(photo credit: Courtesy)
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
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
Writers 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, 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.
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
Now, thanks to Karelitz’s ruling, their dream may soon become
Recently, 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
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
A 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.
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!”The writer is
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