The first reliable evidence of Jewish immigration into the area now contained in Libya records the settlement of Jews from Egypt around 312 BCE and the ancient historian Josephus reports the size of the Libyan Jewish population as 500,000 in the 1st century CE. This community, however, was decimated by Roman rulers during revolts ending in 118 CE. After a lengthy, severe, and poorly documented bottleneck in population size, Libyan Jews engaged in cultural interactions with Berber tribes that lasted through the 6th century CE. During this time, the population absorbed Berber converts, although the proportion of Berber genetic contribution to the Libyan Jews is not known. A small number of additional Jewish immigrants may have entered the region from Spain in the 6th century and others may have arrived from Arabia and Syria with the Moslem conquest of Libya in the 7th century. The Jewish population seems to have been significant by the 11th century, but after persecution and emigration under the Spanish and the Knights of Malta, from 1510 to 1551, it may have been small and mostly rural by the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1551. Unlike other parts of North Africa, Libya did not serve as a major destination of Iberian Jews seeking refuge after their 1492 expulsion from Spain. Although occasional Jewish immigrants arrived in Libya from Jewish communities in Italy and elsewhere, over the last 400 years the Libyan Jews were mostly isolated from all other Jewish populations. The Libyan Jews eventually numbered more than 30,000 before the emigration of 1949–1951, when most members of the group moved to Israel.
Precise population size estimates of the Libyan Jews do not exist before this century. One traveler reported the Jewish population of Tripoli to be about 3,000 in 1783; a 1906 study estimated 12,000 Jews in Tripoli and about 20,000 in Libya as a whole. Because Tripoli was the largest Jewish city and because little migration appears to have taken place into the Libyan Jewish population over the last 400 years, it seems reasonable to suggest that the group reached its largest population size of modern times at the time of its evacuation.
The few early records of the Libyan Jewish community indicate diverse origins and a series of population size fluctuations. Because of a dearth of information and the potential for preservation bias among sources documenting influential Jewish immigrants from Italy and Spain, it is difficult to quantify the contributions of different genetic groups to the population that eventually became the modern Libyan Jews—the ancient Jews, the Berber converts, and the possible sources of immigrants between the 5th and 15th centuries CE. A few facts appear to be clear from available records. First, this population was relatively secluded over the past 400 or more years, with its greatest demographic changes involving in situ population growth and urbanization of rural communities. Thus, for at least 400 years and possibly longer, the group can be regarded as a small population isolate. Second, the demographic influences that acted on the Jews of Libya were different from those of other Jewish communities of North Africa. The Jewish populations of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia likely had later origins than the Libyan Jews had; they were subject to different conquests from those that brought immigrants to Libya; their hypothesized Berber admixture would have involved tribes different from those who lived in Libya; and importantly, they received a sizeable influx of Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal during the 14th to 16th centuries.
Despite historical information suggesting the possibility that Libyan Jews were relatively secluded from other Jewish groups, genetic evidence that Libyan Jews have a distinctive ancestry among Jewish groups has previously been inconclusive. Some studies using classical, mitochondrial, and Y-chromosomal markers have considered North African Jews in their treatments of genetic relationships among Jewish populations, but these studies did not assess the relationship of the Libyan Jews to other groups. Studies that treated Libyan Jewish and other North African Jewish populations separately identified hereditary disorders in Libyan Jews that are rare in other populations, but these studies did not find a consistent pattern of relationships among Libyan and other North African Jewish populations. Genetic studies of Jewish populations based on classical markers initially found substantial allele frequency differences and high genetic distances between the Libyan and Moroccan Jews, and suggested that these geographically related Jewish populations may have maintained a considerable degree of isolation from each other. Although more recent analyses have not contradicted these reports, they have been unable to make strong conclusions about the Libyan Jews, placing them in different positions with respect to other Jewish and non-Jewish populations. These studies have generally found that most Jewish populations show genetic relationships closer to each other than to most non-Jewish populations. Most recently, this evidence of shared ancestry among Jewish populations has been strengthened by the discovery of an otherwise uncommon Y-chromosomal haplotype frequent in the widely geographically dispersed Cohanim and by analysis of Y chromosomes in a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish populations from Africa, Asia, and Europe.
In this article, we consider the genetic relationships among six Jewish and two non-Jewish populations using a statistical technique that allows finer resolution of population structure than has heretofore been possible. Although all populations of our study are very closely related, we report that the Libyan Jews have been genetically isolated from other Jewish groups, including the Moroccan Jews. The same methods suggest some affinity between the Jewish populations of Ethiopia and Yemen.
