Jewish ethnic divisions refer to many distinctive communities within the world's ethnically Jewish population. Although considered a self-identifying ethnicity, there are distinct ethnic subdivisions among Jews, most of which are primarily the result of geographic branching from an originating Israelite population, mixing with local communities, and subsequent independent evolutions.
As long ago as Biblical times, cultural and linguistic differences between Jewish communities, even within the area of Ancient Israel and Judea, are observed both within the Bible and archeological remains. In more recent human history, an array of Jewish communities were established by Jewish settlers in various places around the Old World, often at great distances from one another, resulting in significant and often long-term isolation from each other. During the millennia of the Jewish diaspora, the communities would develop under the influence of their local environments; political, cultural, natural and demographic. Today, the manifestation of these differences among the Jews can be observed in Jewish cultural expressions of each community, including Jewish linguistic diversity, culinary preferences, liturgical practices, religious interpretations, and degrees and sources of genetic admixture.
The full extent of the cultural, linguistic, religious or other differences among the Israelites in antiquity is unknown. Following the defeat of the Kingdom of Israel in the 720s BCE and the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, the Jewish people became dispersed throughout much of the Middle East and Africa, especially in Egypt and North Africa to the west, as well as in Yemen to the south, and in Mesopotamia to the east. The Jewish population in ancient Israel was severely reduced by the Jewish-Roman wars and by the later hostile policies of the Christian emperors against non-Christians, but the Jews always retained a presence in the Levant. Paul Johnson writes of this time: "Wherever towns survived, or urban communities sprang up, Jews would sooner or later establish themselves. The near-destruction of Palestinian Jewry in the second century turned the survivors of Jewish rural communities into marginal town-dwellers. After the Arab conquest in the seventh century, the large Jewish agricultural communities in Babylonia were progressively wrecked by high taxation, so that there too the Jews drifted into towns and became craftsmen, tradesmen, and dealers. Everywhere these urban Jews, the vast majority literate and numerate, managed to settle, unless penal laws or physical violence made it impossible."
Jewish communities continued to exist in Palestine in relatively small numbers: during the early Byzantine 6th century there were 43 communities; during the Islamic period and the intervening Crusades there were 50 (including Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ramleh, Ashkelon, Caesarea, and Gaza); and during the early Ottoman 14th century there were 30 (including Haifa, Shechem, Hebron, Ramleh, Jaffa, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Safed). The majority of the Jewish population during the High Middle Ages lived in Iberia (what is now Spain and Portugal) and in the region of Mesopotamia and Persia (what is now Iraq and Iran), the former known as the Sefardim and the latter known as the Mizrahim. A substantial population existed also in central Europe, the so-called Ashkenazim. Following the expulsion of Sephardim from Iberia during the 15th century, a mass migration into the Ottoman Empire swelled the size of many eastern communities including those in Palestine; the town of Safed reached 30,000 Jews by end of the 16th century. The 16th century saw many Ashkenazi Kabbalists drawn to the mystical aura and teachings of the Jewish holy city. Johnson notes that in the Arab-Muslim territories, which included most of Spain, all of North Africa, and the Near East south of Anatolia in the Middle Ages, the Jewish condition was easier as a rule, than it was in Europe.
Over the centuries following the Crusades and Inquisition, Jews from around the world began emigrating in increasing numbers. Upon arrival, these Jews adopted the customs of the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities into which they moved.
Following the failure of the second revolt against the Romans and the exile, Jewish communities could be found in nearly every notable center throughout the Roman Empire, as well as scattered communities found in centers beyond the Empire's borders in northern Europe, in eastern Europe, in southwestern Asia, and in Africa. Farther to the east along trade routes, Jewish communities could be found throughout Persia and in empires even farther east including in India and China. In the Early Middle Ages of the 6th to 11th centuries, the Radhanites traded along the overland routes between Europe and Asia earlier established by the Romans, dominated trade between the Christian and the Islamic worlds, and used a trade network that covered most areas of Jewish settlement.
In the middle Byzantine period, the khan of Khazaria in the northern Caucasus and his court converted to Judaism, partly in order to maintain neutrality between Christian Byzantium and the Islamic world. This event forms the framework for Yehuda Halevi's work The Kuzari (c.1140), but how much the traces of Judaism within this group survived the collapse of the Khazar empire is a matter of scholarly debate. Arthur Koestler, in his book The Thirteenth Tribe (1976), and more recently Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People (2008) have recently (controversially) theorized that East-European Jews are more ethnically Khazar than they are Semitic.           However, numerous genetic studies have not supported this theory.
