Jefferson: The First Jewish President?

U.S. President. Author of the Declaration of Independence. Force behind the Louisiana Purchase. And ... Jew? A new genetic study raises the tantalizing possibility that Thomas Jefferson may have had Jewish ancestry.

Researchers at the University of Leicester have found that the Founding Father's Y chromosome is part of a line known as K2; estimated to be about 20,000 years old, the line has been found scattered about Western Europe, notably in Iberia, France and Britain, but it is most prevalent in the Middle East. Since K2's European distribution "lacks clear structure," as Mark Jobling, a coauthor of the study, puts it, scientists aren't able to trace an exact origin. But how might a 20,000-year-old chromosomal line predominantly found in the Middle East end up dispersed across Europe? One of the best explanations is the Jewish Diaspora, in which the Jews spread west through much of Europe.

Without more data, the University of Leicester researchers can't be certain—but that didn't stop the American Jewish and Jeffersonian communities from buzzing about the prospect. "Monotheism, Moses and Monticello? We should be so lucky," wrote David A. Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "I think it's delightful to find through genetic studies more and more that different people are inseparable in their origins," says Peter Ochs, a professor of modern Judaic studies at the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded. "We also like him. He's a brilliant, complex, imperfect person, like the great Biblical models—brainy, who uses his mind to build things, and yet very human." The Leicester team previously researched Jefferson's genes to determine whether he had fathered children with a slave, Sally Hemings.