I am not concerned here with the Babylonian Exile of Jewish elites from Judea to the Chebar Canal and the blinding of Zedekiah’s sons by the enemy. My focus in this post is on an earlier exile—that of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE by the Assyrians. The result of the Assyrian assault on the Kingdom of Israel and the neutralizing of national identity through forced assimilation resulted in the Ten Lost Tribes and the Samaritans.
I cannot imagine the pain experienced by descendants of the survivors of the Assyrian policy in Samaria when they requested to participate in the building of the Second Temple and were rejected—this rejection led by the religious and political elites who endured exile in Babylonia and later returned to their place of origin in Jerusalem. But that is life and that is identity. Assimilation and syncretism weakened the community of the Samaritans.
Their descendants, as a result, were cut off from the body of the Jewish people. They found their home on Mount Gerizim and possess a Torah similar in many ways to that of today’s Jews—but they never recovered from the Assyrian assault and the Jewish rejection of their identity as Jews. I do not blame the Samaritans for their fate. But they certainly had no place in the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Forgive me for not being tolerant, pluralistic, and politically correct.
My additional concern in this essay is the situation of Jewish converts to Catholicism—whether the conversion was by force or voluntary—in the century from 1391 to 1492. After one hundred years of a relentless Christian missionary effort to convert Jews in Spain to Christianity, it is truly amazing that two-third of Jews in the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabella chose exile over conversion, despite all the dangers. But there is a reality that 50,000 Jews converted to Catholicism in 1492.
Yes, significant numbers of conversos in the Iberian Peninsula made their way back to Judaism and Jewish identity in the Papal States, the Ottoman Empire and in the city of Amsterdam, even more than one hundred years after the initial conversion. Many conversos, however, remained good Catholics and lost their Jewish identity despite “Purity of Blood Laws” that Christians used to isolate them and punish them.
The descendants of these conversos have been lost to the Jewish people. Today, some converso descendants have returned. Most have not. Let us not romanticize and exaggerate the phenomenon of “marranos” and crypto-Jews and the mezuzah in the foot of the Madonna. Sad but true. We live with that loss. Lest the reader think that this is an exercise in history that does not reflect current realities in the Jewish world—think again.
We confront today a reliving of the ancient Samaritan and medieval converso phenomena. The rapid assimilation of Jews in the Diaspora is a crisis that must be faced. Jews in the Exile are leaving the fold in record numbers: these Jews will be permanently lost to our people.
Students on the Birthright program journey to Israel—not to Kiryas Joel, not to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and not to Iraq to visit the sites of Sura and Pumbeditha. Makes you wonder. It is indicative of how important the State and Land of Israel are to Jewish continuity all over the world. Let us strengthen the Zionist commitment to learn Hebrew, promote aliya, study in the Jewish State, and fight the forces of the anti-Israel movement on campuses. Let us start reclaiming the remnant of our “Lost Tribes.”
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