In western Europe, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476, and especially after the re-orientation of trade caused by the Moorish conquest of Iberia in the early 8th century, communications between the Jewish communities in northern parts of the former western empire became sporadic. At the same time, rule under Islam, even with dhimmi status, resulted in freer trade and communications within the Muslim world, and the communities in Iberia remained in frequent contact with Jewry in North Africa and the Middle East, but communities further afield, in central and south Asia and central Africa, remained more isolated, and continued to develop their own unique traditions. For the Sephardim in Spain, it resulted in a "Hebrew Golden Age" in the 10th to 12th centuries. The 1492 expulsion from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs however, made the Sephardic Jews hide and disperse to France, Italy, England, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, parts of what is now northwestern Germany, and to other existing communities in Christian Europe, as well as to those within the Ottoman Empire, to the Maghreb in North Africa and smaller numbers to other areas of the Middle East, and eventually to the Americas in the early 17th century.
In northern and Christian Europe during this period, financial competition developed between the authority of the Pope in Rome and nascent states and empires. In western Europe, the conditions for Jewry differed between the communities within the various countries and over time, depending on background conditions. With both pull and push factors operating, Ashkenazi emigration to the Americas would increase in the early 18th century with German-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, and end with a tidal wave between 1880 and the early 20th century with Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim, as conditions in the east deteriorated under the failing Russian Empire. After the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of more than 6 million Jews living in Europe, North America became the place where the majority of Jews live.
Historically, European Jews have been classified as belonging to two major groups: the Ashkenazim, or "Germanics" ("Ashkenaz" meaning "Germany" in Medieval Hebrew), denoting their Central European base, and the Sephardim, or "Hispanics" ("Sefarad" meaning "Hispania" or "Iberia" in Hebrew), denoting their Spanish, Portuguese or North African base. A third historic term Mizrahim, or "Easterners" ("Mizrach" being "East" in Hebrew) has been used to describe other non-European Jewish communities which have bases which are located further to the east, but its usage has changed both over time and relative to the location where it was used. One definition is the Jews who never left the Middle East, in contrast to the Sephardim who went west to Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. A similar three-part distinction in the Jewish community of 16th-century Venice is noted by Johnson as being "divided into three nations, the Penentines from Spain, the Levantines who were Turkish subjects, and the Natione Tedesca or Jews of German origin..." The far more recent meaning of the term, to include both Middle Eastern and North African Jews in a single term, developed within Zionism in the mid-1940s, when Jews from these countries were all combined in one category as the target of an immigration plan. According to some sources, the current sense of the term, as an ethnic group which is distinct from European-born Jews, was invented at this time. The term constitutes a third major layer to some, and following the partition of Mandatory Palestine and Israeli independence, the Mizrahim's often-forced migration, led to their re-established communities in Israel.
Smaller Jewish groups include the Georgian Jews and Mountain Jews from the Caucasus; Indian Jews including the Bene Israel, Bnei Menashe, Cochin Jews and Bene Ephraim; the Romaniotes of Greece; the ancient Italian Jewish community; the Teimanim from the Yemen; various African Jews, including most numerously the Beta Israel of Ethiopia; the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia; and Chinese Jews, most notably the Kaifeng Jews, as well as various other distinct but now extinct communities.
The divisions between all these groups are rough and their boundaries aren't solid. The Mizrahim for example, are a heterogeneous collection of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities which are often as unrelated to each other as they are to any of the earlier mentioned Jewish groups. In traditional religious usage and sometimes in modern usage, however, the Mizrahim are also termed Sephardi due to similar styles of liturgy, despite independent evolutions from Sephardim proper. Thus, among Mizrahim there are Iranian Jews, Iraqi Jews, Egyptian Jews, Sudanese Jews, Tunisian Jews, Algerian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Lebanese Jews, Kurdish Jews, Libyan Jews, Syrian Jews, and various others. The Yemenite Jews ("Teimanim") from Yemen are sometimes included, although their style of liturgy is unique and they differ in respect to the admixture found among them to that found in Mizrahim. Additionally, there is a difference between the pre-existing Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities as distinct from the descendants of those Sephardi migrants who established themselves in the Middle East and North Africa after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, and in 1497 from the expulsion decreed in Portugal.
