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With Spanish Citizenship Now For Sephardic Jews, Israel Needs To Welcome Bnei Anousim

Bnei Anousim in Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Bnei Anousim in Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Somewhere deep in the netherworld, Spanish King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Isabella are most assuredly burning with rage. Over five centuries after the cruel monarchs expelled the country’s Jews in 1492, Spain has at last approved a law offering citizenship to their descendants, thereby extending a hand to the millions of people worldwide of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Israel needs to take note of this important and historic development, and it behooves the Jewish state to do likewise.

In a session held on June 11, the lower house of the Spanish parliament formally ratified the proposed bill, which is expected to pave the way for thousands of Sephardic Jews from South America to Turkey and beyond to submit applications for Spanish citizenship once it enters into force in October.

Even prior to the law’s passage, according to the Spanish daily El Pais, there was “a deluge of inquiries at Spain’s consulates” by Jews with regard to the possibility of obtaining a Spanish passport.

The move by Madrid comes after neighboring Portugal, which forcibly converted and expelled its Jews in 1497, passed a similar law earlier this year.

Of course, what makes this development so decidedly ironic is that the Expulsion happened in part because Spain wanted the Jews’ assets, and now they are welcoming Jews back for the same reason.

Nonetheless, regardless of their motivations, the governments in Madrid and Lisbon are to be commended for the gesture. These are momentous moves, signifying that tangible steps are at last being taken to address the injustices that were perpetrated on Iberian Jewry in the 15th century.

Coming at a time of rising anti-Semitism across Europe, it is refreshing to see European states making an effort to welcome Jews so openly.

This will hopefully send a strong signal to other countries on the continent, and underline how Europe’s historical connection with the Jewish people truly does stretch back over the centuries.

Needless to say, this is hardly the first time in recorded history that a European nation has banished its Jews only to readmit them at a later date.

Under King Edward I, English Jewry was expelled on July 18, 1290, (Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar), and they were officially allowed to return in 1656 under Oliver Cromwell.

In the early 14th century, over the course of less than two decades, France expelled its Jews, readmitted them and expelled them once again.

It took Spain centuries longer to void the Edict of Expulsion, which was formally rescinded on December 16, 1968, or 476 years later. Despite this, Spain has in fact done little until now to come to terms with its Jewish past.

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, its contributions to Spanish art, civilization and culture, are all largely overlooked in the Spanish educational system, as is the 1492 expulsion and the Inquisition’s brutal efforts to hunt down crypto-Jews. And Jewish synagogues and structures, as well as religious artifacts that were confiscated after the Jews were forced out, have yet to be returned to Jewish ownership.

Instead, in recent years, Spain has focused its efforts primarily in the direction of tourism and commerce, such as encouraging the creation of a network of “Juderias,” or Jewish quarters, throughout the country to appeal to Jewish tourists.

There is no doubt that an economic rationale also lies behind the new law on citizenship.

Spain has suffered enormously since the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Its current unemployment rate is over 22 percent, and a growing number of young people are emigrating from the country.

The prospect of forging anew a link with potentially millions of people of Sephardi ancestry, and the possible windfall that might ensue as a result of increased investment and tourism, was surely not lost on the decision-makers in Madrid when considering the citizenship bill.

In the wake of the Spanish decision, the Israeli government needs to embark on a new strategic approach and reach out to Bnei Anousim, the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At great risk to themselves and their families, many of the Bnei Anousim continued to practice Judaism covertly despite the Inquisition, carefully passing down their hidden identity from one generation to the next. Their descendants can be found in every corner of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, and their numbers are estimated to be in the millions.

At Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, we have seen a huge increase in recent years in the number of Bnei Anousim looking to reaffirm or reclaim their Jewish identity, in places as far afield as northern Portugal, Chile, El Salvador, Sicily and Colombia.

The Bnei Anousim are our brethren and, through no fault of their own, their ancestors were torn away from us under duress. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to strengthen the bonds between us and bring back to the Jewish people as many of them as possible.

