DNA study reveals 130,000 Hungarians are at least 50% Jewish

At least 7.6% of 4,981 people living in Hungary who took MyHeritage DNA test found to have 25% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity

An illustrative image of a mouth swab for DNA testing (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
An illustrative image of a mouth swab for DNA testing
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A MyHeritage DNA study has revealed that Hungary’s population has the highest percentage of Jewish ancestry outside of Israel. In total, 100 countries were included in the research.
At least 7.6% of the 4,981 people living in Hungary who took the DNA test were found to have at least 25% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity.
“This is equivalent to having at least one grandparent who is fully Ashkenazi Jewish,” MyHeritage said. “This is a significantly higher percentage than the 3.5% observed in DNA test-takers living in the USA and 3% in Canada.”
Based on UN estimates, Hungary’s population is 9.7 million.
“MyHeritage discovered that 4.2% of DNA test-takers in Hungary have 50% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity,” it added.
The online genealogy platform worked on this research together with Dr. Daniel Staetsky, director of the European Jewish Demography Unit at the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
The study also found that 12.5% of the people tested in Hungary had 10% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity, compared to only 4.7% of people in the USA and 4.0% in Canada.
Staetsky explained that, “commercial genetic testing is an activity where the most educated and well-to-do classes of a society will be over-represented.
Bearing this in mind, he said that, “the number of people with 50% or more Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity in Hungary amounts to 130,000.”
MyHeritage explained that this is significantly higher than recent estimates. Official statistics set the number of Jews in Hungary at only 10,965, according to the 2013 national census.
According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem demographer Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, 47,500 people in Hungary, or 0.49% of the population, identify as Jewish.
But sociologist Andras Kovacs of the Central European University in Budapest estimated “a range of 73,000 to 138,000 people with at least one Jewish parent” in Hungary.
“This outcome lends credibility to both traditional demographic methods and to the novel estimates based on genetic testing,” Staetsky said.
“The MyHeritage data is fascinating and eye-opening,” he said, adding that this is a new way to understand Jewish demography.
“Nothing prepared me for the realization that in my lifetime, the very textbook of Jewish demography will have to be rewritten, that it will happen pretty much overnight and that I will play a role in rewriting it,” he explained. “So far, in figuring out how many Jews are out there, demographers have relied on self-declaration of people as Jews. This method brought and still brings good results, but it is not without shortcomings.”
Staetsky said that as scientists, “We are committed to improving the validity and reliability of our estimates. Results of commercial genetic testing allow us to do exactly that – we have moved up a gear in demographic science.”
The family research platform stressed that “beyond Hungary, a challenging factor for demographers examining the total global Jewish population has been Jews’ concealment of their identity before and during the Holocaust.
“Even after the Second World War, it has long been suspected that many were either discouraged from revealing their Jewish identity and have kept it hidden, or have been completely unaware of their Jewish ancestry,” it said.
MyHeritage made it clear that this study is solely based on the number of Hungarians who have Jewish ancestors as determined by genetic testing, and without regard to the determining principles of Jewish religious law, which is based on the maternal line.
Several Hungarian clients who discovered that they had Jewish ancestry through the MyHeritage DNA test shared both shock and surprise.
Gyula Nemeth, a 41-year-old illustrator from Budapest, said he knew that his grandfather was Jewish and assumed that he’d see some of that in his results.
“But I was surprised to actually get 25% Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity – exactly as I knew I have.” Nemeth knew that his maternal grandfather was Jewish, but he “never lived a Jewish life,” and neither did his great-grandparents.
Nemeth’s grandfather avoided deportation to Auschwitz by escaping the Nazis with forged papers.
“Antisemitism is becoming very common these days,” he said, adding that “I hope that research like this might change the attitude of people who are prejudiced.”
József Belányi, also from Budapest, said that he had received a MyHeritage DNA test as a present, “to complement my family tree research.”
He explained that among the different aspects of his genealogical research, he was particularly interested in a family legend that there were Jewish ancestors.
His DNA confirmed this family lore, and revealed that he was 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,” he added.
A Roman Catholic in his 70s, also from Budapest, who only identified himself as A.K., discovered through his MyHeritage DNA results that he has 98% Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, with the remaining percentage being Sephardi Jewish.
“Finding out I am 100% Jewish is a surprise, so I am now just trying to digest it,” he said. “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.”
For many years, demographers believed that the countries outside of Israel with the highest proportion of Jewish inhabitants are, in order, the USA, Canada, France, Hungary and Uruguay.
However, this study has challenged these assumptions, discovering that after Israel, the top countries in terms of significant Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity were Hungary and Russia, followed by Argentina, South Africa, Ukraine and then the US. This is based on countries with a sufficiently large DNA sample sizes.
The full study will be released by MyHeritage and Staetsky at a later date.