Despite this diversity, Ashkenazi Jews represent the bulk of modern Jewry, estimated at between 70% and 80% of all Jews worldwide; prior to World War II and the Holocaust however, it was 90%. Ashkenazim developed in Europe, but underwent massive emigration in search of better opportunities and during periods of civil strife and warfare. As a result of this, they became the overwhelming majority of Jews in the New World continents and countries, which previously were without native European or Jewish populations. These include the United States, Mexico, Canada, United Kingdom, Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Africa, but with Venezuela and Panama being exceptions since Sephardim still compose the majority of the Jewish communities in these two countries. In France, more recent Sephardi Jewish immigrants from North Africa and their descendants now outnumber the pre-existing Ashkenazim.
Despite the evident diversity displayed by the world's distinctive Jewish populations, both culturally and physically, genetic studies have demonstrated most of these to be genetically related to one another, having ultimately originated from a common ancient Israelite population that underwent geographic branching and subsequent independent evolutions.
A study published by the National Academy of Sciences stated that "The results support the hypothesis that the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora." Researchers expressed surprise at the remarkable genetic uniformity they found among modern Jews, no matter where the diaspora has become dispersed around the world.
Moreover, DNA tests have demonstrated substantially less inter-marriage in most of the various Jewish ethnic divisions over the last 3,000 years than in other populations. The findings lend support to traditional Jewish accounts accrediting their founding to exiled Israelite populations, and counters theories that many or most of the world's Jewish populations were founded by entirely gentile populations that adopted the Jewish faith, as in the notable case of the historic Khazars. Although groups such as the Khazars could have been absorbed into modern Jewish populations -- in the Khazars' case, absorbed into the Ashkenazim -- it is unlikely that they formed a large percentage of the ancestors of modern Ashkenazi Jews, and much less that they were the genesis of the Ashkenazim.
Previously, the Israelite origin identified in the world's Jewish populations was attributed only to the males who had migrated from the Middle East and then forged the current known communities with "the women from each local population whom they took as wives and converted to Judaism". Research in Ashkenazi Jews has suggested that, in addition to the male founders, significant female founder ancestry might also derive from the Middle East, with about 40% of the current Ashkenazi population descended matrilineally from just four women, or "founder lineages", that were "likely from a Hebrew/Levantine mtDNA pool" originating in the Near East in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.
Points in which Jewish groups differ are the source and proportion of genetic contribution from host populations. For example, the Teimanim differ to a certain extent from other Mizrahim, as well as from Ashkenazim in the proportion of sub-Saharan African gene types which have entered their gene pools. Among Yemenite Jews, the average stands at 5-10%, due to the relative genetic isolation of Yemenite Jews this is only a quarter of the frequency of the non-Jewish Yemenite sample, which can reach 35%. In Ashkenazi Jews, the proportion of male indigenous European genetic admixture amounts to around 0.5% per generation over an estimated 80 generations, and a total admixture estimate around 12.5%. The only exception to this among Jewish communities is in the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews); a 1999 genetic study came to the conclusion that "the distinctiveness of the Y-chromosome haplotype distribution of Beta Israel Jews from conventional Jewish populations and their relatively greater similarity in haplotype profile to non-Jewish Ethiopians are consistent with the view that the Beta Israel people descended from ancient inhabitants of Ethiopia who converted to Judaism." Another 2001 study did, however, find a possible genetic similarity between 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews from the population samples.
DNA analysis further determined that modern Jews of the priesthood tribe -- "Cohanim" -- share a common ancestor dating back about 3,000 years. This result is consistent for all Jewish populations around the world. The researchers estimated that the most recent common ancestor of modern Cohanim lived between 1000 BCE (roughly the time of the Biblical Exodus) and 586 BCE, when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple. They found similar results analyzing DNA from Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. The scientists estimated the date of the original priest based on genetic mutations, which indicated that the priest lived roughly 106 generations ago, between 2,650 and 3,180 years ago depending whether one counts a generation as 25 or 30 years.
A study of Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA by Richards et al. (2013) suggested that, though Ashkenazi paternal lineages were of Middle Eastern origin, the four main female Ashkenazi founders had descent lines that were established in Europe 10,000 to 20,000 years in the past while most of the remaining minor founders also have a deep European ancestry. The majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Levant, nor recruited in the Caucasus, but were assimilated within Europe. The study estimated that 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe, 8 percent from the Near East, and the remainder undetermined. According to the study these findings 'point to a significant role for the conversion of women in the formation of Ashkenazi communities.' Some geneticists, such as Doron Behar, a geneticist at Gene by Gene in Houston, US, and Karl Skorecki, at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, are skeptical of these results.
