FUNDAMENTALLY FREUND: The Abarbanel and the return of the Bnei Anousim

A Spanish flag waves over the Spanish parliament in Madrid

A Spanish flag waves over the Spanish parliament in Madrid

This week marks the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest Jewish figures of the past five centuries, a man whose scholarship and public service were so breathtaking in scope that despite the passage of many generations, he continues to stand out in the annals of our people.

It was on the Tishrei 29 in the year 5269 on the Hebrew calendar (or 1508 on the Gregoria), that Isaac Abarbanel, rabbi, exegete and royal financier, returned his soul to his Maker after an extraordinary and turbulent career.

In recalling this heroic figure, whose philosophical works and biblical commentaries are still studied today, it is worth highlighting a prophetic forecast that he made, one that he reiterated a number of times and which is now at last coming to pass before our very eyes: the return of the Spanish and Portuguese Bnei Anousim, or forcibly converted Jews, to the people of Israel.

The Abarbanel, as he is known, was born in 1437 and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, where he proved to be prodigious student, penning complex Jewish philosophical treatises while still a young man. His intellect and vast knowledge of various subjects caught the attention of Portuguese king Alfonso V, who appointed him to serve as treasurer to the monarchy.

In 1483, after the king’s death, the Abarbanel learned of a plot being hatched against him and fled to safety in Spain, where he rebuilt his life and once again was courted by royalty. The scholar-turned-statesman helped King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finance the Granada War, which culminated with the defeat and expulsion of the Muslim Moors from Iberia after seven centuries of occupation.

But shortly thereafter, the Spanish monarchs issued their infamous Edict of Expulsion in 1492, in which they resolved “to order the said Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back to them.”

The Abarbanel wasted little time in trying to get the decree overturned, admonishing the king and queen to reverse course, but they adamantly refused.

In the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Kings, which he completed shortly after leaving Spain, the Abarbanel movingly described the disaster that befell Spanish Jewry.

“In the ninth year of the reign of the king of Spain,” he wrote, “which coincides with the Jewish year 5252, the king issued an edict which required the Jews to choose between conversion or expulsion from the lands of Spain, Sicily, Majorca and Sardinia. When the Jews heard this edict, they immediately cried and tore their clothing in grief, fearing for their lives.”

“And 300,000 of them left,” he continued, “young men and old, women and children. All left on that fateful day, exhausted, from the king’s lands and with the spirit of G-d before them they traveled in all directions.”

The exile of Spanish Jewry was a subject that he returned to numerous times throughout his extensive writings.

As an eyewitness to the destruction that befell Spanish Jewry, the Abarbanel was also keenly aware of the plight of the Bnei Anousim (Hebrew for “the progeny of those who were coerced”), whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos” and who were forced to stay behind when the Jews departed.

With great passion, he affirmed in his biblical exegesis that despite the tribulations they endured, those forced to convert would one day return to the Jewish people out of the depths of spiritual and physical exile.

For example, in his commentary to chapter 20 of the Book of Ezekiel, the Abarbanel states that the Ingathering of the Exiles will include not only those who are part of the community of Israel, but also those who were “compelled to leave the faith,” for all of God’s sheep “shall return to the flock.”

“In the End of Days,” he wrote, “the prophet foresaw that G-d would awaken in the hearts of the Anousim a desire to return to Him.”

Similarly, when he expounds on chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, the Abarbanel is equally adamant, stating that a time when will come when the Anousim “will return to G-d in their heart… And when they return to G-d and follow Him… everyone according to his status and his ability, he promises that the exalted God will bring them close to Him.”

The Abarbanel undoubtedly wrote these words to provide comfort and hope to the Anousim, many of whom continued to practice Judaism in secret and longed to return to the Jewish people.

But what makes his predictions so astounding are the dire circumstances in which they were written. Bear in mind that he penned these words shortly after his entire world, and that of Spanish Jewry itself, had come crashing down.

As a result of the expulsion, Spanish Jewry in all its glory had been destroyed, scattered to the winds by the cruel decree, and the Anusim had been left behind, seemingly fated to disappear.

But the Abarbanel was convinced, based on his reading of Scripture, that regardless of how impossible it might seem, the Anusim would not be lost to the Jewish people in the depths of exile.

Although the great man did not live to see his prognostication come to fruition, as he passed away in Venice just 16 years after leaving Spain, his predictions are now coming true, as growing numbers of Bnei Anousim throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world are returning to their roots.

As remarkable as it may sound, the descendants of the victims of the forced conversions and the Inquisition are emerging from the shadows of history, knocking on our collective door and seeking to be welcomed back into our midst.

Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has worked with the Bnei Anousim for nearly 15 years, and I believe we have a historical responsibility to reach out to them and to facilitate their return.

Centuries ago, the Catholic Church devoted enormous resources to tearing them away from the Jewish people, and nearly succeeded.

Our task now should be to reach out to them with the same determination and facilitate their return, just as the Abarbanel foretold.

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.

Spain grants citizenship to 4,302 Sephardic Jews

Spanish passport

Spanish passport

Spain on Friday granted citizenship to 4,302 people whose Jewish ancestors fled after being told in 1492 to convert to Catholicism or go into exile ahead of the Spanish Inquisition that saw many Jews burned at the stake.

The naturalizations were approved a day after Spain adopted its new citizenship law for descendants of Sephardic Jews, said Justice Minister Rafael Catala.

It allows applicants to maintain their original citizenship so they can have dual nationality.

Those granted citizenship Friday applied under an older law requiring them to relinquish home country nationality but can now have dual nationality.

The new decree “has allowed us at one stroke to grant nationality to 4,302 people of Sephardic origin” whose applications under previous legislation were already pending, Catala told a news conference after a cabinet meeting.

“This is one more step in developing the law for granting nationality to the Sephardim,” he said. “It seemed fair, rather than making them go through the process of filing their applications again, to speed up the process.”

Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities praised the mass naturalizations, adding that most applicants were from Morocco, Turkey and Venezuela.

The new law gives Sephardic Jews and their descendants three years to seek a Spanish passport, with the right to work and live in the 28-nation European Union.

Like others seeking Spanish citizenship, applicants must be tested in basic Spanish and pass a current events and culture test about Spain.

They also must establish a modern-day link to Spain, which can be as simple as donating to a Spanish charity or as expensive as buying property.

The Spanish Jewish federation has received more than 5,000 requests for information about the Spanish law. No one knows how many people might be eligible, though some estimates run into the millions.

Portugal adopted a similar citizenship path for Sephardic Jews to make amends for its 1496 decision giving Jews 10 months to convert or leave.

The Portuguese citizenship application process does not require applicants to take language or culture tests or prove a modern-day link to the country.

The 204 applications received since the law went into effect in March are still under evaluation, Portugal’s Justice Ministry said.

Spain also allows dual nationality for people born in countries that used to be Spanish colonies.

The measure aims to correct what the Spanish government has called the “historic mistake” of the country’s Catholic monarchs sending Jews into exile in 1492.

Historians believe at least 200,000 Jews lived in Spain before the monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand ordered them to convert to the Catholic faith or leave the country on pain of death.

Up to 3.5 million people around the world are thought to have Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

This article originally appeared online here.

Fundamentally Freund: Rallying Hispanics for Israel

Bnei Anousim prayer in Brazil

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

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.

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