Striking another historical blow

Knesset establishes Bnei Anusim caucus.

Representing the tens of millions of Bnei Anusim: Yaffah Batya da Costa-Sacks (photo credit: JEFFREY P. WORTHINGTON)
Representing the tens of millions of Bnei Anusim: Yaffah Batya da Costa-Sacks
(photo credit: JEFFREY P. WORTHINGTON)
More than half a millennium after an infamous Dominican monk (1420-1498), one of the most feared and reviled men in history, founded the Spanish Inquisition to purge his country of “heresy,” the Knesset officially established a caucus to reach out to the descendants of those Sephardi Jews converted to Roman Catholicism under compulsion and encourage them to openly return to Judaism.
The first meeting of the body, officially known as the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, was held on October 13.
Attracting more than 300 delegates from Europe, North and Latin America, and Israel, the conference called on Israel and the Jewish world to embrace the tens of millions of descendants from the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities that disappeared due to forcible conversion and expulsion more than five centuries ago.
Those crypto-Jews, once known by the derogatory term Marranos (meaning “pigs”) or the more neutral name Conversos, are today called Bnei Anusim (children of those compelled).
Representing those tens of millions of people is Yaffah Batya da Costa-Sacks, who today lives in Jerusalem. Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to a nominally Catholic family that immigrated to America from Portugal’s Azores archipelago around 1915, da Costa- Sacks learned 20 years ago that she was of Jewish ancestry. In 2000, she was accepted by an Orthodox beit din (religious court) in New York City as a returnee from among the Bnei Anusim. She subsequently made aliya and has become an activist on their behalf.
In an emotionally charged address, she described the difficult path facing the trickle of Bnei Anusim who have moved to Israel or sought to join a Diaspora synagogue.
“The community is not as accepting as they should be.
Despite our historic connection, they view us as outsiders and with suspicion. There needs to be a major effort to educate the Jewish community,” she maintained.
Da Costa-Sacks accused Orthodox rabbis of placing too much emphasis on converting Bnei Anusim instead of a welcoming them with a simple return ceremony, as ruled by former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu.
“It denies our Jewish ancestry, a part of our identity and tradition.
The church forced us to convert in the Inquisition, and now many rabbis are forcing us to convert,” she said. “It does not return to us what was taken away.
“This year, 5776, is a Jubilee year; biblically, captives and slaves were set free. The Bnei Anusim have been kept captive in a culture not of their choosing for 500 years. Let’s hope that this is the year our people are set free.”
The Bnei Anusim conference was headed up by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), the founder and chairman of the new caucus, who proclaimed, “This event is a historical milestone in seeking a reconnection with the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, whose numbers stand in the tens of millions around the world. Many of them are interested in exploring their Jewish roots and this movement will only be strengthened with technological advances that will aid them in this task. Our role as the Jewish people and the State of Israel’s decision-makers is to assist them in this task. It is a moral imperative.”
Ilatov called on the rabbinate and government to create durable solutions for Bnei Anusim seeking to reconnect with the Jewish people.
Ashley Perry, caucus director and president of Reconectar, an organization that facilitates the reconnection with the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, spoke about the historic nature of the conference.
“This building – the Knesset – and the re-established State of Israel remind us that the Jewish People are indeed the ‘eternal nation’ and we never let historical circumstances prevent us from achieving the seemingly impossible,” he asserted.
Reading from Yom Kippur Machzor used in the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue in his native London, Perry – whose original surname was Perez – noted that the trauma inflicted by the Inquisition still lingers.
“We say a Mi Sheberach prayer immediately after Kol Nidre for ‘a todos nossos Irmaos, prezos pela Inquisicao’ [for all our brothers imprisoned by the Inquisition].”
Perry, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Knesset in the recent election on the Yisrael Beytenu slate, is advocating amending the Law of Return to mirror recent changes in Spanish and Portuguese citizenship laws granting passports to those Sephardim who can prove descent from Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 or otherwise persecuted.
While Portugal has so far conferred citizenship to three Sephardi Jews whose descendants once lived there, neighboring Spain has accepted 4,302 new Jewish citizens this year.
“Many rabbis and communities are turning our brothers away. In order to really undo this historic injustice, they don’t need to return to the Iberian Peninsula.
These people need to return to the Jewish people,” Perry said.
Perry’s proposal that those who can prove Jewish ancestry should be eligible to make aliya under the Law of Return has caused controversy within the rabbinic courts.
“Until the 18th century, Jewish law ruled that Bnei Anusim could rejoin the Jewish community without any ceremony,” Perry pointed out, quoting modern rabbinic sources. “Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik ruled that they must be counted in a minyan, but for the purposes of marriage, they need to go to a mikve and take upon themselves the obligation of performing mitzvot.
“Today, technological advances such as the Internet and DNA and new inroads in genealogical research have created a window of opportunity to make this historic reconnection. For us to succeed, we must mobilize two communities, the Jewish world and the Bnei Anusim, for a formal reconnection. We need to place the reconnection with the Bnei Anusim on the agenda of the Jewish world and the State of Israel, which I hope we are beginning to do here today.”
Shai Hermesh, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’s Israel office, spoke about the importance of the issue in terms of improving support for Israel and the Jewish people. “This is an issue that is critically important and one that the Jewish people and Jewish state cannot ignore,” Hermesh said. “There are vast numbers of people who have a strong connection to the Jewish people and we have a moral obligation to reach out to them.”
Prof. Zvi Arad, president of the Netanya Academic College, detailed, “The prophetic vision of the ingathering of the exiles in the Land of Israel is coming true before our eyes, and it is our duty to strengthen the state by ensuring the return of our people. The establishment of this caucus to reconnect with Bnei Anusim gives us great encouragement and strengthens us to act more vigorously on this important issue for the Jewish people.”
Several MKs, past and present from across the political and religious spectrum, academics, religious and Jewish organizational leaders and diplomatic figures also spoke in support of the issue.
After the Knesset event, a conference held under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, the Institute for Sephardi and Anusim Studies at Netanya Academic College, and Reconectar took place at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Rehavia, titled “The Anusim Diaspora Today: Jewish Challenge and Hope.”
The Ben-Zvi assembly watched a clip from the documentary Children of the Inquisition: A Story that Can Now Be Told, being produced by Joseph Lovett. Formerly an award-winning producer and director at ABC’s 20/20 for a decade, Lovett is seeking funds from foundations and individuals to complete his work in progress poignantly documenting those newly discovering their Sephardi roots.
For more information about the documentary: