Languge: English | Español | עברית | Français

The Different Perspectives of Jewish Law, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel towards the Secret Jews (Anusim)
By Shlomo Buzaglo

The topic of the conference is an important area of concern when out of the millions of descendants of the forced Jewish converts to Christianity (Conversos) scattered around the world, there are potentially thousands who wish to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

The conference was divided into two sessions:

  1. The Descendants of the Marranos in Jewish Law
  2. The Attitude of the State of Israel and the Jewish People towards the Descendants of the Marranos

President of Netanya Academic College (NAC) Prof. Zvi Arad gave the welcoming remarks. He presented an award to the Sabah Foundation, which is providing funding to Netanya Academic College to continue its work in this area through its International Institute for Secret Jews (Anusim) Studies (IISJAS). Shlomo Buzaglo manages the Institute and coordinates its activities with Casa Shalom—Institute for Marrano-Anusim Studies.

NAC Senior VP Dr. David Altman introduced the subject. He claimed the need to create a kind of 'Yad Vashem' for the descendants of the Conversos since the subject is unfamiliar to Israelis and to most Jews, and insisted on the need to place this issue on the national agenda. The controversy dealing with whether our ancestors were willing or forced to convert should not be our main concern; we have to help those wishing to return to their religious heritage. 

In the first Session, chaired by Prof. Zvi Gilat of Netanya Academic College, the speakers tended to give their opinion about the Jewishness of the descendants of the Conversos.

Prof. Michael Corinaldi who is Chairman of the (IISSAJ) at NAC, stated categorically that the descendants of the Conversos are indeed part of the Jewish people. He explained that the New Christians were not considered as Old Christians, and therefore New Christians never married with Old Christians. The Anusim themselves submitted to the new religion only outwardly, which explains the position of Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimon Duran, the Rashbash (1400-1467), that Anusim should be returned to Judaism and not converted. 

Rabbi Eliahu Touitou who has worked in South America, Portugal and Spain in the field of descendants of Anusim, also endorsed this viewpoint and emphasized the large numbers of potential returnees to Judaism who have been turned away by the mainstream Jewish authorities without halachic justification.

Rabbi MK Dov Lipman of the Yesh Atid party, and a member of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, spoke about the need of looking for and bringing back home all the zerah Israel (the "seed of Israel" i.e., descendants or Jews).

Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk who is the head of the Jewish Heritage Center at NAC, emphasized that the classical and clear-cut interpretation is that someone who is born of a Jewish mother is by definition Jewish. But the problem arises when there are people who have Jewish fathers or grandparents, known as "the seed of the Jews" in rabbinical discourse. He stated that in the original Law of Return adopted by the Knesset in 1949 the prior definition was used, but it was quickly modified in practice in 1952 to include persons with Jewish fathers and grandparents. In other words, a purely religious definition was inadequate for the State of Israel, which needed an ethnic or national definition. Some rabbinical authorities support this approach and others reject it.

In the second Session,Shai Hermesh spoke for the World Zionist Congress and supported the view that more or less all descendants of Anusim were potentially Jewish. By helping descendants of Anusim to come back to their roots, an historical injustice will be corrected, our national demographic discrepancy with non-Jewish populations compensated, and the drop in worldwide Jewish figures during the last 70 years will level off.

Abraham Duvdevani of the World Zionist Organization spoke in more practical terms and from his personal experience pointed out the difficulties of the shlichim (emissaries) on the ground in determining whether or not after 500 years someone is legitimately Jewish because they have some residual Jewish practices and claim to be Jewish, or are moved by Messianic motivations. He concluded that ultimately the secular state authorities must depend on the rabbinical authorities to classify for them who indeed is or is not a Jew.

The Session ended with two personal statements. The first was by Cecilia Mendes, a Portuguese attorney practicing law in Lisbon, who discovered in her teens that she was descended on her maternal side from Chuetas. Her grandmother left Majorca (an act that was previously forbidden to Chuetas), married and lived in Seville. Subsequently her mother married and moved to Lisbon. In her research on her maternal descendants she discovered that over the centuries the Chuetas were cruelly treated by the Christian authorities. They were not only forbidden to leave the island, but were restricted to certain crafts and locations. The Chuetas (a group of fifteen families who converted to Christianity in 1435 to stay on the island) were required to take Christian names that were carefully recorded for posterity, so that there was no intermarriage or social interaction between 'Chuetas' and 'Old Christians' in Majorca. Thus, after taking conversion classes in Judaism, Ms. Mendes was able to present her evidence of Jewish matrilineal descent to the rabbinate in Jerusalem and was accepted as Jewish without the need for conversion. She ended by pointing out that she was a consultant for the drafting of the new law recently adopted by the Portuguese Parliament that extends Portuguese citizenship to any Sephardic Jews who can prove that their antecedents lived at any time in Portugal.

The Conference ended with a statement by Mrs. Gloria Mound, Executive Director of Casa Shalom and Senior Advisor to the IISJAS, who pointed out in summary that although the issue of the rights of the descendants of Anusim has been raised numerous times with the relevant authorities, including the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, the Jewish Agency and personally with Rabbi Lipman, as far as she could determine, apart from a lot of promises, nothing has actually been done to facilitate the return of the descendants of the Anusim to the Jewish people and to Israel.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800