European Jewish Ethnicity

From northern Spain to Russia

Discover more about your ethnicity with AncestryDNA. By comparing your genetic signature to the DNA of people from the European Jewish region, AncestryDNA can give you a clearer picture of your ethnic origins.

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian, Israeli, Ashkenazi

The story of your ethnicity lives in your DNA.

European Jewish History

The European Jewish region is not geographically defined in the same way as most other ethnic regions. The historic dispersal of the Jewish population from its origin in the Levant on the east coast of the Mediterranean resulted in insular communities scattered throughout Europe, North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. Although some Jewish communities enjoyed positions of relative peace and prosperity, many more were segregated from mainstream society by law, custom and prejudice, experiencing sustained persecution and discrimination. Jewish populations from northern and eastern Europe are often known as “Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic” refers to Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and mostly settled in North Africa and southeastern Europe.

Origin of the Jews

Much of what is known about the early history of the Jews is taken from the Hebrew Bible. While there is some archaeological evidence to support certain details of the Biblical account, often it remains the only source and is given varying amounts of credence by different scholars. According to this source, the Jews are descended from Abraham, a Sumerian who traveled west from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, which lay along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Around 1020 B.C., the separate Hebrew tribes were united under King Saul, creating the first Kingdom of Israel.

Babylonian Exile

After the reigns of David and his son Solomon, the kingdom split into the Northern (or Israelite) Kingdom and the Kingdom of Judah (Jewish Kingdom) in the south. The Assyrians conquered and deported many of the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom in the 7th century B.C.

In about 589 B.C., Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Kingdom of Judah, sacking Jerusalem and destroying the First Temple built by Solomon. A large number of Jews were expelled from their former kingdom and forced to resettle in Babylon. Many historians mark this event as the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, which refers to the scattering of the population.

When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 540 B.C., the Jewish people were permitted to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The former Kingdom of Judah, renamed Judea, was made a province of the Persian Empire—although its size was significantly reduced. The Jews’ Second Temple, built on the site of the First Temple, was completed by about 518 B.C. Many Jews returned to Jerusalem, but many more stayed in Babylon, where Talmudic scholarship (study of the central text of Judaism) was founded. Over time, prominent Jewish communities were established in Alexandria, Rome and Greece.

Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, capturing the Levant in 333 B.C. When his territories were divided after his death, Judea became part of the Seleucid Empire. The Judeans were commanded to accept Greek polytheism, leading to rebellion. Fighting for years under Judas Maccabee, the Judeans won the right to rededicate the Temple, an event commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah.

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The Roman Period

The collapse of the Seleucid Empire led to a second period of self-rule for the Jews, from 140 B.C. to 63 B.C. When King Herod assumed power with the help of the Romans, however, Judea became a client state of the Roman Republic. Judea was officially absorbed into the Roman Empire as the Judaea Province in 92 A.D.

There were three major Jewish revolts against the Romans in Judaea, the first of which began in 66 A.D. It was quelled in the year 70 when Titus sacked Jerusalem. The city was burned and most of the Jews were killed or sold into slavery throughout the Roman Empire. The second revolt, called the Kitos War, lasted from 115 to 117. At the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135), the Romans completely razed Jerusalem. Once again, they sold the majority of the survivors into slavery, this time placing severe restrictions on those who remained.

By the 2nd century, Jews were located throughout the Roman Empire. By the 5th century, there were scattered communities from Spain in the west to the Byzantine Empire in the east. Because Jews were usually restricted by law from owning land, they turned toward occupations in commerce, education and medicine.

Ashkenazi Jews

Large communities of Jews settled in France and Germany after the fall of Rome, the Arab conquests in the Middle East, and the expulsions from Spain. The Jews who settled in Germany (called Ashkenazi) spoke Yiddish, a mixture of German, Hebrew and Aramaic.

Over the centuries, the Jews settled where they could throughout western Europe, enduring frequent discrimination and periodic expulsions from various countries. Facing increasing persecution in the west during the 11th and 12th centuries, many of the Ashkenazi Jews moved from England, France and Germany to eastern Europe, where Poland and Lithuania encouraged Jewish settlement. Historically, Ashkenazi Jews lived in separate towns known at shtetls. In 1500, approximately 500,000 Jews lived in Poland. By the middle of the 17th century, there were more than 1 million. It is estimated that, prior to World War II, more than 90% of all Jews in the world were descended from the Ashkenazi Jews.

Jews Today

During the late 19th century, government-condoned persecution of the Jews in Russia, called pogroms, forced many to move to the United States and to Palestine. In 1897 Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, established the Zionist Organization and became the charismatic figurehead of the growing modern Zionist movement. He and his supporters continually lobbied foreign governments for help in the establishment of a Jewish state.

After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, its territories, including Palestine, were divided into mandates administered by the British and French. The British government, with its Balfour Declaration in 1917, announced its support of establishing Palestine as a national home for the Jews. After World War II, during which an estimated 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the United Nations divided Palestine in two, effectively creating a new Jewish state, Israel.

As of today, about 42% of all Jews worldwide live in the modern state of Israel. A small number of Jews have lived in this region for generations, tracing their ancestors back thousands of years, with the majority returning in the last century.

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