SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Research projects in modern Jewish studies

Representation of the Jews/Zionism in Pakistan/Indian Discourse

In 2004 Professor Tudor Parfitt secured a grant of £110,846 from the AHRB for this new project. The project's research-assistant is Dr Suseela Yesudian-Storfjell.

The Impact of Mediated Genetics Research on the Religious Identity of the Lemba

In 2002 Tudor Parfitt won an AHRB Innovations in Research Award to support this project. The total sum awarded was £51,148; the project's duration was 1 April 2002 to 30 March 2003. Parfitt and his research assistant, Dr Yulia Egorova, wrote as follows:

"This year we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the Double Helix by Watson and Crick in Cambridge -- perhaps the greatest scientific discovery ever made. Over the intervening years there have been great advances in genetic research -- notably the Human Genome project -- and certainly some disappointments particularly in medical applications.

"One of the more spectacular successes has been the demolition of racist theory: we now know that there are no significant biological differences of any sort between different peoples in the world. Race has been relegated to the dustbin of history. We now know "race" is merely a social construct. Nonetheless there are markers (themselves innocent of any particular effect) which can be used to identify different groups and these have a remarkable utility for the historian.

"Many people's histories are stories passed on from generation without any documentary testimony. Oral traditions of a certain sort may be tested using DNA. Over the last few years we have been doing this with a number of particularly Jewish populations. The results have been fascinating and have been disseminated throughout the world by the media.

"One of the best known is the project which succeeded in tracing the majority of Jewish priests (cohanim) to an ancestor who lived intriguingly about three thousand years ago. But what kind of impact has this kind of research had on the people concerned? We are attempting in this study to assess the impact among two groups: the Lemba tribe of southern Africa and by way of comparison the Bene Israel of western India.

"The research is not yet complete but already we can see that the impact on the Lemba has been substantial: partly because they now take their ancient religious legends more seriously and more importantly in the long term because the genetic evidence linking them with the Middle East has been taken by many Jews throughout the world as "proof" of their Jewishness. In the space of five years they have been included in the geography of the Jewish world.

"For the historian the DNA of the Bene Israel yielded some exciting results too. The first time the Bene Israel became historically visible was at the end of the eighteenth century when some British missionaries stumbled upon them. Where they came from, when they came, if they did indeed come, how they acquired the very few Jewish-looking customs they had -- all this was not known. Given they had but two words of Hebrew, worshipped in something they called a masjid (Arabic for 'mosque') and knew nothing of Jewish law or lore, the chances of their being of Jewish Middle Eastern origin seemed utterly remote. However via genetics we now know that they did indeed come from the Middle East in relatively ancient times.

"The celebrations among the community when this news made the headlines of the Times of India in July 2002 were quite astounding. What has particularly emerged from their response is their that they now are much higher up a social (purity) scale both in Jewish and in Indian terms."

Tudor Parfitt and Yulia Egorova