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Can the “Jewish gene” prove who is Jewish and who is not?

We know that the world’s 13 million Jews are strongly linked by religion and culture. But linking us through our genes is something that until now, has been far more complicated.

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JORDAN MOSHE

Rabbi Dr Akiva Tatz, however, maintains that there is a recently discovered gene that while not yet solid enough to base a firm Jewish identity on, is prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, and has some “fascinating consequences”.

Tatz discussed the ramifications of this recent discovery and other issues surrounding Jewish genetics with students at Hatzolah House in Sydenham last Wednesday. He was invited by The Arch and the South African Union of Jewish Students.

Having practised as a doctor in South Africa and the United States, Tatz moved to Israel, where he practised in hospital and general medicine in Jerusalem, and engaged in a number of years of Talmudic study, later teaching Jewish thought and medical ethics in Jerusalem.

For years, the debate around the existence of a Jewish gene has raged amongst researchers, with some flatly denying that there is any basis to such a theory. According to Tatz, while this field might still be in relative infancy, there is more to discover about ourselves as Jews than we previously thought, and genetics makes it possible.

“You don’t need to be a doctor or medical student to know that medicine is going very strongly in the direction of genetic bases,” says Tatz. “Almost every journal published nowadays has at least one article about genetic sequences, and medicine today almost doesn’t move without genetic studies.”

The role of genetic identification within Judaism can be difficult to pin down, he says. According to the Talmud, if a body or part of a body is found and it cannot be identified, if there is a unique feature from which it can be assumed who the person was, it is good enough.

The question, however, is what is considered unique. “The Talmud doesn’t say, and doesn’t give any statistics,” says Tatz. “From the 16th century, halachic authorities have tried to define it. They said that if the uniqueness of the feature was one in a thousand, that was good enough.

“However, genetic identification is much more accurate. Better, but not absolute. Major rabbinic figures in this field have said that if we need to identify someone and have positive genetic identification and some other piece of surrounding evidence, it is halachically acceptable.”

Tatz explains that experts in Jewish genealogy and history have determined that 40% of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women who left the Middle East more than 1 000 years ago and settled in Europe.

He says mitochondrial DNA, the genetic material present in cellular bodies called mitochondria, is inherited exclusively from a person’s mother. Therefore genetic markers in this DNA can be traced back many generations to determine a person’s maternal ancestors with a high degree of certainty.

“We have about 20 000 to 30 000 genes. The human genome is found in the nucleus of the cell, in the mitochondria, which contains 25-30 genes. Uniquely, these are inherited only from the mother.

“It so happens that in this DNA, there is a unique Jewish feature. And it just so happens that you are Jewish because your mother is. The two match up perfectly.”

Tatz stressed, however, that this research has not made it enough to prove Judaism just by doing a genetic test. Not yet. Still, it has already had major consequences the world over.

“The evidence suggests that most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from men who came from Israel before the time of the Roman exile, and Roman women who converted to Judaism at the time. It turns out that Ashkenazi Jews are far more closely related to Tuscan Italians than to other Jews from other parts of the world.”

Another case cited is that of the Lemba, an ethnic group native to Zimbabwe and South Africa. This group has some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism, which they say were transmitted by oral tradition.

“The Lemba tribe have a story of descending from King Solomon through Africa, and claim to be Jewish,” says Tatz. “A number of them do, in fact, have the gene. Although the research needs to be carried further, the case may have some standing thanks to the evidence so far.”

Another application of genetics to identify Jews is effecting an extremely painful and bitter story developing in Israel. In the 1950s, Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel and settled in tent camps around the country. Living under such conditions, many of their babies fell ill, and were taken to Israeli hospitals, where many disappeared.

“When the parents came for their child, they were told it had died, and where it had been buried,” Tatz says. “The accusation is that the hospitals sold the babies, or gave them away to Holocaust-survivors without children. Since then, commission after commission has been set up to bring the situation to a close, but it has never been resolved.”

Last month, the Israeli Knesset passed a law allowing for the graves to be opened and for genetic analysis to be carried out on the remains. “Within a couple of weeks, perhaps once and for all, this will be laid to rest,” says Tatz. “Unfortunately, it’s not simple, as in Israel people are not buried in coffins. The graves of these babies are small, and the ground shifts. It’s not clear exactly where each individual child is located, but there is great hope that this scar on modern Israeli history may be resolved.”

The practice of tracing genetic genealogy amongst Jews is not necessarily new. One example is that of the lineage of Kohanim, and their descendants today.