Steps should be taken to address the myriad bureaucratic and religious issues that stand in their way so that the door of return for the Bnei Anousim can finally swing open.

After all, if Spain, which cast their ancestors out, is seeking ways to reconcile with the descendants of Iberian Jewry, then isn’t it time for Israel to do the same?

This oped piece appeared originally in The Jewish Week.

Journalists turn to Shavei Israel for background on Spanish law

Spanish passportJournalists looking for background on a new law passed last week in Spain granting the right of citizenship to Bnei Anousim – descendants of people who were forced to convert to Catholicism 500 years ago – have turned to Shavei Israel. Three articles appearing in The Jerusalem Post and JTA quote Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund on the new Spanish legislation, an attempt to rectify the draconian and often murderous decrees of the Inquisition beginning in 1492.

In this article in The Jerusalem Post, Freund says the move in Spain should inspire the Israeli government in its connection to Bnei Anouim. “I think that the decision by Spain should be a wake up call for the Israeli government to embark on a new strategic approach and to reach out to Bnei Anousim. A growing number of [them] are looking to strengthen their Jewish identity and reclaim their Jewish roots and return to our people. It is vital that Israel take steps to strengthen their connection.”

In the JTA piece, Freund called on the Israeli government “to follow the Iberian example recognize the Sephardic descendants of Iberian Jewry.”

In the second article appearing in The Jerusalem Post, Freund compares the Spanish law with one passed earlier in Portugal, which he called more “user friendly.” (In order to receive Spanish citizenship, Bnei Anousim must demonstrate a working knowledge of Spanish or its Hebrew derivative Ladino, as well as show familiarity with Spain’s culture and constitutional system. The Portuguese law does not include those stipulations.)

Nevertheless, Freund says, “Such a move should be commended. It is refreshing to see European states making an effort to welcome Jews so openly. This will hopefully send a strong signal to other countries on the continent and underline how Europe’s historical connection with the Jewish people truly does stretch back over the centuries.”

El Salvador Shabbaton unites Bnei Anousim communities

Prayers with Rabbi Birnbaum (center)

Prayers with Rabbi Birnbaum (center)

As the banquet hall in San Salvador filled up, it was not clear who was more excited – the 250 Bnei Anousim who had come from all over El Salvador to celebrate Shabbat together, or their guest speakers for the weekend, Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund and Shavei’s Educational Director Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, who had flown from Israel to be with the community for this special Shabbaton.

The long weekend began Thursday afternoon at the Beit Israel synagogue in San Salvador with a meeting arranged so that Freund and Rabbi Birnbaum could get to know the leaders of the four main Bnei Anousim communities in the country. On Friday, after morning prayers, the group set off for the community of Armenia, about an hour’s ride by car outside the capital. Matias Dileva, an emissary for the Jewish Agency, participated as well.

Upon their return, the group toured the Beit Israel facility, in particular, the community’s first (and only) kosher mikveh (ritual bath), which was dedicated in December 2013 during Hanukah in the presence of the Israeli ambassador to El Salvador. (We wrote about it here.)

We could try to describe the atmosphere on Shabbat, but that would barely capture the energy of 250 Latin American Jews singing at full volume, banging on the tables in joy and excitement. Instead, watch these two videos (not taken on Shabbat of course, but you get the idea).

There were plenty of classes and talks over the course of the Shabbaton. In addition to Freund and Rabbi Birnbaum, Rabbi Isaac Aboud, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the community, flew in from his home base in Mexico City to attend and speak. Perhaps most inspirational, reports Eliyahu Franco, president of Beit Israel and the head of FESOSAL, El Salvador’s federation for Bnei Anousim, were the explanations from the Jewish Agency’s Dileva, who explained the process of aliyah – immigration to Israel.

“The visit of Rabbi Birnbaum and Michael Freund was a true injection of hope for the Bnei Anousim of El Salvador,” Franco says.

We have pictures from the Shabbaton below. The full schedule for the weekend is here. The Israel Hayom newspaper wrote about the Shabbaton here.

