In this week’s Gibraltar Viewpoint column I look at the recent study by researchers at universities in Spain and the UK that revealed whilst from the 15th century on Spain’s Jews were mostly expelled or forced to convert, today some 20 percent of Spanish men tested have revealed a Sephardic Jewish or North African ancestry.
The teams from the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and the University of Leicester and the Wellcome Trust checked the Y chromosome, a stretch of DNA carried only by men and passed down with little change from father to son. Mutations in this gene can be used to trace ancestry, and some have been clearly linked to Sephardic Jewish as well as northern African populations.
One of the reports authors, Francesc Calafell, from the evolutionary biology faculty at Pompeu Fabra University stated: “The genetic composition of the current population is the legacy of our diverse cultural and religious past.”
Whilst Elena Bosch of the University of Leicester added: “The work shows that religious conversions and subsequent marriages between people of different lines had a significant impact on modern populations both in the Balearic Islands and in Portugal.”
One of the most surprising findings is the percentage of Spanish genes whose origin can be traced to Sephardic Jews, although Spain had a relatively small Jewish population compared to its Moorish population. Some of these genes may pre-date the Sephardic Jewish culture as the Phoenicians also share some of the genetic characteristics.
The Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711 and remained until defeated in battle by the Reyes Catolicos in 1492. Moorish influence is still very noticeable in Spain's language, architecture, music and other aspects of its culture. Jews lived in Spain before the Moors arrived and although small in number played a significant cultural and economic role.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain in various repressive moves, started by the Catholic Monarchs. The study suggests many Jews converted rather than face repression. Some Sephardic communities to this day speak Ladino, which is similar to medieval Spanish and can be understood by present-day Spaniards.
I find the history of the Sephardic Jews fascinating and just happen to know a person who is an expert in this field. Gibraltar has a strong Jewish community and William Serfaty draws his surname from his Sephardic heritage. I asked him to comment on the reports findings and he told me:
“I would say I have a difference with the numbers quoted for the population of Jews in Spain at the time of the expulsion. I think the population of Spain (known as "Cordoba" in 1250) was about 1 million. The number of Jews expelled between 1270 (the fall of Toledo) and 1492 (the fall of Granada) could not have been “several hundred thousand”, as the article says. Nevertheless the number of Jews was a substantial percentage of the total population of Spain and Portugal in 1492.
“It is therefore unsurprising that the number of Spanish men carrying Jewish genes is very high.
“My article "The Pillars of the Phoenicians" in http://www.phoenicia.org/ comes from a talk I give by the same name which mentions the handover of land in northern Judaea by King Solomon of Judaea in payment to Hiram King of Tyre for the construction of his Temple at Jerusalem (595BC, First Book of Kings or Book of Obadiah). These northern Jews inhabitants of what is now the Cabul in southern Lebanon, the inhabitants of 20 towns probably 10 per cent of the population of Judaea in 595bc, became "Canaanite" "overnite" excuse the pun please!
“These Jews may have travelled on Carthaginian and Phoenician ships as far as the East Coast of Spain and settled there on Phoenician land-bases from 595BC (construction of the Temple) to 250BC (fall of Carthage). So the article is quite right about Jewish genes being in Spain well before the Romans brought the population of Palestina to Spain in exile for their rebellion against the "Deity" of the Roman Emperor (from 60BC to 129AD) in 129AD.
“Another matter to bear in mind when speaking of genes in ancient populations is that the tribal distinctions we portray today may not be accurate. Canaanites and Jews may have been descended from the same root peoples notwithstanding the Biblical contention (and perhaps narrative simplification) that they were simply "enemies". Ergo "Phoenician" genes and "Jewish" genes may be one and the same thing. So modern Spaniards descended form either group will display the same gene mutations etc., present in Spain on two arrivals, the Phoenician trading arrivals with Jews in 1500BC approx, and the Jewish arrival in Roman times at the second Diaspora in 129AD.”