Study reveals that Hungary has largest percentage of population with jewish ancestry outside of Israel, not US

August 15, 2019 by TPS
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A study by the genetic testing company MyHeritage has found that surprising numbers of people descended from Jewish ancestors in Hungary and are higher than previously estimated by demographers.

Photo by Hillel Maeir/TPS

MyHeritage analyzed anonymized DNA tests taken by 1.8 million people, and made the surprising revelation that the country with the highest proportion of Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity after Israel is Hungary, and not the US.

The gap between MyHeritage’s findings and former estimates regarding the prevalence of Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity in Hungary shows that there is larger number than previously thought of people in Hungary who have a Jewish heritage background that they do not acknowledge, are not aware of, or that their ancestors intentionally repressed.

MyHeritage collaborated on this research with Dr. Daniel Staetsky, Director of the European Jewish Demography Unit at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and a statistician and expert on Jewish demography, who conceived the study.

Together, they analyzed a huge dataset of DNA tests taken by 1.8 million MyHeritage customers worldwide, focusing on Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity. The data used in the research was a subset of the wider global MyHeritage database.

The MyHeritage DNA test, which is available in 42 languages, has the widest global reach in the consumer DNA market, making it the most appropriate DNA test for such a global study.

Of the 100 countries included in the research, the country that stood out with the highest percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity outside of Israel was Hungary. 7.6% of the 4,981 people living in Hungary who took the MyHeritage DNA test were found to have 25% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity, equivalent to having at least one grandparent who is fully Ashkenazi Jewish. This is a significantly higher percentage than the 3.5% observed in DNA test-takers living in the US and 3% in Canada.

Hungary’s lead grows further at lower thresholds for Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity. 12.5% of the people tested in Hungary have 10% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity, compared to only 4.7% of people in the US and 4% in Canada. Meanwhile, 4.2% of people tested in Hungary have 50% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity, equivalent to having at least one parent who is fully Jewish, compared to 2.3% in the US.

However, Staetsky cautions and suggests accounting for a degree of selectivity of MyHeritage users.

“Commercial genetic testing is an activity where the most educated and well-to-do classes of society will be over-represented. Accounting for such selectivity, my conclusion is that the number of people with 50% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity in Hungary amounts to 130,000,” he said.

This is still significantly higher than some recent estimates. Official statistics set the number of Jews in Hungary at only 10,965, according to the 2013 national census. Alternative estimates, such as the estimate produced by Professor Sergio DellaPergola, show that the number of people in Hungary who self-identify as Jews — for example, when asked in a survey — comes to 47,500 people, or 0.49% of the population. Larger estimates of the population with Jewish ancestry in Hungary, produced by Professor Andras Kovacs, give a range of 73,000 to 138,000 people with at least one Jewish parent. Thus, the estimate based on MyHeritage data aligns well with the high end of some demographic estimates.

“This outcome lends credibility to both the traditional demographic methods and to the novel estimates based on genetic testing,” said Staetsky.

Many demographers believed that the countries outside of Israel with the highest proportion of Jewish inhabitants among the total population are, the US, Canada, France, Hungary, and Uruguay. The MyHeritage study challenges these assumptions: After Israel, the top countries that have sufficiently large DNA sample sizes in terms of significant Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity were Hungary and Russia, followed by Argentina, South Africa, Ukraine, and then the US.

The MyHeritage noted that its study did not set out to determine how many people in Hungary or other countries identify themselves as Jews, but only the number who have Jewish ancestors as determined by genetic testing, and without regard to the determining principles of Jewish religious law and Halakha, which is based on matrilineal descent.

Staetsky hailed the MyHeritage data as a “new way to understand Jewish demography” and that the “textbook of Jewish demography will have to be re-written.”

DNA Impacts Personal Histories

When asked about their DNA results, several Hungarian customers of MyHeritage revealed their surprise.

“I know that in Hungary we all come from a mixed background, mostly Slavic and German,” noted Gyula Nemeth, a 41-year-old illustrator from Budapest. “I also knew that my grandfather was Jewish so I assumed that I’ll see some of that, too. But I was surprised to actually get 26% Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity — exactly as I knew I have.”

According to Nemeth, his maternal grandfather was a Jew “who never lived a Jewish life” whose parents had also not identified as Jews. Nemeth’s grandfather had avoided deportation to Auschwitz by escaping with forged papers. “Antisemitism is becoming very common these days,” reflected Nemeth.  “I hope that research like this might change the attitude of people who are prejudiced.”

József Belányi, 39, from Budapest, received a MyHeritage DNA test as a present to complement his family tree research. Among the different aspects of his genealogical research, József was particularly interested in a family legend of Jewish heritage from several generations back. József was fascinated to finally see his DNA confirm the family lore: 37.6% Ashkenazi Jewish.

“Suddenly this legend became reality,” he said. “But the results were even more interesting, because they indicate that my Jewish heritage is much closer than I thought. To me, it’s not a sin to be partly Jewish, and I am actually going to ask my parents to take the DNA test, so we can understand and do further research.”

A.K., a baptized Catholic in his seventies living in Budapest had “never, ever participated in any Jewish ceremonies or celebrated Jewish holidays.” But when he received his MyHeritage DNA results, he discovered that he had nearly 98% Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, with the remaining percentage being Sephardic Jewish.

“Finding out I am 100% Jewish is a surprise, so I am now just trying to digest it. No one in my family talked about their Jewish origins, because it was more like a family legend. I am holding my parents responsible for not raising me as Jewish, but on the other hand I can understand their decision because my father was in a labor camp in Russia,” he said.

Up until recently, A.K. thought that Judaism was just the name of a religion, but he now realizes that it is also an ethnic group. This fact piqued his curiosity, and, using the MyHeritage messaging system, he decided to contact users with whom he shares DNA.

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