Knesset Caucus Aims to ‘Reconnect’ with Descendants of Sephardi Jews

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Last is week Lisbon began bestowing citizenship upon descendants of Sephardic Jews who were persecuted on the Iberian Peninsula some 500 years ago. Only three have qualified in Portugal thus far, but since October 2 in neighboring Spain, 4,302 new citizens have begun the bureaucratic citizenship process based on similar laws offering statehood as way of making amends for the historical crimes committed during the Inquisition.

Seeing the media buzz generated by Spain and Portugal’s initiatives, Ashley Perry, a longtime adviser to the Foreign Ministry and international pro-Israel organizations, realized that, ironically, Israel is neglecting this same population.

In an August interview, Perry told The Times of Israel that, despite concerns about Jewish law, he “dreams to create a law similar to the Spanish and Portuguese law for bnei anusim [descendants of Sephardi Jews, who are largely no longer Jewish in practice].”

And now Israel may be one step closer as Perry and other like-minded individuals and politicians launched a new Knesset caucus Tuesday that aims to reconnect these potential friends of Israel to the state their ancestors prayed for.

To Perry, a Sephardi Jew born in England, these descendants of Jews who were expelled or tortured during the Inquisition — currently scattered around the globe — could instinctively be natural supporters of Israel. Likewise, said Perry in August, “There are few Jews who don’t have someone in their ancestries who wasn’t forcibly converted.”

Perry’s main motive, he said, is to “correct a historic injustice. It is a moral imperative to welcome back the bnei anusim.” And rebinding their fate with that of their distant Jewish relatives will, he said, “only strengthen the Jewish people.”

With that in mind Perry recently founded Reconectar, an organization whose mission is to facilitate the reconnection with descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities. Additionally, he is the director of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, which launched on Tuesday with a media event and conference hosting international academics and speakers.

The October 13, 2015 launch of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities. (Jeffrey P Worthington)

The October 13, 2015, launch of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities. (Jeffrey P Worthington)

The Knesset event, which saw some 300 participants, including several MKs and the Spanish and Argentine ambassadors, was “something very symbolic and historic,” Perry told The Times of Israel this week.

The subsequent conference, which took place in Jerusalem’s Ben Tzvi Institute, was chaired by Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov, who cited the significance and potential global reach of this new initiative through the sheer numerical force of the descendants, which “stand in the tens of millions around the world,” said Ilatov.

“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,” said Ilatov.

Perry’s fledgling organization Reconectar is to be an online hub of educational materials and facilitation of more in-depth encounters with members of the Jewish Diaspora. Set to launch in early 2016, the website will initially be in English, Spanish and Portuguese, and will, at its most basic level, connect bnei anousim interested in learning about Judaism to Jews who are interested in teaching it.

Perry aims to “create a resource to help people with an interest in Jewish customs,” including several Sephardi practices that a surprisingly number of their families may have kept in some way for centuries. He said he’s been told about families who always swept their dust to the center of the room (a Sephardi tradition), who would place small statues of the Madonna on their doorposts and kiss the feet (it is likely their distant relatives hid a mezuzah there), who spoke a “strange Spanish” (Ladino), or even an entire Christian congregation in New Mexico that would bow to the corner of the sanctuary (it turned out a Torah scroll had been buried there).

Perry wants to show that “you can reclaim your past, reclaim your family’s past.”

“This building, the Knesset, and the reestablished 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,” Perry said Tuesday.

For a successful reconnection, however, two communities must be mobilized: the Jewish world and the bnei anusim, he said.

“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,” said Perry.
Amanda Borschel-Dan, Times of Israels