“A Kohen gene has been said to exist in certain men claiming to be Kohanim. Before, they were believed only on the basis of their own testimony,” says Tatz. However, a very high percentage of people claiming descent have a unique Y-chromosomal polymorphism, which suggests that all Kohanim on the earth today descended from one man who lived about 2 000 years ago.

“Thanks to genetic research, we can tell how closely related any two human beings are on earth. A recent study found that any two Jews on earth are 10 times more closely related than any two random people living in New York.”

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An aliyah flight of biblical proportions

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It was an aliyah flight that came together as if guided by the hand of G-d. The South Africans, presently the pariahs of the world thanks to the COVID-19 variant discovered here, were told about it just less than 24 hours before. And it wasn’t just any flight they were joining, but an historic aliyah of Ethiopian Jews who had been waiting decades to come to the Jewish state.

“We were like the Jews leaving Mitzrayim,” says oleh Rabbi Craig Kacev, who read the Megillah in the middle of Addis Ababa Airport on Ta’anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). He spoke to the SA Jewish Report from Haifa, where he and his wife are in quarantine at the same hostel where 286 Ethiopian olim are isolating.

“It was fascinating and exciting to see first-hand the effort Israel makes to continue the ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “There was such joy in witnessing history.”

Liat Amar Arran, the director of the Israel Centre South Africa, says the flight was a “miracle”.

“We had a group of about 20 people who wanted to make aliyah, but there were no flights. Everyone told me to wait, but I said people have jobs lined up, or no place to live here, and I’m not giving up. Then this Ethiopian flight was approved – one of only five aliyah flights from around the world.

“Shai Felder, the head of the aliyah department, said he could try and organise a bigger plane from Ethiopia to add our olim, but he wasn’t convinced it could happen, and he said I might need to give up. I said I’m not giving up, I’m counting on this option,” says Amar Arran.

“I told the South African olim to go for COVID-19 tests as they might be able to get on a flight tomorrow. At this point, we were just praying. Everyone said I was crazy, that you couldn’t do this so last minute. I said I would rather wait till the last minute and try. Well, 12 people had COVID-19 tests, and there were 12 seats available on the plane. It was due to many good people working together that they got on that flight.”

“Getting to Israel was never certain,” says Kacev. “We were asked if we were willing to take a chance and have our COVID-19 tests last Wednesday [24 February 2021] in the hope that we would get on this flight. We did the tests, and late on Wednesday, we were told there was space on the flight going the next day. We had been living out of suitcases for weeks already in the hope that we could go, but from that point, it was still a complete whirlwind – but was also beautifully organised.

“We arrived in Addis after 20:00, and had to wait until 03:00 for the next flight. It was Purim night, so I leined the Megillah in the airport, which was packed, but we found a quiet spot.” Kacev says that while the Ethiopians had cell phones and were living a modern life, they also brought a lot of traditional food with them on the plane, as well as musical instruments.

“When we arrived in Israel, there was such rejoicing, with music playing, flags waving, sweets for the children – it was such a simcha.” The welcoming committee included Israeli ministers, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, and even former shaliach to South Africa Danny Adeno Abebe, who himself made the long walk to Israel from Ethiopia as a boy. As the new spokesperson for the ministry of absorption, Abebe told the SA Jewish Report that he was thrilled to see both Ethiopian olim and South Africans finally touch down on Israeli soil.

“It was so nice to see well-known and familiar faces,” says Kacev. “We walked down to the tarmac and were put straight onto buses with our luggage, and driven to Haifa. Because we are quarantining with the Ethiopians, we are being served their traditional food. We asked staff to ‘tone it down’ for us!”

While in quarantine, the Kacevs have been able to speak to their children (who have already made aliyah) through a nearby fence. Many of the Ethiopian olim have done the same, speaking to relatives who settled in Israel before them. “While we had the inconvenience of not being sure when our flight would be, I thought about how these olim from Ethiopia have literally been waiting years. It was so humbling,” says Kacev.

Sean Korb, who was also on the flight with his wife and two young children, says, “If there is one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that we aren’t in control of everything. As 2021 rolled in, we were ready with every document necessary, and were looking forward to being part of the second or third aliyah plane of the New Year, but then Ben Gurion Airport was shut.

“Being thrown between excitement and disappointment was anxiety-provoking to a degree that we have never experienced. Every flight was an option but not an option. Frankfurt, Turkey, Ethiopia were all options, but not for us South Africans. Permission was needed by the Israeli government to allow us to enter on those flights.

“On the morning of 25 February, we had said we will go when we need to go – we cannot push the river anymore. Just a few moments later, we received a call that there was one more option: to fly together with a group of Ethiopians the following day. We were warned not to get our hopes up, but asked to get our COVID-19 tests just in case. Hours later, we received the news that we had made it onto the flight and would need to be at OR Tambo International Airport for our flight leaving in less than 24 hours.

“The rest of our experience was filled with more extremes: the kindness and hospitality of regular Ethiopians helping us with our pram and luggage as we got off in Ethiopia, but also the ruthless security who checked our bags and wanted our son – who was a day away from his first birthday – to walk through security alone. Our pram was taken away twice to be inspected.

“But we made it. Our baby boy turned one in an Ethiopian airport, on Purim, during a pandemic, on our way to Israel. Now we sit in quarantine in a hotel in Haifa, with staff working tirelessly to ensure that more than 400 people are taken care of. We will never forget the way we made our way to the place we want to be.”

Korb says they didn’t realise how historic it would be to fly with this group of Ethiopians. “We didn’t know how many people it was going to be, but it was literally an entire plane filled with young and old. The kids wanted to interact with our two children, and it was incredible to see them play together. There was also a lot of chaos. Everyone wanted to get onto the plane, and was excited and nervous.”

He emphasises how “incredible” Amar Arran and aliyah consultant Ziva Taitz were throughout the experience. “They literally didn’t stop, working 24 hours a day trying to get us to Israel,” Korb says. “They helped us to deal with our expectations, not get our hopes too high, but also to keep up hope. They were professional, organised, and are still helping us. So a huge kol hakavod to them, and their team. We count ourselves extremely blessed to have arrived in Israel on this historic flight.”

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Sacks lifts the lid on massive Prasa-related corruption

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Forensic accountant Ryan Sacks last week blew the cover on alleged corruption and financial irregularities within and without the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), exposing for the first time how billions in tax payers’ money was stolen.

Sacks opened a Pandora’s box into corruption during his explosive testimony at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

What was only meant to be a two-hour appearance at the commission turned into almost two days of riveting testimony. Evidence leader Vas Soni questioned Sacks about his findings into Swifambo, the now liquidated local company behind the notorious, ill-fated, multibillion rand tender to procure locomotives.

Four years ago, the Hawks commissioned Sacks, 43, the director of Crowe Forensics SA to present a cashflow analysis of the corrupt Swifambo tender. He presented his report, which revealed outrageous movements of funds linked to Prasa’s contract with Swifambo Rail Leasing (SRL).

His preliminary report alleged financial irregularities masterminded by a widescale web of corrupt activity within and outside the stricken government-owned entity. However, at the time, his report seemingly fell on deaf ears, he told the commission.

He asked police to furnish him with further information to complete his analysis. He was again ignored, and has not heard from the Hawks regarding Swifambo since.

Last week, however, Sacks was heard loud and clear when he presented his report after being summoned to do so. His report – until recently kept highly confidential – was presented to the public for the first time.

The report revealed the astonishing movement of funds linked to Prasa’s corrupt contract with SRL, a local company set up only a year before Prasa first advertised the tender. This was under the watch of then Prasa Chief Executive Lucky Montana, who oversaw the shady acquisition.

SRL was the front company in 2012 that clinched a R3.5 billion contract to supply 70 locomotives to Prasa. It had no track record in the rail industry. Swifambo, merely acting as a middleman in the corrupt deal, ordered the locomotives from Spanish supplier Vossloh España.

Prasa ended up paying Swifambo R2.6 billion and in return, received only 13 Afro4000 diesel-electric locomotives. These trains were too tall and totally unsuitable for South African rail specifications, as revealed by Rapport newspaper.

Sacks’ testimony exposed the hundreds of millions in tax payers’ money that should have been used to supply Prasa with new trains but was instead diverted. The money went to Auswell Mashaba, Swifambo’s former managing director, and businessman Makhensa Mabunda, as well as to several entities, high ranking public officials, and individuals linked to them.

Mashaba failed to appear before the commission last week in spite of being served with a summons.

“Last week was the first time that the public and a judge has had the opportunity to hear and see evidence of actual cashflows. It was the first time this real evidence has been produced,” said Bernard Hotz, commercial litigator and head of business crimes and investigations at Werksmans Attorneys.

“Instead of false allegations about Werksmans being a white monopoly capital law firm that was unlawfully appointed to investigate Prasa, the public and the judge focused on the large-scale theft of billions from Prasa, and got to see where those billions went,” Hotz told the SA Jewish Report this week.

