Re­con­nect­ing our peo­ple

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - FAMILY MATTERS - • ASH­LEY PERRY (PEREZ) The writer is pres­i­dent of Re­conec­tar, an or­ga­ni­za­tion fa­cil­i­tat­ing the re­con­nec­tion of the de­scen­dants of Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jewish com­mu­ni­ties with the Jewish world. He is also the di­rec­tor of the Knes­set Cau­cus for Re­con­necti

Afew weeks ago, some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary hap­pened that could for­ever af­fect the fu­ture of the Jewish Peo­ple and the State of Is­rael. There has long been spec­u­la­tion of sig­nif­i­cant Jewish an­ces­try among the pop­u­la­tions of Latin and North Amer­ica and Europe. Much of that was con­sis­tent with his­tor­i­cal data, in that we know that ex­tremely large num­bers of those Jews who had been forcibly con­verted in Spain and Por­tu­gal – re­ferred to var­i­ously as Anousim, Mar­ra­nos, Con­ver­sos and Crypto-Jews – fled the Iberian Penin­sula to the New World dur­ing the Age of Dis­cov­ery, be­gin­ning late in the 15th cen­tury.

Through­out the years, many tried to place a num­ber on the de­scen­dants of these Jews, the prog­eny of a cou­ple of hun­dred thou­sand who were forced to the bap­tismal font to re­gain kid­napped chil­dren held hostage or as a re­sult of re­pres­sive leg­is­la­tion and op­pres­sion.

Now, un­prece­dented ge­netic re­search un­der­taken by dozens of pro­fes­sors from around the world has pro­vided ev­i­dence that al­most a quar­ter of Lati­nos and His­pan­ics have sig­nif­i­cant Jewish DNA. The study, pub­lished in Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in De­cem­ber 2018, re­vealed that the num­ber of de­scen­dants of Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jewish com­mu­ni­ties is far higher than even the largest es­ti­mates pre­vi­ously sug­gested.

The last of­fi­cial ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the num­ber of peo­ple in Latin Amer­ica, con­ducted by the United Na­tions in 2016, re­sulted in a fig­ure of over 650 mil­lion. Add to that as­sess­ment the 60 mil­lion or so Lati­nos and His­pan­ics in the U.S., as well as the data from ear­lier ge­netic re­search show­ing that around 20% of the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of 60 mil­lion peo­ple in the Iberian Penin­sula have Jewish an­ces­try and the statis­tic be­comes stag­ger­ing. There could be as many as 200 mil­lion de­scen­dants of the Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jewish com­mu­ni­ties around the world to­day.

To what ex­tent is this pop­u­la­tion aware of or in­ter­ested in an affin­ity to the Jewish peo­ple? Re­conec­tar, an or­ga­ni­za­tion fa­cil­i­tat­ing the re­con­nec­tion of the de­scen­dants of Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jewish com­mu­ni­ties to the Jewish world has con­ducted a num­ber of stud­ies ex­plor­ing the at­ti­tudes of tens of thou­sands of these de­scen­dants to­wards their an­ces­try. It has found that in some places as many as 30% are aware of some Jewish an­ces­try, either through DNA tests, ge­nealog­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies, or sim­ple Google searches re­gard­ing fam­ily ori­gins and tra­di­tions, and that as many as 14% would like to iden­tify in some way with the Jewish peo­ple.

This means that tens of mil­lions of peo­ple out­side of the nor­ma­tive Jewish com­mu­nity are seek­ing ways for re­con­nect­ing with it and with their her­itage, run­ning the gamut from merely re­search­ing an­ces­tral roots to ac­tively seek­ing a re­turn to the Jewish Peo­ple and even to mak­ing aliyah. In the mean­time, there is am­ple ev­i­dence that when these de­scen­dants be­come fa­mil­iar with their Jewish an­ces­try, learn about Jewish his­tory and are ex­posed to Jewish life to­day, they be­come far more sym­pa­thetic to­ward and even in­volved in Jewish causes and Is­rael.

Re­con­nect­ing these de­scen­dants with the for­ma­tive Jewish world, then, can be of im­mense ben­e­fit to us in the diplo­matic, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and de­mo­graphic spheres, among oth­ers, and can as­sist in the fight against an­tisemitism, es­pe­cially in the US where a large num­ber of His­pan­ics and Lati­nos are de­scended from forcibly con­verted Jews. Such ben­e­fits, how­ever, are dwarfed by the mo­ral im­per­a­tive of ful­fill­ing this com­pelling mis­sion. Our peo­ple were forcibly ripped apart many gen­er­a­tions ago and now is the time to rec­tify this his­toric in­jus­tice. Ac­cord­ing to many of our great­est rab­bis – in­clud­ing Rav Yosef Caro, Rav Ova­dia Yosef and Rav Aharon Solove­ichik – it is also a ha­lachic man­date.

To suc­ceed in the task, we need to mo­bi­lize the two com­mu­ni­ties, awak­en­ing them to the ex­is­tence and ac­cep­tance of one an­other. We need to send a mes­sage to the de­scen­dants of the Span­ish and Por­tuguese Jewish com­mu­ni­ties who seek a re­con­nec­tion with the Jewish world there are those who will be there to help, guide and em­brace them. In re­gard to the main­stream of the Jewish com­mu­nity – in­clud­ing, and per­haps most im­por­tantly, within Is­rael – we need to raise an aware­ness of and gen­er­ate an em­pa­thy for the phe­nom­e­non al­to­gether.

While Zion­ism, the re­turn of an ex­iled and in­dige­nous peo­ple to their an­ces­tral home­land, re­mains as rel­e­vant as ever and does not need to be re­de­fined or amended, it should be re­stored to its fullest and widest mean­ing. At one of the early Zion­ist Con­gresses, Theodor Herzl, the fa­ther of mod­ern po­lit­i­cal Zion­ism, de­clared that “Zion­ism is a home­com­ing to the Jewish fold even be­fore it is a home­com­ing to the Jewish land.” Zion­ism, he was telling us, be­longs to the col­lec­tive and re­quires a com­mu­nal ef­fort and that, in the spirit of the Latin for­mula nemo resideo (leave no man be­hind), it can­not be ful­filled un­less the vi­sion also en­com­passes those we lost or were dis­con­nected from dur­ing 2,000 years of ex­ile.

The Jewish peo­ple face many grave chal­lenges and will con­tinue to do so in the years ahead. The de­ci­sions we make to­day will de­ter­mine how we re­spond to them and will shape our fu­ture. The win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to em­brace those so long sep­a­rated from us is not un­lim­ited. We must act res­o­lutely and with unity of pur­pose to do just that, and, in so do­ing, serve our prac­ti­cal needs as well as ful­fil our mo­ral and re­li­gious obli­ga­tions.

A COU­PLE with Con­ver­sos an­ces­tors weds in Monte, Por­tu­gal.

GUATEMALAN CON­VERTS with Jewish roots in their com­mu­nity’s sukka.

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