(1) “Are Jews from Eastern Europe?” is a multilayered question in the sense that “being from” somewhere can mean different things.
Citizenship or nationality is not always equal to ethnicity. For example, a Jew can be a Polish citizen, but that doesn’t make them “ethnic Poles.”
Your Jewish grandparents might’ve migrated to the United States from Ukraine, but that doesn’t make them “ethnic Ukrainians.”
You can also be a Jew who is “culturally” Eastern European. For example, your parents and grandparents might’ve come from Hungary and you speak Hungarian, eat Hungarian foods, and more.
However, because most Jews in Eastern Europe lived in segregation until fairly recently in history, this is actually not that common. Instead, Jews in Eastern Europe developed their own culture, a mishmash of influence from both their surroundings at the time and the culture of the Land of Israel.
(2) rather, I am answering this question from the perspective of “are Jews Indigenous or native to Eastern Europe?” In that case, the answer is an emphatic no.
To learn more about what “Indigeneity” means, I recommend reading the third post pinned to the top of my profile.
(3) because Jews in Europe were persecuted persistently for so long, a significant amount of historical record has been lost. However, we have a loose idea of their migratory trajectory based on all the evidence that we do have. That doesn’t mean that every single Jew followed this trajectory, of course.
(4) the ancestors of the majority of non-Ashkenazi Jews (e.g. Mizrahi, Sephardic, Beta Israel, Bene Israel, etc) never set foot in Eastern Europe, which makes it impossible for them to be “from” Eastern Europe.
MAPPING THE TRAJECTORY
Land of Israel
(1200 BCE - 135 CE)
Between 66-135 CE, Jews in what was then the Roman province of Judea revolt three times against the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.
The revolts are violently crushed. Over a million Jews are killed or enslaved and taken to Rome.
While Jewish communities existed in Rome prior to the Jewish revolts, genetic studies on Ashkenazi Jews have traced Ashkenazi ancestry back to Jews who arrived to Rome during this period; many presumably arrived as slaves.
Eventually the Jewish slaves in Rome are able to buy their freedom.
Jews in Rome start migrating northward toward Central Europe — particularly what is now Germany — as early as the 300s. By the 1000s, a distinct Ashkenazi Jewish identity has formed.
During the Crusades, genocidal anti-Jewish massacres devastate the Jewish communities of Central Europe. To escape the violence, Jews start migrating eastward to Eastern Europe in 1098.
However, by the 1500s, only 10,000-30,000 Jews resided in Eastern Europe. When another wave of anti-Jewish massacres swept Central Europe, more and more Jews started migrating eastward. By the mid-1700s, the number of Jews residing in Eastern Europe rose to 750,000.
Yiddish is the language traditionally spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. It is a fusion of Middle High German, Hebrew, and Aramaic, with elements borrowed from other languages depending on the specific Yiddish dialect in question.
Like other Jewish languages, Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew language is a Canaanite language — the original native language to what is now Israel — and Yiddish is traditionally written in neither the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets, indicating that the Jews who brought Yiddish with them to Eastern Europe imported its alphabet all the way from the Land of Israel.
The predominant theory on the origins of Yiddish is that once in Central Europe, Jews came into contact with Middle High German, particularly when they engaged with outsiders in business or other matters. Thus, they Judaized Middle High German by fusing it with what they previously spoke: Hebrew and Aramaic.
By the thirteenth century, a distinct Yiddish writing system, with grammatical rules, had emerged. Because Jews in Europe lived in segregation well into the nineteenth century, they continued speaking this language with each other, even after many had migrated elsewhere.
Some antisemites have long tried to claim that Yiddish has “Turkic” or “Slavic” origins. These claims have been debunked by the overwhelming majority of linguists, though unfortunately as antisemitism once again seeps into the mainstream, “academics” are legitimizing these theories.
Please note: Jewish identity is not predicated on having “Jewish DNA.” Rather, Jewish identity is, in most cases, traditionally passed down through the mother, though some denominations and sub-groups accept patrilineal descent. One can also “convert”
into Judaism, in an arduous process known as “gyur,” which is less of a religious conversion and more of a process of naturalization into the Jewish nation (think of it as an ancient equivalent of becoming a citizen of a new country). Because Jews practiced endogamy and lived in relative isolation for thousands of years, distinct “Jewish” genetic markers began to form, which is why people see, for example, “Ashkenazi Jewish” in commercial DNA tests. Obviously if someone converted and has no Jewish lineage, their genetic markers won’t show this, but that doesn’t make them any less Jewish.
Ashkenazi DNA is amongst the most studied in the world. These studies give us extensive insight into the origins of Ashkenazi Jews.
Ashkenazi DNA shows relatively recent genetic connections to Samaritans, our closest ethnoreligious cousins who were never displaced from the Land of Israel.
Ashkenazi DNA studies have found that Ashkenazi male lineages trace back directly to the region of Israel. Up until 2006, genetic studies concluded that female lineages could be traced back to Europe, particularly the Mediterranean, implying that Jewish men from the Middle East married European converts to Judaism. However, more recent studies have suggested that about 40 percent of Ashkenazi female lineage can be traced back to women of Hebrew origin.