According to Sacks, Werksmans Attorneys was appointed by Prasa in 2015 to conduct a forensic investigation into various instances of irregular, fruitless, and wasteful expenditure incurred by Prasa, which had been outlined by the auditor general. Crowe Forensics was appointed by Werksmans as expert forensic accountants to assist it. Sacks was appointed by the Hawks to perform a cashflow analysis relating to the Swifambo tender debacle.

Sacks’ testimony last week revealed how Swifambo funnelled about R80 million of its Prasa earnings to Maria Gomes, an Angolan businesswoman with strong ties to former President Jacob Zuma, and to George Sabelo, a lawyer also with close ties to Zuma. Mashaba has stated in an affidavit that Gomes and Sabelo were introduced to him as fundraisers for the African National Congress. Mashaba allegedly took a handling fee of R8 million for this.

“My report shows payments linked to Mashaba amount to millions,” said Sacks.

The Jacob Zuma Foundation was also shown to have received thousands of rands from Swifambo.

Swifambo was going to earn only about R118 million from the entire deal, according to the contract. Of the R2.6 billion Prasa paid Swifambo, Vossloh had received R1.8 billion.

About R600 million was pocketed by Swifambo, and disbursed inter alia to a number of beneficiaries.

Mabunda received more than R50 million from Swifambo, and was paid a further “consultancy fee” of R88 million by Vossloh when the contract was concluded, records show.

Out of the first payments that were made by Prasa to Swifambo, Vossloh received its first payment only about 116 days after Prasa had paid out the money, the report revealed.

Before that time, there were a lot of payments to various beneficiaries, namely to Mabunda’s group of companies.

The company Sebenza Forwarding, to which former Prasa chairperson Sfiso Buthelezi (former deputy finance minister) is linked, was paid just less than R100 million, according to the report.

As background to the saga, in July 2017, Johannesburg High Court Judge EJ Francis ruled that Prasa had awarded the contract to Swifambo through a “corrupt tender process”, and that Swifambo acted as a front for Spanish manufacturer Vossloh. The court ruled that the contract needed to be set aside.

Swifambo took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), where the SCA agreed that “the tender was procured through corruption”. It also affirmed the high court’s decision that Swifambo had been part of a “fronting practice”. The SCA confirmed that the Afro4000 locomotives Swifambo delivered to Prasa weren’t suited for South African railway lines.

“There’s a sense of vindication,” said Hotz, “At long last the public and Judge Zondo can truly understand admissible evidence and cashflows that show how much was stolen from Prasa and who benefited. It’s high time that people go to jail for this.”

Sacks told the SA Jewish Report, “The financial information shows that this whole Swifambo tender was one massive corrupt exercise. Officials running the state-owned enterprise wanted money and the best way to get it was through procurement and the vehicle within procurement was the tender. They set up fronting companies, gave false motivations for why they needed to spend money, and there was collusion on multiple levels to sign the multibillion rand contract. People allegedly stole money before making the first payments to the supplier, it was brazen.”

Sacks is busy doing a forensic analysis of the VBS banking scandal. We should be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

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Never bored at the board: Kacev reflects on 17 years of education

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For 17 years, Rabbi Craig Kacev deftly steered the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE) to financial sustainability, talent development, and academic excellence. And then last week, he fulfilled a lifelong dream.

He and his wife, Yael, joined 286 overjoyed Ethiopian Jews making aliyah. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his quarantine hotel in Haifa, Kacev reflected on his time at the SABJE.

A son of Pretoria, Kacev matriculated at Carmel College. He spent various periods studying in Israel and graduated with a B Compt from the University of South Africa. He was rabbi of the West Street Shul in Johannesburg for 12 years.

In 1996, he was approached by Rabbi Isadore Rubinstein to fill in for a teacher at King David Linksfield. Admitting that he was highly intimidated and uncertain of his ability to succeed, he took on the role, which he enjoyed, and became hooked on education. He taught Jewish Studies and some Business Studies and Accounting for two years, and was then made head of Jewish Studies at King David Victory Park.

The SABJE saw his potential. He was appointed acting director in September 2003 at the age of 32. The late Mendel Kaplan – a celebrated Jewish communal leader – asked Kacev to lunch at Shula’s Restaurant in Rosebank. “Mendel told me I was too young for the job, and not ready. I replied that Rabbi Moshe Isserles was appointed Chief Rabbi of Krakow at the age of 18. He too was young, but commented that he would get better at it every day.”

