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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 slim majority.


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 priestly class.


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, Goldstein said.


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 history."


Copyright 1998 by United Press International All rights reserved


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