Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Jewishness of the descendants of the Anusim

There was a conference on Sunday at Netanya Academic College (NAC) entitled: "Different Perspectives of Jewish Law, The Jewish people and the State of Israel towards the Secret Jews (Anusim)." This is an important area of concern when out of the millions of descendents 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, I. "The Descendents of the Marranos in Jewish Law," and 2. "The Attitude of the State of Israel and the Jewish People towards the Descendents of the Marranos." This is my personal summary of the conference.

The President of NAC Prof. Zvi Arad gave welcoming remarks and presented an award to the Sabah Foundation that is providing funding to the NAC to continue its work in this area. Sen. VP of NAC Prof. David Altman introduced the subject to the audience.

In the first Session, Chaired by Prof. Zvi Gilat of NAC, the speakers tended to give their opinion about the Jewishness of the descendents of the conversos (or Marranos) in anecdotal format. Thus, Prof. Michael Corinaldi who is Chairman of the International Inst. for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim) (IISSJ) at NAC stated categorically that the decendents of the conversos are indeed part of the Jewish people. Rabbi Eliahu Touitou, who has worked in S. America, Portugal and Spain in the field of descendents of Anusim, also endorsed this viewpoint and emphasized the large numbers of potential converts or returnees to Judaism who have been turned away by the mainline Jewish authorities. Rabbi MK Dov Lipman of the Yesh Atid party, and a member of the Knesset Comm. for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, spoke in terms of eventual "redemption" of some of those who are descendents of the Anusim.

Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk, who is the Head of the Jewish Heritage Center at NAC, was the only speaker who gave an academic and analytical approach to the problem. He 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, partly because this was the racial definition used by the Nazis in Germany to characterize and murder Jews. In other words a purely religious definition was inadequate for the State of Israel that 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 descendents of Anusim were potentially Jewish, while Abraham Duvdevani of the World Zonist Organization spoke in more practical terms and from his personal experience pointed out the difficulties that shlichim on the ground have in determining whether or not after 500 years someone is legimitately Jewish because they have some residual Jewish practices and claim to be Jewish. 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 by Cecilia Mendes, a Portuguese attorney practising law in Lisbon, who discovered in her teens that she was descended on her maternal side from "Chuetas" from Palma, Majorca. Her grandmother had left the island, that was previously forbidden to Chuetas, and married and lived in Seville. Subsequently her mother married and moved to Lisbon. In her research on her maternal descendents she discovered that the Chuetas, descendents of conversos in Majorca, were cruelly treated by the Christian authorities. They were not only forbidden to leave the island, but were restricted to certain crafts and locations. Fifteen families were required to take ":Christian" names and these 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 Sen. Advisor to the IISSJ, who pointed out in summary that although the issue of the rights of the descendents 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 lip service, nothing has actually been done to facilitate the return of the descendents of the Anusim to the Jewish people and to Israel.


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