It is consistent with historical sources that the Libyan Jews should separate from and show strong differentiation from the other populations of our study. This population has a unique history among North African Jewish communities, including an early founding, a harsh bottleneck, possible admixture with local Berbers, limited contact with other Jewish communities, and small size in the recent past. Although the few Iberian and European Jews who settled in Libya probably had cultural influence disproportionate to their numbers, it may be that they and other Jewish immigrants left no sizable genetic signature. The characteristic genotypes detected here are therefore most likely attributable to the relative isolation of and possible genetic drift in the Libyan Jewish group. It is also notable that although cluster analysis separated the Libyan and Moroccan Jews, the lowest differentiation test statistic involving Libyan Jews was with Moroccan Jews, perhaps reflecting shared ancestral Jewish, Iberian Jewish, or Berber contributions to these populations, or gene flow among them.
In addition to highlighting the Libyan Jews, structure also grouped 11 Ethiopian Jews and 4 Yemenite Jews in Cluster 2 and the neighbor-joining tree identified clades with Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews intermixed. The differentiation statistic and genetic distances for the Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews were quite low, among the smallest of comparisons that involved either of these populations. Many hypotheses for the origin of the Ethiopian Jews have been proposed, including Jewish migrations from ancient Israel, Egypt, or Arabia, or conversions of native Ethiopians by North African or Arabian Jews. Both linguistic and historical evidence demonstrate that Ethiopian and Arabian peoples have communicated with each other since at least the 6th century BCE. In addition, Yemen was ruled by governors from Ethiopia during 525–573 CE.
Although some authors have argued that Ethiopian Jews derive mostly from Africans, or that the Ethiopian Jews are distant from all other populations that they studied, others have claimed that this group, as well as Ethiopian non-Jewish populations in general, may contain some African and some Middle Eastern ancestry. Ethiopian Jewish Y-chromosomal haplotypes are often present in Yemenite and other Jewish populations, but analysis of Y-chromosomal haplotype frequencies does not indicate a close relationship between Ethiopian and other Jewish groups.
Although the Libyan Jews are closely related to the other groups in our study, with typical allele-sharing and Fst distances for intracontinental comparisons, the Libyan Jews separate into a unique cluster and they are distinguishable when our methods are used.
Although this separation of the Libyan Jews is consistent with their historical context, probable high levels of isolation of other populations in our study make it surprising that this group was the easiest to differentiate. Of the populations that did not form their own clusters, the failure of the Druze to separate is particularly puzzling. The Druze, an endogamous sect of Arab origin, (the Druze faith, an esoteric offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam), derive from a founder population that numbered in the thousands and that was immediately closed to converts in the 11th century CE. The group has been isolated long enough to develop private Y-chromosomal haplotypes of high frequency, but the details of its genetic history remain unknown. As diverse followers of a particular religious leader, Druze founders may have had genetically heterogeneous origins. A larger study will be required to determine whether we did not separate the Druze and other population isolates in our study because of insufficient information or because of the genetic heterogeneity among founders and the action of other population genetic forces.
Perhaps because most divergences among Jewish groups have taken place during the last 3,000 years, previous genetic studies based on allele frequencies and genetic distance have had insufficient power to resolve relationships among Jewish populations, including the Libyan Jews. Although these methods have achieved considerable success in understanding human genetic history at the level of continental differentiations, they have consistently been unable to distinguish populations within continents with great accuracy. Future studies of human evolution that use autosomal loci to unravel relationships among closely related populations should make use of methods that go beyond treating loci independently, and which tap into the potential information lying in the associations among loci.
By the time of Mohammed, the merchants of Mecca controlled much of the transit trade between East and West. They bought goods off the ships at Aden and then transported them along caravan routes for sale in Egypt, Syria and Persia. The proceeds were used to buy manufactured goods, which were then brought back to Mecca and sold at the trade fairs.
The rudimentary and barely developed pagan worship of the Arabs was centred on the three hundred and sixty idols which surrounded the shrine of the Ka'aba in Mecca, to which the Bedouins flocked in annual pilgrimage. The Ka'aba housed a black stone sacred to all Arabs - which was most probably a meteorite that had once fallen flaming from the skies. Some Arabs had developed an admiration for the more developed religions of the Jews and Christians. This feeling manifested itself in signs of spiritual discontent such as the rejection of idol worship by a small number of seekers after the one God, who practised a religion of their own. There were also converts to both Judaism and Christianity in the settled populations of the desert oasis and in the deep South.
THE JEWS OF ARABIA
Before the coming of Mohammed, the Jews of Arabia, were few in number, and I have found only two references to them in Jewish sources. All we know of them comes from Arab historians, and from the Qur'an itself.
