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>JN July 9, 1998, Vol. 6, No. 120
Israeli Lawmakers Uphold Orthodox Army Exemption
Israel Faxx Staff Report
Israel's parliament decided Wednesday that ultra-Orthodox Jewish
seminary students would remain exempt from military service despite
a public campaign to draft them. A rare coalition of right-wing,
Orthodox and Arab legislators defeated bills introduced by
opposition leaders proposing limits on the number of conscription
exemptions given to ultra-Orthodox Jews. The motions were viewed
as a challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose
coalition depends on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties for its
Cohens Have a Common Ancestor
By Permission of United Press International
Researchers at the University of Oxford in England say they have
proven genetically that a majority of modern Jews with the surname
Cohen or similar variations are distant relatives of a common
ancestor from the priestly caste of Israelites who inhabited the
Holy Land 3,000 years ago.
In a study published in this week's edition of the British
scientific journal Nature, scientists said they found that a
specific variation of the Y chromosomes of present-day Cohens
(Kohanim) share characteristics that are distinguishable from most
other Jews. This includes people with Cohen surnames or people who
consider themselves Kohanim.
Neil Bradman of the Department of Zoology said the research is
important because it is a "major advance in the use of genetics in
the study of history."
The Kohanim made up the priestly class of the Jewish people,
performing major rituals, allegedly from the time of Aaron, the
brother of Moses. Even today, people surnamed Cohen, or with
variations that are similar, such as Cohn, are called upon to
perform some priestly rituals, such as blessing the congregation on
holidays and receiving the first "aliyah" -- honor -- during
readings of the Torah.
This is true for people whose names aren't similar to Cohen but
whose oral tradition holds they are descendants of the ancient
The Y chromosome, carried only by men, is passed patrilineally,
just as mitochondrial DNA is transmitted by the mother's X
chromosomes. The researchers said their findings confirm that the
Y chromosome variation was passed down to today's Kohanim despite
unchecked assimilation over the millennia. The difference was found
in both major ethnic groups of world Jewry, known as Ashkenazis and
Sephardim, which separated geographically about 1,000 years ago.
Therefore, it suggests the priesthood predated that division.
David Goldstein, another author of the study, said the Y chromosome
characteristic of the priesthood "is also found in moderate
frequency in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities.
"This raises the possibility that this chromosomal type was a
constituent of the ancestral Jewish population and thereby made it
into the priesthood, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic communities."
Most Jews today "carry Y chromosomes that are not closely related
to the chromosomal type characteristic of the priesthood. A
minority of Jews carry the characteristic Cohen chromosome without
knowing of paternal ancestors who were priests."
The latest research builds on another study published earlier in
Nature. It also reveals that Cohanim who do not carry the
chromosomal trait known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype do carry a
chromosome that is closely related to it.
The research refutes claims made in the 1600s that a group of
brothers or cousins began calling themselves priests and took over
the line because of its extra privileges, Goldstein said.
"We can (now) say that patrilineal inheritance has been followed
for quite some time, perhaps as far back or farther than the Temple
period," which ended in 586 B.C., when it was destroyed in war by
the armies of Nebuchadnezzar.
The priestly class, according to tradition, began with Aaron,
brother of Moses, who headed the Levite tribe. Only about 5 percent
of the seven million male Jews worldwide carry the priestly
chromosome, Goldstein said.
The researchers took samples of genetic material from unrelated 306
Jewish men in Canada, Israel and America. Genetic characteristics
of both secular and religious Jews who said they were Kohanim were
found to be very different from those who said they were not,
The men who were tested included 81 self-described Levites. The
scientists found no evidence that Levites pass down similar genetic
traits, but that could be because non-Levite Jews adopted the
Levite designation over the past few thousand years.
Goldstein said the research is important because "genetic methods
have rarely been applied to historical rather than evolutionary
problems, and we hope this study will help to demonstrate the
feasibility of, and promote interest in, genetic approaches to
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