El Salvador Jew: “I am proud to be a part of the people of Israel”

Retracing Old Footsteps: Genie Milgrom

In search of lost Jews: Iberian Peninsula gives up its secrets

Bnei Anousim women bring Seder Amenim to Colombia

El Salvador to hold weekend Shabbaton with special guests Michael Freund and Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum

First in line for Portuguese citizenship: Jewish dreamers and fortune seekers

Belmonte Portugal welcomes new Hebrew teacher

Under the Radar, Shavei Israel Has Brought Back Thousands

From Sicily to Naples, Italian Crypto-Jews are Returning

Costumes and Cookies: Shavei Israel celebrates Purim around the world

Shavei Israel emissary joins 400th anniversary commemorations of Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands

Shavei Israel communities celebrate Tu B’Shvat 2015 around the world

Portugal offers dual citizenship to Bnei Anousim; time for Israel to make similar overtures

Shavei Israel marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Italy

Bnei Anousim mark Global Judaism Day in Portugal

Shavei Israel’s Hanukah round up 2014

Update from Sicily and southern Italy: 40 Bnei Anousim participate in Shabbaton

Celebrating comings and goings in El Salvador

Happy Sukkot from Shavei Israel: is the biggest etrog in El Salvador?

Shavei Israel publishes Shabbat guide in Italian

Shavei Israel opens its first Internet radio station – in Portuguese

Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund wins “Lion of Zion” award

A chocolate Seder? Pesach activities for Bnei Anousim and “Hidden Jews” of Poland

El Salvador hosts star-studded “congress” for Bnei Anousim

Shavei Israel publishes new Purim booklet in Spanish

A new Torah for Cartagena, Colombia

From expulsion to expediency: Spain, the Jews and Israel

Modern day Exodus: the remarkable story of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim community

Pictures from candle-lighting in Palermo’s infamous Steri prison

Historic Hanukkah Ceremony at Inquisition Prison

Shavei Israel Hanukah activities in Europe, South America and India

New Shavei Israel emissaries to Poland and South America

Shavei Israel publishes new Hanukah guide in Spanish and Russian

Majorca’s master chef returns to the Jewish people

Shavei Israel to light Hanukah candles in infamous Inquisition prison

Seminar for Chuetas takes place in Palma de Mallorca

Seminar for Italian Jews and Bnei Anousim in Israel

When in Rome, do as Jews do

Dozens attend panel on Chuetas in Palma de Mallorca

Grazia’s Mediterranean Lasagna

VIDEO: Gila and Ariel Arditi get married

Shavei Israel appoints new Latin American emissaries

Portuguese town gets first Torah in 500 years

A visit to the Belmonte Jewish community in Portugal

Bnei Anousim couple return to Judiasm, re-marry in Jewish ceremony

Yeshiva for Bnei Anousim in Colombia launched

Shavei Israel helps organize Shabbaton for more than 100 Colombian Bnei Anousim in Bogota

100 issues of “Roots”

All-Italy Jewish seminar invites Bnei Anousim for first time

Shavei Israel and WebYeshiva launch new online interactive classes

Update: First Passover Seder on Portuguese island of Madeira

Shavei Israel sponsors first public Passover Seder in centuries on Portuguese island of Madeira

Shavei Israel visits Bnei Anousim in Chile

Shavei Israel sponsors weekend seminar in southern Italy; appoints new rabbi to work with Bnei Anousim

Shavei Israel launches interactive virtual course in Spanish

First Jewish cultural center in Portugal in more than 500 years to open; Shavei Israel to administer programming

[Washington Post] From Colombian evangelicals to Jews in region with a hidden Jewish past

Justice at last: the “Portuguese Dreyfus” is posthumously reinstated

Justice at Last for “Portugese Dreyfus”, Artur de Barros Basto

Ancient “kina” for Tisha B’Av discovered

Tiny Portuguese village inaugurates state-of-the-art new Jewish Center and synagogue

Was Columbus secretly a Jew?

