independence in 1962, only citizens with a Muslim father or paternal grandfather were granted Algerian citizenship, which led almost 140,000 Algerian Jews to emigrate to France and, in smaller numbers, Israel. Today, there is no remaining Jewish community in the country.