Before Islam, they dominated many of the main oasis in the West of Arabia and had also settled in the present-day Gulf States - Bahrain in particular. There was even a tiny Jewish community with its own cemetery in Mecca. Curiously enough, Naim Dangoor told me that a Saudi Arabian father of many children from the Gulf area visited him with his family, about 8 years ago to ask for help in emigrating to Israel. He claimed to be one of a large group of Muslims of Jewish origin who had always maintained a separate identity, praying together and marrying only amongst themselves. Naim believed the story and contacted the Israeli Embassy on the man's behalf - but without success.
Arab historians mention some 20 Jewish tribes, including two tribes of Kohanim. The Jews spoke Arabic, were organised into clans and tribes just like the Arabs, and seem to have fully assimilated the values and customs of desert society. A contingent of 500 Jewish soldiers was supplied by Herod to accompany the Roman expedition set to conquer the Yemen in 25 BCE. It paused for a time at a place said in the Talmud to contain Jews. We may legitimately ask ourselves whether the Jewish soldiers were sent to act as links between the Roman armies and the Jews of Arabia. Arab sources maintain that the Jews of Medina were survivors of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Another theory is that the Jewish date-growers - and the cultivation of dates was the most common occupation - might have come from the Jordan valley as refugees from Christian Byzantine persecution.
Another obvious source of immigrants was, of course, Babylonians. The Jews were engaged in agriculture, not trade which was exclusively in the hands of the Arabs. According to Arab legends, Jews introduced the date palm and the honey bee into Arabia. Also, advanced irrigation and other new agricultural crafts. The Jews appear to have been educated. It was their ability to read and write that made Bible stories and Midrashim generally familiar to the pagan Arabs - and those were the seeds from which Islam developed. Perhaps most importantly of all, Jews also familiarised the Arabs with the belief in the coming of the Messiah.
Many legends refer to early Jewish settlement in Himyar, present-day Yemen. The first is that Jews accompanied the Queen of Sheba when she returned from her visit to King Solomon. Arab historians claim that very large numbers of Jews - the figure of 80,000 is mentioned - arrived after the destruction of the First Temple, to join others already established there. There is a story that Ezra the scribe cursed the Jews of Yemen for ignoring his call to return to Israel and help rebuild the Temple. In retaliation from then on, they refused to name their sons Ezra.
Arab legend ascribes the conversion to Judaism of the king and people of Himyar to two Jewish Rabbis from the oasis of Medina who cured the kind of a terrible illness on an expedition to the North of Arabia. The king was so impressed by the Rabbis that he and his generals converted to Judaism on the spot. He then took the Rabbis back with them to Himyar where they also converted part of the population - presumably members of the court and leading families. Himyar fell to the Christian Ethiopians in the year 525.
Persia sent an expedition to expel the Ethiopians and take control for itself. The Jews prospered for a time under Persian rule and maintained contact with their brethren in Babylon. But the economy of Himyar was in steep decline during this period, partly because of the warfare, and partly because of a catastrophic failure of the great dam that controlled its irrigation system.
The Banu Qurayza alternate spellings include Quraiza, Qurayzah, Quraytha, and the archaic Koreiza) were a Jewish tribe which lived in northern Arabia, at the oasis of Yathrib (now known as Medina), until the 7th century, when their conflict with Muhammad led to their demise.
Jewish tribes reportedly arrived in Hijaz in the wake of the Jewish-Roman wars and introduced agriculture, putting them in a culturally, economically and politically dominant position. However, in 5th century, the Banu Aws and the Banu Khazraj, two Arab tribes that had arrived from Yemen, gained dominance. When these two tribes became embroiled in conflict with each other, the Jewish tribes, now clients or allies of the Arabs, fought on different sides, the Qurayza siding with the Aws.
In 622, the Islamic prophet Muhammad arrived at Yathrib from Mecca and reportedly established a pact between the conflicting parties. While the city found itself at war with Muhammad's native Meccan tribe of the Quraysh, tensions between the growing numbers of Muslims and the Jewish communities mounted.
In 627, when the Meccans and their allies besieged the city in the Battle of the Trench, and had withdrawn, the Qurayza are said to have violated a treaty with the Islamic prophet Muhammad by allying with the attacking tribes, aiming to attack Muslims from behind while the other attackers attack from the front.
However, other sources state that Banu Qurayza did not appear to have committed any hostile act and had been overtly correct in their behaviour. After the Battle of the Trench ended, the tribe was besieged by the Muslims and charged with treason by a judge accepted by both parties, Sa'd ibn Mu'adh. According to Sa'd's verdict the men were beheaded, while all the women and children were taken captive and enslaved. Some scholars have challenged the veracity of this incident, arguing that it was exaggerated or invented.