Shavei Israel publishes new prayer book in Portuguese

Michael Freund interview on the Aaron Klein show on WABC

Shavei Israel launches new Spanish-language website for Bnei Anousim

Special Chueta recipe: Mallorcan Passover almond torte

Shavei Israel holds seminar for remote Brazilian community of Bnei Anousim

Closing the circle in Mallorca

Michael Freund returns to the 92Y for a conversation with Chueta Regina Forteza

Jews of Majorca reconnect with their roots

Michael Freund to speak at Hong Kong JCC

Shavei Israel visits Portugal – report and pictures

Connecting with “Lost Jews” Throughout the World

The Everlasting Light: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin visits Belmonte, Portugal

Shavei Israel sending books to Palma de Mallorca for six Chuetas hoping to formally return to Judaism soon

Clinging to Judaism

Time to rehabilitate Portugal’s Dreyfus

A special seminar in Palma de Mallorca for Spain’s Bnei Anousim and Chuetas

Fundamentally Freund – Jewish life in Sicily reborn

First of its kind seminar for Marranos in Siciliy

Chuetas from Spanish Island of Majorca Recognized as Jewish

‘Lost tribe’ of Mallorca Jews welcomed back to the faith 600 years later

Six centuries after their forcible conversion, a leading Israeli rabbi rules that the Chuetas of Mallorca are Jews

Chuetas of Majorca recognized as Jewish

Majorcan Descendants of Spanish Jews Who Converted Are Recognized as Jews

Fundamentally Freund:The death of an Italian marrano

This Shavuot, you can help three brave women rejoin the Jewish people

An historic condemnation of the Inquisition in Palma de Mallorca

Apologizing for the Inquisition

For first time, Spain’s Balearic Islands officially condemn persecution and forced conversion of Chuetas

In Majorca, Atoning for the Sins of 1691

The Renaissance of the B’nai Anousim (Crypto-Jews)

A special Yom Kippur Mahzor has been released

New emissary to the ‘crypto-Jew’s in Portugal

Rabbi Elisha Salas to be Emissary to Portugal’s Crypto-Jews

New emissary to crypto-Jews of Portugal named

First ex-Marrano Israeli rabbi returns to Spain as emissary

One Nation, Many Faces

בן לקהילת האנוסים חוזר לספרד לשמש כרב הקהילה

A 500-year journey back to Judaism

Just call him Chaim Columbus

Secret no more

‘Lost’ Jews in Spain find Israel advocacy

Israel enlisting Marranos in PR effort

Iberian anusim make first kosher cheese

Uncovering Portugal’s Hidden Jewish Past

Brazil: Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashana with new prayer book

A delegation of 16 בני אנוסים, commonly referred to as Marranos by historians, visited Israel this week

Descendants of Marranos arrive in Israel

Exhibit on Crypto-Jews Tours Brazil

A Latin Love for Israel

In Toledo on Seder night, Antonio Lopez will mark Pessah alone, just as his ancestors did for centuries

Marranos come home

Bnai Anousim Visit Israel on Solidarity Mission

Iberian Jews Return to their Roots

Young Brazilian Anousim Visit Israel on Birthright

Exhibition on Crypto-Jews Opens in Tiberias

Spanish & Portuguese Crypto-Jews Gather for Barcelona Seminar

First Outreach Center for Brazilian Anousim Opens

After Five Centuries, Bnai Anousim Visit Israel

Jewish community emerges from hiding in Portugal after 500 years

Hidden Heritage

Reaching Out to Portugal’s Crypto-Jews

Brazil’s Anousim Get a Rabbi

Spain’s Crypto-Jews Seeking to Return

Build A Monument to the Inquisition

The First Kohen in 500 Years

Majorca’s Lost Jews Search for their Roots

The 500-Year Round Trip

A Synopsis of the History of the Jews in Portugal

Portugal´s President: ´I am proud of my Jewish ancestry´