The return of Mallorca’s Chuetas

A rabbi’s decision opens the door to welcoming the descendants of forced converts back to the faith.

By
September 3, 2011 01:42
3 minute read.
Mallorcan Chueta

Mallorcan Chueta_521. (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 Karelitz.

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This is a momentous development, one that opens the door to thousands of Chuetas to return to their roots and rejoin the Jewish people.

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.

The turning point, however, came in 1391, when anti-Jewish pogroms swept across Spain.

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 destroyed.

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 era.

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 Mallorcans.

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.

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 ruling, their dream may soon become reality.

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 Jewish people.

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.

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.

“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!”

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 people.


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