Bnei Anousim prayer in Brazil
This summer’s bruising and ultimately failed effort to torpedo US President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran has provided pro-Israel activists in the United States with an important and timely lesson.
Despite spending tens of millions of dollars, organizing advertising campaigns in the print and electronic media and lighting up switchboards on Capitol Hill, they did not succeed in preventing the White House from putting together the votes needed to stymie opposition to the atrocious atomic accord.
Clearly, Israel’s defenders in the US are in dire need of some reinforcements, and I believe that Hispanic Americans may just provide the key to ensuring long-term support for the Jewish state.
While organizations such as the Conference of Presidents and the American Jewish Committee have been reaching out to the Latino population in the US in recent years, far more must be done to court this crucial sector of American society and it behooves Israel to wake up and take notice.
We have all heard a lot about the growing political and social clout of US Hispanics, but it is the numbers which tell the full story.
According to a June 15, 2015, research report by the Pew Center, which is based on US Census Bureau data, the number of Hispanics in the United States reached a new high of 55.4 million people in 2014, representing 17.4 percent of the total US population. This means that more than one out of every six Americans is Hispanic, making them the largest minority group in the country.
And projections by the Census Bureau estimate that by 2050 the number of Hispanic Americans will more than double to 106 million.
These figures simply cannot be ignored. Latinos will continue to climb the economic and political ladders in the US, ascending to new heights of power and influence and reshaping the country. If Israel is not on their radar, it will inevitably affect the bilateral US-Israel relationship in the decades to come.
A number of Jewish groups are already utilizing some of the standard tools available in pro-Israel advocacy work, such as organizing leadership trips to the Jewish state and producing materials in Spanish that explain Israel’s cause.
But I believe there is a far more powerful instrument at our disposal, one that will touch the souls of many Hispanics and draw them closer to Israel and the Jewish people, and that is the Jewish ancestry that many of them share.
In recent decades, an awakening has been taking place as a growing number of people throughout the Spanishand Portuguese-speaking world are discovering their Jewish roots. These people, known as Bnei Anousim (Hebrew for “the progeny of those who were coerced”) or by the derogatory term “Marranos,” are descendants of Iberian Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries. Despite being hunted by the Inquisition, many continued to preserve Jewish practices and customs covertly down through the generations.
Nowadays, as more people discover their historical Jewish connection, either through genealogical research or DNA testing, this almost inevitably results in reshaping their attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people. As chairman of Shavei Israel, the largest organization in the world today working with Bnei Anousim, I have seen this burgeoning phenomenon first-hand.
Consider the following: over the past decade, a series of genetic tests carried out on Hispanic men living in New Mexico, southern Texas and northern Mexico found that as many as 15 percent had Sephardic Jewish ancestors.
The phenomenon was the subject of numerous articles in the mainstream press, including The New York Times, Newsweek magazine and Smithsonian.com.
Similarly, in 2008, geneticists discovered a unique genetic mutation related to a form of breast cancer among Hispanic Catholics in Colorado that is identical to that found among Central European Jews, which clearly suggests that they have shared ancestry.
If indeed 15 percent of Hispanic Americans have Jewish ancestry, this means that as many as eight million US Latinos are descendants of Jews. This presents a unique opportunity for Israel and the Jewish people to reach out to them, and it is one that should not be missed.
Due to the passage of centuries since the forced conversions and expulsions of Iberian Jewry, many Hispanics are no longer fully aware of their historical connection to the Jewish people. We must work to remind them of this salient fact, and to utilize it as the basis for a coordinated outreach program to build bridges between Hispanics and Jews.
As the general Hispanic population learns of their community’s connection with Jews, it will build new bridges of understanding with the Jewish community and Israel, make them less likely to fall prey to anti-Semitic stereotypes and less inclined to support anti-Israel initiatives such as the BDS movement.
The benefits of such outreach could also extend to the demographic sphere. Inevitably, upon discovering or re-discovering their Jewish roots, a certain percentage of Hispanics will seek to rejoin the Jewish people.
Indeed, according to the 2014 Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center, 4 percent of American Jews are Hispanic/ Latino. At least part of this number is attributable to the growing numbers of Hispanics who have returned to Judaism. Obviously, Judaism is not a missionary religion. But if even just 2 percent of US Hispanics were to join the Jewish people, it would result in an increase in the American Jewish population of more than 1.1 million.
Reawakening the Jewish consciousness of Hispanic Americans will naturally lead them to be more supportive of Israel in the political arena. This can serve as an important boost to Israel’s cause on Capitol Hill, resulting in a powerful alliance of pro-Israel forces ranging from Jewish organizations to Christian evangelicals to Hispanic-Americans.
Thankfully, a number of visionary Hispanic leaders have taken steps to strengthen their community’s relationship with Israel.
Earlier this year, US Pastor Mario Bramnick launched the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition, an important new group that will seek to build greater support for the Jewish state among the tens of millions of Hispanic evangelicals worldwide.
“We want to build the Hispanic Evangelicals to be a firewall,” Bramnick said, “a protection against this rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric.”
Prominent Latino leaders such as the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and Pastor Guillermo Maldonado have been outspoken in their love for Israel, inspiring many to stand with the Jewish state and pray for her well-being.
It is time for Israel to return the favor, and grasp the hand of Hispanic friendship that is being extended our way. In a world that is increasingly hostile to all we hold dear, it would be comforting to know that we have a large cadre of amigos whose friendship we can count on in our hour of need.
This article appeared originally in The Jerusalem Post.