History and Genetics: Eastern Diaspora

Easern Diaspora - Iraqi Jews in Front of Ezekiel's Tomb

Iraqi Jews in front of Ezekiel's Tomb

Part IV

The story of the Eastern Diaspora goes back originally to the Assyrian exile.  According to the Hebrew Bible, the tribes in Transjordan were exiled to Assyria by Tiglathpileser in 740 BCE.  In 722 Sargon II took Samaria. According to Assyrian sources, 27,290 exiled from Samaria.  These Jews were scattered in a variety of areas such as “Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes (2 Kgs 17:6).  While we have no other specific numbers, it might be reasonable to assume something between 50,000 and 100,000 exiles, but whatever the case we are dealing here with mass forced immigration.

It is generally believed that these Jews continued to migrate along the Silk Route during Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

A number of communities scattered along the Silk Route seem to have been established by small numbers of males who, in substantial numbers, took local wives, whether with or without some form of conversion.  While we cannot be sure, it seems that this is the way in which Jewish communities were established in northern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China.  In a few cases, genetic research has shown that certain communities seem to be derived from very few mitochondrial lineages. This would mean that a very small number of women were part of the founding community, the model we have suggested for Silk Route communities. This is the case in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and for the Jews of Mumbai, India.

With the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, a substantial Diaspora was created in Babylonia. It is possible that some Jews exiled to Assyria went South to join this community.  A small number of Babylonian Jews returned to Judea at the beginning of the Second Temple period, circa 540-450 BCE.  Nonetheless Babylonian Jewry continued to prosper and expand.  This community eventually developed to a population of some 1 million according to some estimates.  Some of these Jews eventually migrated eastward to Iran and even to India and China.  The modern communities Iraq and central and southern Iran are derived from this early population base.  Genetic research has shown that the Persian and Iraqi Jewish communities show high degrees of closeness, highly likely in view of their common history. [1]

Persian Jewry is divided into primarily into two sub-communities, Teherani and Mashadi.  The former are mostly descendents of Iraqis who moved east in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, and the latter came south from the Caucasus.  These variations in communal differences still require study from a genetic point of view.

Certain mitochondrial haplotypes observable in both the Bene Israel and Cochin Jews of India indicate a strong contribution of local female founders  founders into the population.  This means that a few men of Middle Eastern origin, most likely Iraqis, would have reached India at an early stage and founded each community by having children with native women.

The Yemenite Jewish community seems to have been founded some 2000 years ago by at least six founding mothers.  This community, now almost entirely in Israel and in the Western world, remained close knit.  Genetic evidence seems to indicate that it was founded, as its historical memory claims, soon after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

We have numerous times referred to small founding communities, primarily made up of males. This very same phenomenon may help to account for the phenomenon of the Ethiopian and Bene Israel Jewish communities. Here, it would seem that the communities were essentially founded by a small number of Jewish males who came to a place, married local women (again with or without some form of conversion) and established a community.  For this reason, the mitochondrial DNA does not display Middle Eastern origin.

[1] Ostrer, 121.

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