Ashkenazi Jews are significantly more closely genetically related to other Jewish sub-ethnic groups and other Levantine Middle Eastern populations (e.g. Samaritans, Arameans) than to the populations of their host countries. For example, an Ashkenazi Jew “from” Poland is more closely related to a Samaritan or a Sephardic Jew than to an ethnic Pole.
Through genetic evidence, we also know that Ashkenazi Jews lived in England by the early eleventh century — that is, before any Jews ever settled in Eastern Europe. That means that Ashkenazi Jews can’t be a population that is native to Eastern Europe. This also debunks the Khazar Theory of Ashkenazi origins (see seventh slide).
Though Jews outside of the Middle East had to adapt their food and dress to a different environment and climate, culturally, Jews in Europe remained significantly culturally Middle Eastern.
They spoke, read, wrote, and prayed in a distinctly Middle Eastern language and alphabet. They observed a calendar that follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. They continued observing Israelite harvest festivals. Well into the Middle Ages and likely later, they continued wearing distinctly Middle Eastern amulets such as the hamsa and evil eye.
Some of the dress associated with Eastern European Jewry, such as the shtreimel, possibly evolved from a Middle Eastern headdress known as the sudra. Ashkenazi Jews continued using traditional Israelite spiritual regalia, including the tallit, tzitzit, and tefillin. The tallit and tzitzit worn by Ashkenazi and other Jews are almost identical to those worn by Samaritans, who unlike Jews, were never displaced from the Land of Israel.
Up until Jews in Europe were forced to adopt secular last names in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they continued using the traditional Hebrew patronymic suffixes, which are still used for prayer. For example, if your name was Judah [Yehuda in Hebrew] and your father’s name was Abraham [Avraham in Hebrew], your name would be Yehuda ben Avraham, or Judah son of Abraham.
Jews in Eastern Europe continued celebrating Israelite harvest festivals that use plants and fruits native to the Land of Israel, such as the etrog and lulav.
Jews in Eastern Europe also maintained the societal structures of Israelite society; namely, descendants of the priestly caste (Kohanim) continued to be assigned to special duties and responsibilities.
These are just some examples.
Out of all of the antisemitic conspiracies that aim to sever Jewish ties to the Land of Israel, none is more pervasive than the Khazar Theory, which claims that Jews — generally Ashkenazi Jews, though similar claims have been made of Bukharan and Mountain Jews — are not the descendants of the ancient Israelites but instead the descendants of Khazar converts to Judaism. This is demonstrably false.
Genetic studies conclusively tie the origins of about 90 percent of Jews — including Ashkenazi, Bukharan, and Mountain Jews — to the region of the Levant, a region that encompasses modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey. Genetic testing on Jews has also found a clear genetic link to the ancient Canaanites.
The Khazars were an ancient, semi-nomadic Turkic people originating in Central Asia. Between 650-968, the Khazar Kingdom reached the eastern part of Ukraine. Some Khazars may have converted to Judaism, likely to oppose the growing Christian and Muslim influence of other empires. However, the scope of this conversion is highly debated by historians. That said, today’s Ukrainian Jews are Ashkenazi and are not descended from the Khazars, as the Khazars were exterminated during the Tatar invasions in the thirteenth century.
The overwhelming majority of genetic studies on Ashkenazi Jews have found virtually zero evidence of Khazar origin. The Khazar Theory, which first gained traction in the late nineteenth century, is mostly associated with white supremacy, though in recent decades, it’s been adopted by left-wing antisemites to deny the connection of Jews to the Land of Israel.
For 2000 years, it was understood, universally, that the Jews residing in Europe were a people from the Land of Israel.
Many of the pervasive antisemitic conspiracies that have survived to this day — for instance, the wandering Jew trope or xenophobic stereotypes of the Jewish body — are rooted in European anti-Jewish xenophobia.
Even the term “antisemitism,” coined in 1879 by self-professed antisemite Wilhelm Marr, alludes to the understanding that Jews are an ethnic group “foreign” to Europe. The word “Semitic” comes from Semitic languages, a branch of Afroasiatic languages, including Hebrew. In the Middle Ages, Europeans believed all Asiatic peoples — including Jews — descended from Shem (where the term “Semite” comes from), one of the sons of Noah. By the 19th century, Europeans believed that Jews were members of a distinct “Semitic” race.
The Quran explicitly names the Land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
In 1798, Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, referred to Jews living in Europe as “the Palestinians among us,” implying that Jews do indeed originate in what is now Israel. Up until 1948, Jews in Europe were frequently harassed with calls to “go back to Palestine.”
In 1899, Yusuf al-Khalidi, the Arab mayor of Jerusalem, wrote to Theodor Herzl, “Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country.”
United Nations and British records from the early to mid twentieth century clearly reference Jews as a population native to Israel.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when the world largely began depicting Jews as foreign, European interlopers in Palestine. For more of this, see my post SOVIET IMPERIALISM, ZIONISM, & THE JEWS.
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