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RASHMEE Z AHMED TIMES NEWS NETWORK [ SATURDAY, JULY 20, 2002 9:14:27 PM ]
LONDON: More than 2,000 years after they first claimed to have set foot in India, the mystery of the world's most obscure Jewish community - the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel - may finally have been solved with genetic carbondating revealing they carry the unusual Moses gene that would make them, literally, the original children of Israel. Four years of DNA tests on the 4,000-strong Bene Israel, now mainly based in Mumbai, Pune, Thane and Ahmedabad, indicates they are probable descendants of a small group of hereditary Israelite priests or Cohanim, according to new results exclusively made available to the Sunday Times of India. The priests are scattered worldwide but genetically related in a distinctive fashion that leaves just a billion to one chance of a mistake in identifying who the Bene Israel really are, says Tudor Parfitt, Jewish Studies professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Parfitt, who initiated and led the research, says this is the first concrete proof that “exiles from Palestine made it as far as India and managed to maintain Judaism in the sea of Hinduism and Islam”. Contacted in the Israeli town of Ramla, 15 miles from Tel Aviv, where he emigrated from Mumbai, Aharon Daniel expressed doubt about the new findings. “Many scientists have claimed to have found Israeli or Cohanim genes in tribes in black Africa and other communities around the world and many here were sceptical about this,” he told STOI. But some analysts said that Daniel's doubt could be a reflection of the shoddy treatment given to a few of the 30,000 Bene Israelis who returned to the Promised Land in the early '50s, soon after the state of Israel was created. Their Indian appearance, cricket-playing, sari-wearing, curryeating and Marathi-speaking habits led to a bitter battle for recognition as “real Jews”. The name Bene Israel literally means Children of Israel and their unsubstantiated legend of origin holds their ancestors to be Jews fleeing persecution in Palestine in 175 BC. According to the legend, seven men and seven women survived a shipwreck near Navgaon village on the Konkan coast. Their descendants became thoroughly Indian except for observing Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, as a weekly holiday. The practice led them to be known as Shanwar Teli,
Marathi for 'Saturday oilpressers'. It was only in 1964, that the Israeli prime minister declared they were genuinely Jewish and should be allowed to return home (to Israel) and inter-marry. But now, the new study goes one better. By studying certain genetic markers on the DNA chain, found only in male descendants of Aaron, Moses' elder brother, who founded the line of Jewish priests, the Bene Israel could well claim to be the purest of the pure. Prominent Bene Israelis include poet Nissim Ezekiel and actress Pearl Padamsee. The new research has also found preliminary genetic evidence to show the declining community of Black Jews of Cochin left Israel in remote historical times. The new data, which is to feature in leading Western scientific journals over the next few months, comes after painstaking efforts to genetically source the origins of India's other, self-professed “lost” Jewish tribes, including the Manipuri Jews and the Telugu-speaking Jews of Guntur. “We took DNA samples, but there was nothing that could prove they were related to other than the general family of mankind”, said Parfitt, who has researched Indian Jewry since 1984.