Israeli Knesset Recognizes Anusim

Monday, October 13, 2015, marked a historic meeting in the Israeli Knesset. For the first time ever, an inaugural session of a new Knesset caucus was launched to deal with the reconnection of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry. Rendering honor to these unique Jews, the Knesset caucus recognized the contributions of Sephardic Jewry during the Golden Age of Spain, and collectively remembered the forced religious conversions during the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the Iberian expulsions.

Ashley Perry, who organized the event, brought together Knesset members, politicians, diplomats, academics, heads of global Jewish organizations, and several hundred Anusim (the lost Sephardic Jews) to show support for this initiative. According to Perry, “This is a historic moment where the state of Israel and the Jewish world are seeking a reconnection with tens of millions of people who have Jewish ancestry, and were forcefully converted -- to reconnect with us. And, what we are trying to do is call on these two populations – one, the Jewish World; the other, those descendants of Spanish Portuguese Jewish Communities -- to reconnect in a way that has not been possible for hundreds of years.”

Perry plans to keep the topic at the highest levels of Israeli and global Jewish societies, as government leaders try to find solutions to allow the Anusim to immigrate to Israel without cumbersome rules and regulations.

Michael Freund, whose organization Shavei Israel, has been working with the Anusim for years, is also helping to connect them with their Jewish heritage. He is reaching out on a cultural, intellectual, emotional, and religious level. “However they choose to keep the Jewish spark in them alive is something we should welcome, encourage, and facilitate. I have no doubt there are 500 years worth of Anusim who are here with us, as well, who are looking on and marveling at the fact that finally, after all these generations, the Jewish people are sending a clear message that we have not forgotten them or their descendants.”

At the Knesset inaugural gathering, Freund called on the Israeli government to take a number of steps in support of the worldwide Anusim community, challenging Israeli officials to open up a museum in Jerusalem that would focus on the Inquisition. “I call upon the government to support organizations that are out there in the field working with the Anusim, facing the challenges to help them to reconnect,” Freund declared.

One of the special guests invited to the Knesset event was Spanish Ambassador, H.E. Fernando Cardera Soler. In his address to the Knesset caucus he explained a recent law passed in Spain to help the Anusim, worldwide, to become Spanish citizens. “The main reason for this law is to right a historic wrong; to try to give some comfort to people who were expelled from Spain, and who have kept Spain in their hearts for so many centuries. He went on to explain it was about, “going from parents to sons; from sons to grandsons, teaching them the language, Ladino; the recipes; the songs; and their history in Sephard (Spain).”

There are two basic changes in the new Spanish law regarding the issuing of Spanish passports to the Anusim: (1) There is no need for residency in Spain to acquire Spanish citizenship; (2) There is no need to renounce citizenship of their country of origin.

The first requirement for the Anusim to become citizens of Spain involves proving they are descendents of the Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492. The second requirement is that a person must prove they have a special relationship with Spain, which is done through a basic knowledge of the language, and a basic understanding of Spanish values and the Spanish constitution.

Ambassador Soler stated that, even before the recent law was passed, all applications submitted were resolved positively by the Spanish government. To a round of applause in the Knesset, he announced that more than 4,300 Sephardim were granted Spanish nationality. They live in different countries -- from Israel to Turkey, to Venezuela and to the Latin American nations. “We will be happy to receive many of them at the Embassy and give them their Spanish passports,” declared Ambassador Soler.

However, while Spain is encouraging the Anusim from throughout the world to immigrate to Spain and build up the economy, Israel has been reluctant to absorb these Sephardic Jews.  Because many of the Anusim were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition, their current Jewish identity has been questioned by the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel. This challenge has slowed down the possibility of their return to the Jewish State. Some organizations like Shavei Israel are working along with certain rabbis to offer full Orthodox Ashkenazi conversions. Other organizations are working with certain rabbis to offer Sephardic conversions. Still others are looking for a way around conversion, explaining that the Jews did not become Gentiles; that, what they need is “affirmation” of their Jewish roots through reconnecting to their Jewish identity. There has been no consensus, yet, regarding this serious matter.

The challenges have kept the pace slow in allowing the Anusim to consider immigration to Israel. According to Freund, “If the Spanish government can find a way to issue passports and citizenship to the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, I would like to think that with all our Jewish creativity and brains, we can come up with some mechanism, as well, to reconnect them formerly with this state (of Israel) and with this country.”

Perry’s organization, “Reconnectar” is doing just that. He plans to reach out and reconnect the Anusim to Israel, as well as to Jewish communities, worldwide, through a new interactive Web site which will be launched soon in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

The Knesset Caucus Chairman for this new initiative, MK Robert Ilatov, is looking for new ways to help the Anusim get closer to their Jewish roots. While Israel knows how to absorb Jews from around the world, they do not know how to handle millions of Anusim who desire to immigrate even when they have trouble proving their Jewishness. This is a sticking point for all Orthodox Jewish leaders who do not see the Anusim as halachically Jewish.

Regardless of this sticking point, Perry and Ilatov are working together to bring the Anusim into the Israeli Jewish “family” -- giving them tools to reconnect, and bringing them understanding of their cultural heritage that was lost. These men and others are looking for strong global leadership among Sephardic communities that will accept the challenge of returning the Anusim to their Jewish roots and to their Jewish homeland, Israel.