Spanish conversos and Ethiopian Jewry

Mr. Perry is quite correct. The sole reason the Decree of Alhambra states for expelling the Jews was their persistent efforts to help apostates return to the ancestral faith.

August 5, 2019 21:26
4 minute read.
Spanish conversos and Ethiopian Jewry

Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In “Spanish Inquisition” (Jerusalem Post, July 31, 2019), Ilanit Chernick quotes Ashley Perry as saying, “The 1492 Edict of Expulsion was instituted mainly to eliminate the influence of practicing Jews on Spain’s large converso population and ensure they did not revert to Judaism.” (Converso refers to a Spanish Jew who adopted Christianity under pressure from the Spanish Inquisition.)

Mr. Perry is quite correct. The sole reason the Decree of Alhambra states for expelling the Jews was their persistent efforts to help apostates return to the ancestral faith. Indeed, even the descendants of conversos were actively encouraged to return to the Jewish people. For hundreds of years, many of these previously practicing Christians with almost no knowledge of the tenets of Judaism were eagerly accepted by the Jewish communities of Amsterdam, Italy, Turkey and the New World. It was only upon arrival in these communities that they were introduced to the Jewish faith and its rituals.

The attitude toward these descendants was even more lenient than toward the original conversos since a descendant of conversos was regarded as “tinok ha’nishbah,” a child taken in captivity and raised among non-Jews, and hence not responsible for their apostasy. Nevertheless, Mr. Perry’s dream that today’s descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese anusim (forced converts) should be allowed to “connect with the Jews of Israel in any way they see fit,” seems unrealistic. Even religiously observant descendants of apostate Jews currently have a difficult time obtaining recognition from the State of Israel.

Repentant Jews were welcomed back by Ashkenazim in Germany in the 12th century, and France in the 13th and 14th centuries, even though this welcome exposed community members to severe retribution from Christian authorities. Long before 1492, Spanish victims of brutal conversionary efforts by sixth century Visigoths and 12th century Almohad Muslims were allowed to rejoin the Jewish people. The great 11th-century decisor, Rabbeinu Gershom, “Light of the Exile,” issued a ruling excommunicating Jews who did not welcome back apostates. Of course, conversos and apostates who chose not to abandon the Christian or Muslim faith when possible, were generally not accepted back into the Jewish community, though many rabbis held that they were Jewish according to Jewish law.

This willingness of the Jewish people to welcome back the repentant descendants of conversos and apostates continued until relatively modern times (with some exceptions). Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog in 1948 actively encouraged the aliyah of the Mashedi Jews of Iran whose ancestors converted to Islam in 1839. (Many Mashedi Jews bravely and secretly maintained Jewish practices to the best of their ability, but some did not).

Even though Jewish law traces religious lineage matrilineally, Rabbi Herzog wrote to the Jewish Agency saying that even those who were only linked through their fathers should be brought to Israel. In this case, of course, as required by Jewish law, he required a full conversion but held that if necessary, the conversion could take place after they had made aliyah!

WHEN IT comes to the Jews of Ethiopia, however, the State of Israel has reversed centuries of precedent mandating that repentant apostates, and certainly the repentant progeny of apostates, be allowed to rejoin the Jewish people. It has adopted a restricted interpretation of the Law of Return that accords no significance to the Beta Israel having returned to normative Jewish practice in Ethiopia, have invariably undergone conversion in Israel after arrival and send their children to the religious school system in extremely high numbers.

The government even reversed established legal precedent. In 1972, based on convincing statutory language, the legal adviser Meyer Shamgar, later Supreme Court president, held that the grandchildren of immigrants who converted to Judaism had the same right to make aliyah as did the grandchildren of Jews from birth. Noting that repentant Ethiopian Jews were undergoing conversion in Israel, in 2001, the legal adviser reversed that precedent without even mentioning it in the opinion. In a country governed by the rule of law, it is illegitimate to reverse established legal precedent because you don’t like the ethnicity of its beneficiaries.

Even when government resolutions were reluctantly passed, allowing some of the repentant Beta Israel to make aliyah, the resolutions were implemented at glacial speed. For example, a 2015 decision mandating the inspection and aliyah of most of the 9,000 people awaiting aliyah in Ethiopia has only been very partially implemented. The institutional relief arms of the American Jewish community, the Jewish Federations, inexcusably refuse to provide any assistance to the religiously observant communities awaiting aliyah in Addis and Gondar until Israel accepts them for aliyah, a policy followed nowhere else in the world. 

For Mr. Perry’s dream to be even partially realized, it seems that Israel and the American Jewish Federations would need to adopt policies for the European descendants of Iberian conversos that differ from the policies they have adopted toward the African Beta Israel. Is this possible? Perhaps. But in such case, the reversal of centuries-old favorable historical and legal precedent towards the repentant children of conversos and other apostates will be shown to have been based not upon legitimate policy concerns, but on ethnic economic and cultural considerations. That would be shameful.

The writer is an American attorney and past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. He has been active on matters concerning Ethiopian Jewry since 1988.

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