The Sephardi Jewish community:
The Jewish people originated in the Middle East and part of the population has lived in that region throughout their long history. This segment, known as Oriental or Middle Eastern Jewry, resided in the areas of contemporary Israel, as well as Iran, Iraq, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula including Iran, Yemen, India, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and Bukhara.
During the westward expansion of the Greco-Roman Empires, and the later spreading of Islamic civilization towards Spain, Oriental Jewry began to migrating west. Communities established in Spain and Portugal forming the basis of what is now known as Sephardi Jewry. Following expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, Sephardi Jews moved to North Africa, then also to the eastern basin of the Mediterranean (Italy, Turkey, the Balkans, Lebanon, and Syria). Sephardi Jewry also evolved in parts of Western Europe and the Americas.
Although Sephardi Jewry is historically and genetically quite distinct from Oriental Jewry the term ‘Sephardi’ is now commonly used to include either Jewish population, or any Jew who is simply not of Ashkenazi ancestry.
In Britain, it is estimated that only 5% – 10% of Jewish people are of non-Ashkenazi ancestry.
The diversity of genetic disorders affecting Sephardic Jews:
Experts in Sephardi studies and Jewish population genetics challenge the existence of a coherent group of ‘Sephardi disorders’. They suggest instead that most disorders are specific to the community of birth and do not affect Sephardi Jews as a unified group e.g. disorders affecting Moroccan Jews differ from those affecting Tunisian Jews etc.
The diversity and segregated nature of the conditions relevant to people of Sephardi ancestry largely reflects the diverse and segregated nature of the Sephardi Jewish communities.
Like Ashkenazi Jews, they developed unique sets of genetic disorders because they were isolated reproductively from the populations around them. In addition, however, the Sephardi communities were largely isolated geographically and thus reproductively from each other.
Jnetics and disorders that affect the Sephardi community
Jnetics believes that it is important to include disorders that affect people of Sephardi Jewish ancestry. However, the list of these disorders is extensive and diverse with the conditions often only affecting a small subset of Sephardi population. As such, only a list of the main Sephardi conditions and links to further information can be provided at this time (see section below).
One Sephardi disorder that is common to many (but not all) Sephardi populations as well as the Ashkenazi population, is Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF). Further information on this disorder can be viewed by clicking the FMF link above.
In the future, and given the necessary resources, we hope to be able to provide more in depth information about other disorders that affect the Sephardi community.
Summary of genetic disorders affecting Sephardi Jews:
The Israeli Ministry of Health website publishes lists of genetic disorders that affect different Jewish populations. Separate lists exist for Jews from North Africa (except Morocco), Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and other locations. The lists can be found here on their website.
A few of the disorders listed are shared across several communities, particularly in North Africa. Some of these disorders are thought to have become common because they conferred an advantage to people who were carriers.
Four recessive disorders are quoted by some American Jewish genetic screening centres as being shared across several non-Ashkenazi communities in the Mediterranean basin and North Africa. These are: beta-thalassemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, familial Mediterranean fever, and glycogen storage disease (type III). Further information about these disorders can be found via the link below:
Information about familial Mediterranean fever is now available on our FMF webpage.
It is important to note that disorders relevant to Sephardi Jewry are also found among many other populations in North Africa and the Mediterranean and are far from exclusively ‘Jewish’.
Screening for disorders affecting people of Sephardi ancestry:
Relatively little attention has been paid internationally to developing screening for disorders affecting Sephardi Jewry. In 2009, the first population-based program began in the USA to screen for four genetic disorders that occur with relative high frequency among Iranian Jews.
In the UK, no community screening programmes exists that specifically cover disorders that affect people of Sephardi Jewish ancestry. At the moment Jnetics does not offer carrier screening for any Sephardi genetic disorders, but we are currently working with the genetics laboratory at Liverpool Women’s Hospital, as well as the UK Sephardi community, to explore the option of expanding our panel to include Sephardi conditions too.
In addition, genetic testing is available on the NHS for individuals with an increased risk of a particular disorder given they have a clear family history or valid concern about that disorder.
For more information about accessing genetic testing, see the screening and testing section.