A 2014 study by Fernández et al. found that Ashkenazi Jews display a frequency of haplogroup K in their maternal DNA, suggesting an ancient Near Eastern matrilineal origin, similar to the results of the Behar study in 2006. Fernández noted that this observation clearly contradicts the results of the 2013 study led by Richards that suggested a European source for 3 exclusively Ashkenazi K lineages.
A study by Haber et al. (2013) noted that while previous studies of the Levant, which had focused mainly on diaspora Jewish populations, showed that the "Jews form a distinctive cluster in the Middle East", these studies did not make clear "whether the factors driving this structure would also involve other groups in the Levant". The authors found strong evidence that modern Levant populations descend from two major apparent ancestral populations. One set of genetic characteristics which is shared with modern-day Europeans and Central Asians is most prominent in the Levant among "Lebanese, Armenians, Cypriots, Druze and Jews, as well as Turks, Iranians and Caucasian populations". The second set of inherited genetic characteristics is shared with populations in other parts of the Middle East as well as some African populations. Levant populations in this category today include "Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, as well as North Africans, Ethiopians, Saudis, and Bedouins". Concerning this second component of ancestry, the authors remark that while it correlates with "the pattern of the Islamic expansion", and that "a pre-Islamic expansion Levant was more genetically similar to Europeans than to Middle Easterners," they also say that "its presence in Lebanese Christians, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, Cypriots and Armenians might suggest that its spread to the Levant could also represent an earlier event". The authors also found a strong correlation between religion and apparent ancestry in the Levant:
"all Jews (Sephardi and Ashkenazi) cluster in one branch; Druze from Mount Lebanon and Druze from Mount Carmel are depicted on a private branch; and Lebanese Christians form a private branch with the Christian populations of Armenia and Cyprus placing the Lebanese Muslims as an outer group. The predominantly Muslim populations of Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians cluster on branches with other Muslim populations as distant as Morocco and Yemen."
A 2013 study by Doron M. Behar, Mait Metspalu, Yael Baran, Naama M. Kopelman, Bayazit Yunusbayev et al. using integration of genotypes on newly collected largest data set available to date (1,774 samples from 106 Jewish and non-Jewish populations) for assessment of Ashkenazi Jewish genetic origins from the regions of potential Ashkenazi ancestry:(Europe, the Middle East, and the region historically associated with the Khazar Khaganate) concluded that "This most comprehensive study... does not change and in fact reinforces the conclusions of multiple past studies, including ours and those of other groups (Atzmon and others, 2010; Bauchet and others, 2007; Behar and others, 2010; Campbell and others, 2012; Guha and others, 2012; Haber and others; 2013; Henn and others, 2012; Kopelman and others, 2009; Seldin and others, 2006; Tian and others, 2008). We confirm the notion that the Ashkenazi, North African, and Sephardi Jews share substantial genetic ancestry and that they derive it from Middle Eastern and European populations, with no indication of a detectable Khazar contribution to their genetic origins."
A 2014 study by Carmi et al. published by Nature Communications found that the Ashkenazi Jewish population originates from an approximately even mixture of Middle Eastern and European ancestry. According to the authors, that mixing likely occurred some 600-800 years ago, followed by rapid growth and genetic isolation (rate per generation 16-53%;). The study found that all Ashkenazi Jews descent from around 350 individuals, and that the principal component analysis of common variants in the sequenced AJ samples, confirmed previous observations, namely, the proximity of Ashkenazi Jewish cluster to other Jewish, European and Middle Eastern populations".
Because of the independence of local communities, Jewish ethnic divisions, even when they circumscribe differences in liturgy, language, cuisine and other cultural accoutrements, are more often a reflection of geographic and historical isolation from other communities. It is for this reason that communities are referred to by referencing the historical region in which the community cohered when discussing their practices, regardless of where those practices are found today.
The smaller groups number in the hundreds to tens of thousands, with the Georgian Jews (also known as Gruzinim or Qartveli Ebraeli) and Beta Israel being most numerous at somewhat over 100,000 each. Many members of these groups have now emigrated from their traditional homelands, largely to Israel. For example, only about 10 percent of the Gruzinim remain in Georgia.
A brief description of the extant communities, by the geographic regions with which they are associated, is as follows:
Among the Ashkenazim there are a number of major subgroups:
There are multiple subgroups among the Sephardim:
Jewish communities in Europe that are neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic:
Jews originating from West Asia are generally called by the catch-all term Mizrahi Jews, more precise terms for particular groups are:
Most Jewish communities in the Americas are descendants of Jews who found their way there at different times of modern history. The first Jews to settle in the Americas were of Spanish/Portuguese origin. Today, however, the great majority of recognized Jews on both the North American and South American continents are Ashkenazi, particularly among Jews in the United States. There are also Mizrahim and other diaspora groups represented (as well as mixes of any or all of these) as mentioned above. Some unique communities associated with the Americas include:
At the time the State of Israel was proclaimed, the majority of Jews in the state and the region were Ashkenazi. However, by the 1990s, the majority of Israeli Jews were Mizrahi. As of 2005, 61% of Israeli Jews are of Mizrahi ancestry.
