On a small island off the coast of Spain, a tragedy that began more than six
centuries ago may finally be coming to an end.
For the first time since
their Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and
15th centuries, the Chuetas of Palma de Mallorca have been formally recognized
as Jews by a leading Israeli rabbinical authority, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz of Bnei
This is a momentous development, one that opens the door to
thousands of Chuetas to return to their roots and rejoin the Jewish
Just who are these people? No one knows with certainty when the
first Jews arrived in Mallorca, but the Jewish presence there is said to date
back to as early as the fifth century CE.
At the turn of the 14th
century, the Jews’ situation began to deteriorate sharply. In 1305, anti-Jewish
rioting erupted, and the island’s first blood libel occurred in 1309, when
several Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Catholic child.
turning point, however, came in 1391, when anti-Jewish pogroms swept across
On August 2 of that year, the rioting and violence reached
Mallorca, where hundreds of Jews were massacred, while others were forcibly
converted. In 1435, the remaining Jews were either murdered or dragged to the
baptismal font, and Mallorca’s Jewish community was
Nonetheless, the native Mallorcans never accepted the
converts, and began referring to them as Chuetas, the Catalan word for “pig.”
Many continued to practice Judaism in secret, risking their lives to remain
faithful to the ways of their forefathers.
Subsequently the Inquisition
became particularly active in the area, ruthlessly hunting down those suspected
of secret Judaism. In 1691, some 300 years after the forcible conversions, 37
Chuetas were put to death by the Inquisition in Palma for the “sin” of
“relapsing” to Judaism.
From the start, the Chuetas faced hostility from
their Catholic neighbors, who never truly accepted them as Christians and
refused to marry them – a phenomenon that continued well into the modern
Indeed, it was not until the French captured Mallorca in the early
19th century that the Inquisition was formally abolished in the area, though
even that did not spell the end of anti-Chueta discrimination.
such as the Frenchwoman George Sand in the 19th century and Englishman Robert
Graves in the 20th wrote about the Chuetas with much sympathy, lamenting the
hatred to which they continued to be subjected by their fellow
Ironically enough, that hatred only served to reinforce their
sense of Jewish identity.
LEGAL RESTRICTIONS against them were ended only
in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was incorporated, and it is only in the past
40 to 50 years that “intermarriages” between Chuetas and Mallorcan Catholics
have begun to take place.
As a result, for generations, the Chuetas have
been living between worlds, with Catholic Mallorcans viewing them as Jews, and
Jews considering them Catholic.
An estimated 15,000-20,000 Chuetas still
live in Mallorca, and in recent years a growing number have begun to express an
interest in reclaiming their Jewish roots.
Now, thanks to Karelitz’s
halachic ruling, their dream may soon become reality.
In his written
opinion, Karelitz stated that “since it has become clear that it is accepted
among them [i.e., the Chuetas] that throughout the generations most of them
married among themselves, then all those related to the former generations are
Jews, from our brethren the children of Israel, the nation of
Karelitz further wrote that efforts should be made to draw the
Chuetas closer to their Jewish heritage, and that they should be encouraged to
embrace a life of Torah and observance of the mitzvot.
carries enormous weight, as Karelitz heads one of the most important haredi
rabbinical courts in Bnei Brak. He is considered one of Israel’s foremost
arbiters of Jewish law, and is the nephew of the famed Hazon Ish, one of the
greatest rabbis of the 20th century.
Earlier this week, I traveled to
Mallorca to share the news of Karelitz’s decision with the Chuetas and to
encourage them on their journey back to the Jewish people.
night, in a packed room, I told the Chuetas of the decision, which prompted an
immediate, sustained applause along with tears of joy.
Many said they
never thought such a decision would be reached in their lifetimes.
young Chueta in her early 20s approached me afterward, her eyes still red from
crying. She told me of her experiences in high school, just a few years ago,
when she was humiliated because of her identity.
“I always knew that I
was a Jew, and I always felt this in my heart,” she told me. “But now, thanks to
the rabbi’s decision, it is official, and we are getting recognition from the
people of Israel. I can’t believe it!” I believe the Jewish people have an
historical responsibility to reach out to the Chuetas and facilitate their
return. We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to help those among them who wish
to rejoin the Jewish people.
Over the centuries, the Inquisition invested
a great deal of effort and energy in seeking to tear the Chuetas away from us.
Our task now is to show the same determination in welcoming them
home.The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a
Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews,” including the Chuetas of
Mallorca, to return to the Jewish people.