A few weeks ago, something extraordinary happened that could forever affect the future of the Jewish People and the State of Israel.
There has long been speculation of significant Jewish ancestry among the populations of Latin and North America and Europe. Much of that was consistent with historical data, in that we know that extremely large numbers of those Jews who had been forcibly converted in Spain and Portugal – referred to variously as Anousim, Marranos, Conversos and Crypto-Jews – fled the Iberian Peninsula to the New World during the Age of Discovery, beginning late in the 15th century.
Throughout the years, many tried to place a number on the descendants of these Jews, the progeny of a couple of hundred thousand who were forced to the baptismal font to regain kidnapped children held hostage or as a result of repressive legislation and oppression.
Now, unprecedented genetic research undertaken by dozens of professors from around the world has provided evidence that almost a quarter of Latinos and Hispanics have significant Jewish DNA. The study, published in Nature Communications in December 2018, revealed that the number of descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities is far higher than even the largest estimates previously suggested.
The last official approximation of the number of people in Latin America, conducted by the United Nations in 2016, resulted in a figure of over 650 million. Add to that assessment the 60 million or so Latinos and Hispanics in the U.S., as well as the data from earlier genetic research showing that around 20% of the current population of 60 million people in the Iberian Peninsula have Jewish ancestry and the statistic becomes staggering. There could be as many as 200 million descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities around the world today.
To what extent is this population aware of or interested in an affinity to the Jewish people? Reconectar, an organization facilitating the reconnection of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities to the Jewish world has conducted a number of studies exploring the attitudes of tens of thousands of these descendants towards their ancestry. It has found that in some places as many as 30% are aware of some Jewish ancestry, either through DNA tests, genealogical discoveries, or simple Google searches regarding family origins and traditions, and that as many as 14% would like to identify in some way with the Jewish people.
This means that tens of millions of people outside of the normative Jewish community are seeking ways for reconnecting with it and with their heritage, running the gamut from merely researching ancestral roots to actively seeking a return to the Jewish People and even to making aliyah. In the meantime, there is ample evidence that when these descendants become familiar with their Jewish ancestry, learn about Jewish history and are exposed to Jewish life today, they become far more sympathetic toward and even involved in Jewish causes and Israel.
Reconnecting these descendants with the formative Jewish world, then, can be of immense benefit to us in the diplomatic, political, economic and demographic spheres, among others, and can assist in the fight against antisemitism, especially in the US where a large number of Hispanics and Latinos are descended from forcibly converted Jews. Such benefits, however, are dwarfed by the moral imperative of fulfilling this compelling mission. Our people were forcibly ripped apart many generations ago and now is the time to rectify this historic injustice. According to many of our greatest rabbis – including Rav Yosef Caro, Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Aharon Soloveichik – it is also a halachic mandate.
To succeed in the task, we need to mobilize the two communities, awakening them to the existence and acceptance of one another. We need to send a message to the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities who seek a reconnection with the Jewish world there are those who will be there to help, guide and embrace them. In regard to the mainstream of the Jewish community – including, and perhaps most importantly, within Israel – we need to raise an awareness of and generate an empathy for the phenomenon altogether.
While Zionism, the return of an exiled and indigenous people to their ancestral homeland, remains as relevant as ever and does not need to be redefined or amended, it should be restored to its fullest and widest meaning. At one of the early Zionist Congresses, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, declared that “Zionism is a homecoming to the Jewish fold even before it is a homecoming to the Jewish land.” Zionism, he was telling us, belongs to the collective and requires a communal effort and that, in the spirit of the Latin formula nemo resideo (leave no man behind), it cannot be fulfilled unless the vision also encompasses those we lost or were disconnected from during 2,000 years of exile.
The Jewish people face many grave challenges and will continue to do so in the years ahead. The decisions we make today will determine how we respond to them and will shape our future. The window of opportunity to embrace those so long separated from us is not unlimited. We must act resolutely and with unity of purpose to do just that, and, in so doing, serve our practical needs as well as fulfil our moral and religious obligations.
The writer is president of Reconectar, an organization facilitating the reconnection of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the Jewish world. He is also the director of the Knesset Caucus for Reconnection and a former senior government adviser.