Friday, June 07, 2013

Palestinian Anusim

One of the many areas where Jews were forcibly converted to another religion was the Holy Land.  Palestina was part of the Greek Byzantine Christian Empire that was the successor to the Roman Empire.  Palestina was inhabited by Jews and Christians who were also mostly of Jewish origin.  In fact for centuries practicing Jews and Jewish Christians lived side by side in relative peace.  After Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in 638 ce, however, both groups were forcibly converted to Islam. 
Although the Arabs murdered and converted a large number of Jews and Christians, they soon realized that a small contingent of Arabs could not run a large Empire, so first in Cairo, then in Damascus and later Baghdad, they turned to the remaining Jews and Christians to help them.  They institutionalized the relationship with the "peoples of the books," namely the Bible and the New Testament, in ca. 900 ce and officially recognized their religious rights, but as dhimmis, inferior people who had to pay a special tax, the jizya, for this privilege.  Just as in Christian Europe, in order to survive in society, many Jews were forced to convert to Islam, but many did so only superficially while secretly remaining practicing Jews.  Because some Jews were accepted as part of Muslim society it was easier for these Jews to continue living as Secret Jews, or Bnei Anusim, than their brethren who were forcibly converted to Catholic Christianity in Spain and Portugal and then as conversos or their descendents were subject to the rigors of the Inquisition. 
That some of these Bnei Anusim remained fully practicing Jews in secret is shown by the example of the Mashhadi Jews, a whole community who were outwardly Muslims from 1840 onwards (see blog entry "Jadidi," March 5, 2013).  Some moved surreptitiously to Baghdad and Jerusalem over the years and eventually they immigrated to Israel as a group.  Early Zionists and investigators realized that among the Palestinian Arabs there were some who continued to practice rudimentary forms of Jewish customs, such as secretly lighting candles on Fri nights, just as the "marranos" did in Spain.   Some Palestinians even admitted confidentially that they were of Jewish origin, but to admit this publicly was tantamount to inviting persecution and death.  However, as the power of Israel increased and it became more established, some of the Palestinian Anusim came out of the closet and moved to Jewish areas, and live ostensibly as Jews. 
According to some estimates ca. 85% of Palestinian "Arabs" are of Jewish origin (in Portugal it is ca. 30% and Spain around 20%).   Here is a novel proposal for the solution of the Palestine-Israel conflict, persuade these Palestinian Anusim to openly revert to being Jews and convert those who will accept it and thereby remove the need for the Palestinians to have a separate state.  This is certainly wishful thinking, but stranger things have happened, and the lure of being members of a powerful and successful Jewish state could act as a magnet for those who wish to return to their roots. 


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