Wednesday, May 14, 2008


In WHEN SCOTLAND WAS JEWISH by Hirschman and Yates, the authors spell out how they determined which individuals would be counted among the Jews, since this is a controversial issue. They write:

It is very hard to prove someone is Jewish. To begin with, even living, present-day Jews may disagree about who and what a Jew is. The broadest definition, that adopted by most Reform Jews today, describes Judaism as an international community of persons who share the same monotheistic faith and are guided by the same commandments and Torah. In this view, Jews may come from many ethnic backgrounds, some of them converts, others Jews by birth, all of them equal: there is no possibility of one person being "more Jewish" than another.

Many Orthodox Jews, however, disagree with this view and consider only other Orthodox Jews to be "really" Jewish; they can even quibble among themselves about which Orthodox group is the
most Jewish. Further, persons whose mother or father was born Jewish may be considered Jewish by some Jews, but not by others. Persons whose mother or father converted to Judaism or who themselves converted may not be accepted as Jewish by all Jews. Even persons whose parents were both born Jews and are now practicing Jews, but who do not belong to a temple, may not be pronounced Jewish by all Jews. Thus, Jewish identity is a complex and controversial issue, which we will not attempt to resolve here.

To complicate matters further, Jews who were born of two practicing Jewish parents, and who themselves belong to an Orthodox synagogue, may not necessarily be of Semitic ancestry. That is, they may not carry the genes of the ancient Hebrews. Instead some time between 3,000 years ago and the present, their ancestors decided to
become Jews, and the family has continued to practice the faith ever since. Most Jews now living do not have predominantly Semitic ancestry in their genetic makeup. This is particularly the case for the maternal line. As geneticist Steve Olson puts it..."The mitochondrial DNA sequences of Jewish females are even more diverse than the Y chromosomes of males, suggesting that non-Jewish women converted or married into the faith even more often than men." Importantly for our purposees, decendants of medieval Spanish, French and Italian Jews--that is, the Western or Mediterranean Jews of Sefarad--are not primarily of Semitic ancestry. Rather, most belong to what is called the R1b Y chromosomal DNA haplogroup, the most common paternal lineage in Europe and in countries of the New World founded by Europeans.

What about simply regarding as Jewish any person who now publicly "self-identifies" as such? While seemingly reasonable, this solution will not work in the case of Crypto-Jews (secret Jews). Though a term normally reserved for Jewish Iberian exiles after the pogroms of 1391 and especially after the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, it can also be applied to ancestrally Jewish Scots, ancentrally Jewish Germans, ancestrally Jewish Melungeons, and in fact to any ancestrally Jewish persons whose forebears feared identification or detection, chose to hide their true identity, and practiced that religion in secret. For up to 600 years, Crypto-Jews had to survive without rabbis, yeshivas, torahs, or synagogues, isolated from openly Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Islam and the Mediterranean, and subject to a kind of "double hostility" from their surrounding societies...The religious status of these Marranos,
conversos, Anusim ("the Forced Ones") and New Christians challenged some of the best rabbinical minds of the day...

And so, to determine if the Scottish families in question were of Jewish descent, we used a process of inductive reasoning. We relied on clues from several different types of evidence--historical, genealogical, linguistic, archeological, geographic and genetic. By considering these different sources, we can argue that a given family had a
very high probability of being Jewish upon their arrival in Scotland. In some cases this is no problem; certain of these families still are Jewish and can document lineal descent from Scots forebears. But in most cases we are going to have to finesse this conclusion by looking at the overall pattern of evidence for that family, including their associated lines and marriage preferences. The formal term for this branch of science is the statistical inference of demography from DNA sequence data. (pp. 24-25)

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