The Desperate Plight of the Bnei Anusim
Last Wedsnesday at the Netanya Academic College (NAC), members of the International Insititute for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim) met with a charming couple of Spanish and English speaking Secret Jews who, while on a 2-week visit to Israel, took time to schedule a special visit to the Institute. Present were Profs. Arad and Altman, Pres and VP of NAC, as well as other members of the Board of the Institute. They also visited the Mound Library and were fascinated by the amount of information collected there about Bnei Anusim (descendents of Anusim or “marranos”).
They are both, for all intents and purposes, Orthodox Jews with a fascinating story. They are from South America, and while outwardly “Christian” due to the centuries long Inquisition (though not devout), their families had several traditions, including special dietary restrictions, Psalm readings and memorization, staying home for special dinners every Friday night, and the lighting of candles. They had no idea that these were Jewish customs, but after their move to the USA, they gradually learned more about Judaism and felt a pull towards it. They discovered that their families were both Bnei Anusim, descendents of Jews forced to convert to Christianity in Spain, who had fled to South America to escape the Inquisition that persecuted such conversos (or “New Christians”). Throughout 500 years they retained knowledge and practice of Jewish customs, even though they lost contact with Judaism itself. Many Bnei Anusim families practiced matchmaking similar to what happens in Judaism – thereby secretly assuring that they married with their Anusim bloodlines. This couple discovered through recent DNA testing that in fact they are distant cousins and both have the Cohanim halogroup DNA markers.
This couple has traveled extensively throughout Latin America looking for and finding many communities of Bnei Anusim, groups of people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots and have formed communities and synagogues. He showed a video of some of them in small cities singing and praying fervently in Hebrew, with men wearing kippot and Talitot, and women with heads covered. Often they have only a rudimentary or incomplete idea of what the prayers and rituals should be. Yet, although these people consider themselves to be Jews and are very pro-Israel, they are not considered halachically Jewish by the Rabbinate and are often ostracized by the local Jewish communities. Their experience has been that the Ashkenazim tend to be more exclusive than the Sephardim, Jews of Spanish-Portuguese origin. However the problem lies in the fact that the officially recognized Jewish communities all across Latin America are mostly Ashkenazim, having emigrated mostly from Europe in the late 19th century and early to mid 20th century.
There are two routes to being recognized as Jewish, either conversion or acceptance by the Rabbinate as being Jewish according to Halacha, in other words someone who has a documented line of descent from Jewish mothers and who wishes to live according to Jewish precepts. This couple has some limited documentation and hopes to be accepted. A main hurdle is that presently there is NO approved orthodox conversion process anywhere in Latin America. Also many Bnei Anusim do not want to go through a long drawn out and oppressive conversion process even if there were such processes available. It is because they consider themselves already Jewish now living a Torah-based Jewish lifestyle, having completely left aside the Christian label and wish to be accepted as brothers back into the Jewish community.
This is not a small problem. It is known that there are millions of Bnei Anusim living around the world, for example in Portugal (where about half of the population may have Jewish roots) and in Spain (where about 20% of the population have Jewish roots), in the Balaeric Islands, in northern Brazil, in New Mexico and throughout Latin America. Most Torah observant Bnei Anusim this couple have encountered in Latin America want to be accepted by their Jewish brothers and the majority of them also long for the day they can make aliyah to Israel.
It is well known that the Orthodox Rabbinate controls the route to acceptance or conversion and are very conservative in their policies. Without disrespecting them, their policies in place appear to prevent or dissuade Bnei Anusim from being accepted as Jews and therefore they are not able to make aliyah to Israel according to the Law of Return. Perhaps this is somewhat understandable considering the history of the Jewish people and the need to keep the right of return selectively for Jews. Some Bnei Anusim have converted legally and some have come to live in Israel without conversion and have somehow managed to be accepted by the Ministry of the Interior, but that is very rare. While the Reform and Conservative movements are much more sympathetic to the plight of the Bnei Anusim, they do not have the power that allows their converts to make aliyah automatically, only Orthodox converts are accepted.
While this situation has not yet become a large problem numerically, it could. It is ironic that Israel, that needs so much support and indeed more Jewish immigrants, has placed huge obstacles to accept these once lost and largely forgotten Jewish brothers. The door needs to be opened and the Bnei Anusim need to be treated with more sympathy and dignity, as before them the Ethiopian Jews, the Bnei Israel from Bombay, and the Mashadi Jews (from Mashad, Iran) have been. If some action is not taken within a generation, the newly found freedom of the Bnei Anusim from the historic stranglehold of the Catholic Church and the various States, might again force them into hiding, and worse – persecution, torture and death. The fact is that recent initiatives of the Vatican and increases in anti-Semitism in Latin America make this plausible. The Bnei Anusim who have returned to Judaism will not go back to Christianity, no matter what the cost. Will Israel stand by and watch this happen? Why can’t we be proactive as a nation and reach out to these lost brothers right now while they are still free. There can be special programs and filters in place within the present nations of residence to screen them for their sincerity and legitimacy and to prepare them for successful lives as Jews in Israel.
The Soviet Jewry movement was fostered by precisely this kind of need, to help the Jews of the Soviet Union escape from intolerance and oppression when the opportunity arose, even though they had no contact with Judaism for 70 years. Similarly, organizations such as Taglit (Birthright) or Nefesh b’Nefesh (Soul to soul) were developed to assist the aliyah of Jews from Western countries, USA, UK, France, etc. We need a groundswell of support from Jews in the USA and around the world, a political movement, to come out in favor of saving the Bnei Anusim while there is still a chance, and let them be accepted as Jews and come to Israel as equal citizens. If this is what they want, who are we to deny them their destiny.