Kaplan committed to mentoring Kacev. “I got good community support from the word go.” Kacev became SABJE director in July 2004, among a young crop of communal leaders including schoolmate Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Michael Seeff, and Wendy Kahn.

Kacev giggled as he recalled indelible memories, many of which he “can’t repeat”. Once, the hydraulics failed on a school bus transporting learners from Yom Ha’atzmaut at Gold Reef City. The driver minimised damage by rolling backwards onto a bowling green and crashing into a pole. “When I got that call, I rushed to the scene, heart thumping,” Kacev said. “Thank G-d everyone was fine. It was a wake-up call about managing risk. We ordered new buses, and I learned that you can’t compromise on safety.”

He recalls convincing President Thabo Mbeki and Education Minister Naledi Pandor at the Union Buildings to retain Hebrew on the curriculum. But then, a rumour spread that Kacev was trying to ditch the subject. About 200 high school students marched on his office, demanding that Hebrew be retained. “That misunderstanding strengthened my faith in the system. Students were so passionate about their Jewish identity.”

The Josh Broomberg Affair in 2014 (when the pupil wore a keffiyeh at an international debating event during the Gaza War to support the Palestinians and the photo went viral) was a mammoth challenge.

“King David became a political football, and the community was angry. I received two petitions with 10 000 signatures each, for and against Broomberg’s actions. I was grateful for my board in those tough times. We headlined The Star twice that year!

“It’s much easier to resolve student conflicts than parent conflicts,” he said. Kacev had to mediate after a parent slapped a school secretary, who laid assault charges. He had to separate fighting parents at the tuckshop, and often dealt with grandstanding divorced spouses. One parent drove over another’s foot. He once had to lock a parent out of the school. He also found a huge beehive, where a teacher hoped to produce honey, tucked away on the edge of one of the schools.

“For every mad story, there were 100 good stories – kind parents, heroic teachers, and amazing kids who looked after their friends.”

So what kept him at the SABJE for 17 years? “King David schools offered a dynamic and ever-changing environment. I could never get bored. I had to keep checking myself, make sure I was making a difference. I got the opportunity to contribute and serve, and do big things while learning from some superb board members about leadership.

“I stayed because I learned so many new things,” Kacev said. “I became a transport manager, a school-uniform designer. I learned about legal issues in schools, and could use my financial background.” The secret to success is having policies and systems that are clear, he said.

The SABJE had precarious finances, with aging, neglected infrastructure when he took over. “I’m proud that in the past 17 years, we have always broken even and have invested substantially in facilities.”

Kacev visited the United States to see where King David schools could be improved. “Our mantra became ‘the best teachers, with the best curriculum in the most appropriate facilities’.” Building collegiality between the sometimes-competitive schools was also a priority.

“When the community was steadily shrinking and shul attendance was declining, schools became a centre for perpetuating Jewish identity,” Kacev says.

The schools sought to nurture Jewish leadership, and he’s proud of the learnership programme that has supported almost 40 ex-Davidians to become young, dynamic teachers.

“Building King David Ariel fulfilled another dream. We wanted a high-quality Jewish remedial school, and it has exceeded our most optimistic models. It’s so gratifying.”

He is most proud of receiving the 2014 Max M Fisher Prize for outstanding Jewish educators in the diaspora. “It was a big moment to receive the award from Natan Sharansky in Israel.”

“The year 2020 was another good example of amazing leadership and a supportive board. Looking back, I think we closed the schools too early, and closed the country too early. You must balance social, academic, health, and financial considerations. There’s no perfect decision. The department of basic education further confused things, being slow, gazetting unclear regulations, constantly making changes.”

Once online learning got going, it had to be in partnership with parents. “COVID-19 was like an MRI – it exposed our underlying societal problems. It did allow us to push technology. We leapt two or three years in six months. We will increasingly see technology used in teaching.”

Kacev is confident in handing the reins to his replacement, Rabbi Ricky Seeff. “He’s a King David graduate himself, creative, and the man for the moment. Having him in place made it much easier to leave South Africa.”

Kacev plans to stay in education. He is helping the SABJE develops its Chumash curriculum, mentoring and coaching South African educators and others, and managing a project on Jewish thinking skills. By May, he should be involved in a Jewish education programme with worldwide impact.

His final message is not to take our Jewish schools and communal institutions for granted. We need to support these bodies to sustain the vibrancy and viability of the South African Jewish community.

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