Following the declaration of the state, a flood of Jewish migrants and refugees entered Israel from the Arab world and the Muslim world in general. Most were Sephardim and Mizrahim, which included Jews from the Maghreb, Yemenite Jews, Bukharan Jews, Persian Jews, Iraqi Jews, Kurdish Jews, and smaller communities, principally from Libya, Egypt and Turkey. More recently, other communities have also arrived including Ethiopian Jews and Indian Jews. Because of the relative homogeneity of Ashkenazic Jewry, especially by comparison to the diversity of the many smaller communities, over time in Israel, all Jews from Europe came to be called "Ashkenazi" in Israel, whether or not they had any connection with Germany, while Jews from Africa and Asia have come to be called "Sephardi", whether or not they had any connection with Spain. One reason is that most African and Asian Jewish communities use the Sephardic prayer ritual and abide by the rulings of Sephardic rabbinic authorities, and therefore consider themselves to be "Sephardim" in the broader sense of "Jews of the Spanish rite", though not in the narrower sense of "Spanish Jews". Similarly "Ashkenazim" has the broader sense of "Jews of the German rite".
The founders of modern Israel, mostly Ashkenazi Jews, are often said to have believed themselves superior to these new arrivals. With higher degrees of Western-standard education, they were better positioned to take full advantage of the emerging Western-style liberal democracy and Western mode of living which they themselves had established as the cultural norm in Palestine during the pre-state era.
Cultural or racial biases against the newcomers were compounded by the fledgling state's lack of financial resources and inadequate housing to handle the massive population influx. Thus, hundreds of thousands of new Sephardic immigrants were sent to live in tent cities in outlying areas. Sephardim (in its wider meaning) were often victims of discrimination and were sometimes called schwartze (meaning "black" in Yiddish).
Worse than housing discrimination was the differential treatment accorded the children of these immigrants, many of whom were tracked by the largely European education establishment into dead-end "vocational" schools, without any real assessment of their intellectual capacities. Mizrahi Jews protested their unfair treatment, and even established the Israeli Black Panthers movement with the mission of working for social justice.
The effects of this early discrimination still linger a half-century later, as documented by the studies of the Adva Center, a think tank on social equality, and by other Israeli academic research (cf., for example, Tel Aviv University Professor Yehuda Shenhav's article in Hebrew documenting the gross underrepresentation of Sephardic Jewry in Israeli high school history textbooks. Every Israeli prime minister has been Ashkenazi, although Sephardim and Mizrahim have attained the (ceremonial) presidency and other high positions. The student bodies of Israel's universities remain overwhelmingly European in origin, despite the fact that roughly half the country's population is non-European. And the tent cities of the 1950s morphed into so-called "development towns". Scattered over border areas of the Negev Desert and the Galilee, far from the bright lights of Israel's major cities, most of these towns never had the critical mass or ingredients to succeed as places to live, and they continue to suffer from high unemployment, inferior schools, and chronic brain drain. Prof. Smadar Lavie, Mizrahi U.S.-Israeli anthropologist, has documented and analyzed the discriminatory treatment Mizrahi single mothers endure from the Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli regime, suggesting that Israeli bureaucracy is based on a theological notion that inserts the categories of religion, gender, and race into the foundation of citizenship. Lavie connects intra-Jewish racial and gendered dynamics to the 2014 Gaza War in her widely-reviewed book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, and analyzes the racial and gender justice protest movements in the State of Israel from the 2003 Single Mothers' March to the 2014 New Black Panthers.
While the Israeli Black Panthers no longer exist, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition and many other NGOs carry on the struggle for equal access and opportunity in housing, education, and employment for the country's underprivileged populace - still largely composed of Sephardim and Mizrahim, joined now by newer immigrants from Ethiopia and the Caucasus Mountains.
Intermarriage of all these regathered Jewish ethnic groups was initially uncommon, due in part to distances of each group's settlement in Israel, and cultural or racial biases. In recent generations, however, the barriers were lowered by state-sponsored assimilation of all the Jewish ethnic groups into a common Sabra (native-born Israeli) identity which facilitated extensive mixed-marriages.