Was Jefferson the First Jewish President of U.S.? Who Cares?

Apparently I was at least partly mistaken in thinking that Myron S. Goldberg was the first Jewish President of the United States. According to an article by Nicholas Wade, published by The New York Times back in 2007, one of our Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson—may have harbored some Jewish blood inside his brilliant veins.

Thomas Jefferson as a Jewish President Wearing a Yarmulke

Thomas Jefferson as a Jewish President Wearing a Yarmulke

Says Mr. Wade, “Researchers studying Jefferson’s Y chromosome have found it belongs to a lineage that is rare in Europe but common in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the third president of the United States had a Jewish ancestor many generations ago.” Of course none of Jefferson’s biological remains survive, so that genealogical limb was severed.

However, this did not deter geneticists at the University of Leicester in England. Led by Turi E. King and Mark A. Jobling, they headed along a branch to which Jefferson’s Y chromosome belongs. Called K2, this branch is rare, showing up in Spain and Portugal once in a blue moon but not, it turns out, in Britain (specifically Wales), from where Jefferson’s family hailed.

Dr. Jobling decided to scan the population most likely to carry K2 — men named Jefferson. Of the 85 British Jeffersons tested, only two had Y chromosomes of the K2 lineage: one paternal grandfather born in Yorkshire, another born in the West Midlands. So Jefferson’s most recent paternal ancestry was indeed British. No surprise there. And no good news for the theory of Middle Eastern origins.

Still, the seductive fact that K2 is common in the Middle East does, according to Dr. Jobling, point to the possibility that Jefferson had a Jewish ancestor. Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona, concurs. His theory: Jefferson had Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Nevertheless, even if Jefferson had a little Sephardic Jew in him from the 15th century, precious little of that “ancestor’s genome would have come down to him along with the Y chromosome, given that in each generation a child inherits only half of each parent’s genes.”

Thus, while all this is certainly nosh for thought, the bigger question is, who cares?

Would it be nice if TJ were at least a watered-down member of the tribe? Sure. But there are probably millions of other such watered-down beings on the planet who are no more Jewish than Adolf Hitler, whose Jewish lineage is more suburban legend than truth.

The bottom line: Unless a person is a genuine, non-fractional Jew, either by lineage or by choice, their actions do not reflect on world Jewry. And thinking purely ethnocentrically, do Jews really need to look beyond Jewish authenticity for bragging rights? Don’t we have enough legitimate members of the tribe of whom we can be proud?

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