In May, the Spanish Government will reportedly join the Portuguese Government in officially granting citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled from those nations in the Fifteenth Century.
As someone who by virtue of my Spanish and Portuguese ancestry could successfully apply for citizenship under the criteria set by both nations, I welcome these laws as a way of ameliorating a historic injustice done to my ancestors who suffered under discrimination, oppression, massacres, Inquisition on and Expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula.
Nevertheless, these laws are bringing to the fore a phenomenon which to my mind is of far greater historic significance.
Many are aware that the forced conversion of hundreds of thousands of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula during and after the Reconquista, the Spanish Inquisition and the subsequent expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, remain some of the most traumatic and devastating events in the long and turbulent history of the Jewish People.
However, few are aware that over five hundred years since these events took place their effects still cast an enormous shadow over the Jewish People and its destiny.
Last week, Netanya Academic College held a two day international conference called ‘Mapping the Anusim Diaspora’, where academics from all over the world came to talk about the situation of the descendants of those Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism, but secretly remained Jews, the Bnei Anusim (lit. children of the forced).
When I spoke on the final day I mentioned that there are approximately one hundred million people around the world who are from Jewish heritage and are the descendants of those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted before and during the Inquisition’s reign of terror which eventually reached the ‘New World’ in the Americas.
I was told by professors with far greater expertise and knowledge than myself that this number was far too conservative and low.
Obviously not everyone who has Jewish ancestry is aware of their roots or has an interest in pursuing the meaning of this genealogical particularity. However, there are a growing number of people across Europe, Latin and North America, who are at different levels of curiosity about their Jewish roots, from simple interest to those who consider themselves Jewish and would like a full return to the formal Jewish fold. This last group represents between 10% and 20% of the total number according to statistically representative surveys that have been conducted.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that awareness and interest in returning to the Jewish People among the Bnei Anusim is at unprecedented levels. With the advent of global technological tools, updated genealogical platforms, research websites like Name Your Roots, advanced DNA testing and social media, these communities are able to clearly establish their ancestry, learn more about their lost or partially lost Jewish customs, and are reaching out to return.
What is also clear is that this is being largely ignored by the normative or established Jewish world.
Nonetheless, the Spanish and Portuguese laws have laid down the gauntlet for global Jewry. While it is important that these countries make amends, surely it is more important that these lost sons and daughters of Israel return to the people they were cruelly and violently ripped from over the centuries.
The halachic basis for their return rests on impeccable grounds and has been dealt with over the years by many important sources, including the Shulchan Aruch, and more recently by rabbis such as Aharon Soloveitchik and Mordechai Eliyahu who both ruled in recent decades that the Bnei Anusim are to be treated as full Jews.
Just as the Jewish People welcomed the return of the Falasha Mura from Ethiopia and the Masshadi Jews from Iran, both of who were subjected to forced conversions, so the Jewish People must now as a whole seek the return of the Bnei Anusim.
This challenge and common purpose could unite the Jewish People in a way not seen since the liberation of Soviet and the return of Ethiopian Jewry. The moral and ethical case for seeking their return is simple and has been largely addressed above.
However, the pragmatic case for their return is that it could massively bolster assimilating communities in North and South America and Europe and bolster Aliyah to Israel, with the demographic, economic and social benefits that such a well-educated and professional group of people will bring upon their return.
The leaders of the Jewish community, both in Israel and the Diaspora, should place the return of the Bnei Anusim on the highest agenda.
Last year, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky openly called for Israel and the Jewish community to ease the path of the return of the Bnei Anusim. Sharansky needs to be joined by every leader of Jewish organization and community in a joint call for action.
A declaration such as this could facilitate a vital reunion within global Jewry and be a massive paradigm-changing episode in the long history of the Jewish People, which is long overdue.