King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella must be turning over in their graves.

Five centuries after Spain’s Catholic monarchs sought to erase all vestiges of Jewish life in their realm through mass expulsion and forced conversion, a growing number of their victims’ descendants are seeking to return to their Jewish roots.

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It is a phenomenon stretching from Lisbon to Lima and from Madrid to Mexico, as people throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world explore their families’ Jewish heritage, which was often buried under the weight of history.


In Hebrew, they are known as the Anousim (“those who were coerced”), though historians often refer to them by the derogatory term “marranos.”

Their saga dates back to the 14th century, when pogroms swept through Spain, destroying entire Jewish communities. A wave of persecutions and forced conversions followed, culminating in the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, when Spain’s remaining Jews were compelled to leave.

Many sought greener pastures elsewhere, but others were forced to stay behind, clinging surreptitiously to their Jewishness. But despite being hunted down by the Inquisition and its henchmen, which ruthlessly sought to uncover “secret Jews,” the Anousim persevered. At great risk to themselves and their families, they sought to preserve their identity, passing it down in whispers from generation to generation.

Their descendants spread to the four corners of the earth, and while some sought to leave the grief and sorrow of their experience behind them, others persisted in clinging to the customs and names of their forefathers.

Despite the passage of so much time, the wounds of the past have yet to heal.

On a visit to Spain a few years ago, I met a number of anousim, one of whom was named Juan. The look of agony on his face said it all as he recounted the suffering his ancestors had endured.

Outwardly, they had lived as Catholics, attending mass and feigning piety in an attempt to ward off persecution. But behind closed doors, they clung to the faith of their ancestors, safeguarding the flame of Judaism and passing it on to future generations.

In secret, they lit Sabbath candles, building a special cabinet to hide them from hostile neighbors. Yom Kippur was observed a day or two later than its traditional date, lest the Inquisition’s agents discover their clandestine fidelity to Judaism and decide to burn them at the stake.

Centuries of persecution obviously take their toll. With anguish in his voice, my Spanish friend described the trauma of the Inquisition as if it had happened yesterday. The raw emotion and, at times, even rage, which Spain’s expulsion of its Jews in 1492 had imprinted on his soul was as unmistakable as it was real.

Juan, of course, is not alone. Indeed, the extent to which the legacy of the Anousim lives on was underlined by the findings of a paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics in late 2008, in which a team of biologists revealed that 20% of the population of Spain and Portugal has Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Since their combined populations exceed 50 million, that means more than 10 million Spaniards and Portuguese are descendants of Jews.

These are not wild-eyed speculations, but rather cold, hard results straight out of a petri dish in a laboratory, and they underline the extent to which the Jewish people suffered so long ago in Spain and Portugal.

But now, at last, the Lord is once again calling them home, reaching into the hearts of the anousim and awakening them to their precious heritage.

We owe it to them and their ancestors to recognize the suffering they endured and to facilitate their return.

It was the prophet Obadiah (1:20) who foretold that “the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Spain will possess the cities of the Negev.” That prophecy is now being fulfilled, as the anousim begin their long journey back.

Juan and his ancestors were torn away from the people of Israel against their will. Our task now is to show the same level of determination to welcome them back home.

The writer is founder of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization which assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to Zion. He may be contacted at: michael@shavei.org.

This article appeared in the July Christian edition of The Jerusalem Post.
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