Genetics study of North African Jews tells migratory tale

Tunisian women attend a Jewish pilgrimage at a synagogue in Djerba in May. A study has found that North African Jews are more closely related to Jews from other parts of the world than they are to most of their non-Jewish neighbors in North Africa.
(Fethi Belaid, AFP/Getty Images)

North African Jews are more closely related to Jews from other parts of the world than they are to most of their non-Jewish neighbors in North Africa, a study has found.

Furthermore, their DNA carries a record of their migrations over the centuries: Some bits trace back to the Middle Eastern peoples thought to have migrated to North Africa more than 2,000 years ago, while other bits are linked to Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled to North Africa after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, the study’s authors said.

The discovery falls in line with other research showing that Jewish people from Europe and the Middle East share more DNA with one another than they do with outside groups, said Dr. Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and lead author of the report, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


“Jews tend to be more related to one another than they are to non-Jews, including non-Jews living nearby — it’s true in every region,” he said.

Ostrer’s earlier work had mainly focused on DNA samples collected from American Jews. Hoping to “catch up” and present a more complete picture of Jewish history and diversity, he and his colleagues analyzed DNA samples from 145 people of North African Jewish origin — from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Djerba (an island off the Tunisian coast) and Libya.

Comparing the collected DNA with genetic data from a variety of other Jewish and non-Jewish groups, they found that the North African populations clearly had genetic patterns more similar to European and Middle Eastern Jews than non-Jewish people currently living in the region. The data indicate that, once established in their communities, Jews in this region did not often intermarry with non-Jewish neighbors.

The scientists also saw that North African Jews formed two major subgroups: Moroccan and Algerian Jews shared more DNA with European Jews than was seen for Tunisian, Djerban and Libyan Jews.

This is probably because Jews living in Western Africa intermarried with Sephardic Jews who fled there after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, the researchers wrote.

Yeshiva University historian Lawrence Schiffman said the results lined up nicely with the historical record.


“It’s exciting to see that what we know from the history books is turning out to be real in the genetics,” he said.