The forced conversion of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula during and after the Reconquista, the Spanish Inquisition and the subsequent expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal remain one of the most traumatic and devastating events in the long and turbulent history of the Jewish People.
Remarkably, more than 500 years since these events took place their effects still cast an enormous shadow over the Jewish People and its destiny.
During the early centuries of the last millennia, around 90 percent of all Jews in the world lived in the Iberian Peninsula, now Spain and Portugal.
Today, the Jews who can trace their roots back to Spain, Sephardim, number no more than a few percent of the recognized global Jewish world.
The question of what happened to these people is being discussed more often in recent years and is gaining momentum even outside scholarly debates and forums. There are now websites, including large Sephardic ancestry databases such as Name Your Roots (www.nameyourroots.com), which provide all the necessary information for those who are searching for their origins.
Several new studies, however, each undertaken independently, using sophisticated identification technology based on extensive academic research demonstrate that there are approximately 100 million people around the world who are of Jewish heritage and are the descendants of the hundreds and thousands of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted during the Inquisition’s reign of terror, which eventually reached the New World in the Americas. These people are varyingly called Conversos, Marranos or Bnei Anusim.
Obviously not everyone who has Jewish ancestry is aware of his roots or has an interest in pursuing the meaning of this genealogical particularity.
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There are a growing number of people across Europe and Latin and North America, however, who are at different levels of curiosity about their Jewish roots, from simple interest to those who consider themselves Jews and would like a full return to the formal Jewish fold. This last group represents between 10% and 20% of the total number, according to statistically representative surveys.
Many of these people claim that they kept their Jewish traditions and can trace their family heritage directly back to the Jewish community.
At the moment, while there are countless forums and organizations devoted to reaching out to these people, there are no substantial or meaningful efforts to send a clear and authoritative message from the Jewish world that we are interested in their return.
Last year, the Spanish and Portuguese governments passed laws that would grant citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were forced into exile 500 years ago. When the draft bill was introduced in February, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón said the legislation was meant to “repair a historical error,” a reference to the Spanish Inquisition.
This law has attracted enormous interest among the few of us who can directly trace their ancestry back to Spain and Portugal, and if the intention behind the law is to provide a small measure of satisfaction to the descendants of those Jews who were unceremoniously thrown out of those lands then the effort is to be welcomed.
If we are to truly rectify this massive historical crime, however, it is far preferable to return to the people from which they were cruelly ripped generations ago.
The Israeli government should lead the way by passing a law that replicates the Spanish and Portuguese laws and sends a message that welcomes home anyone who can prove Jewish ancestry, continuity and familial customs.
The Jewish state has always placed a premium on aliya, for all Jews around the world, and this should now be extended to those who if not for a cruel twist of fate would still be officially counted among us.
Many would need to undergo a conversion, but we can use the experience of the Falash Mura, the descendants of those Ethiopian Jews forced into Christianity, as an example. The Falash Mura were, subsequent to a government decision, allowed to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship provided they undergo Giyur L’Chumra, a conversion undertaken when a doubt exists about one’s Jewishness.
If this law were passed and even if only a tiny fraction of these Bnei Anusim accepted the offer of return to Israel, who according to the same studies are disproportionately educated, professional and well-to-do, it would provide a major boost to our country in many areas, most importantly economically and demographically.
When Israeli politicians talk of bringing millions on aliya, to the derision of some, this could be the answer.
This outreach could be a paradigm changer for the Jewish state and allow us to overcome many of the significant challenges that await us in the coming years.
The return of the Bnei Anusim should become one of the most pressing issues on the next government’s agenda and given the importance that it deserves.
Even if it merely awakens interest in people’s Jewish roots and they want to have a greater connection to Judaism and Israel, this would be significant to bolster wilting Diaspora communities, struggling with assimilation and other threats, and create wider support for Israel. It would be timely as these same populations are increasingly on the radar of Messianic organizations that are investing significant funds to attract those who define themselves as Sephardic Jews and people of “no religion,” a necessary appellation created by many Bnei Anusim as a result of their historical experiences.
This outreach can be achieved with the stroke of a pen by the next government. It can change the face of Israel and the Jewish world forever, returning to us those who were brutally torn from the Jewish People generations ago.
It is time to undo the Inquisition.
The writer was adviser to the foreign minister from 2009 to 2015.
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