Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Philadelphia Bulletin: Descendents of Inquisition Victims Support Israel

by David Bedein

Dozens of people whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition over 500 years ago, often referred to by the derogatory term “Marranos,” gathered this past weekend in Barcelona for a special seminar run to train them to make Israel’s case to the media.

Amid rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment throughout Europe, especially in Spain, the Shavei Israel (Hebrew for “returning to Israel”) organization convened a special seminar this past weekend in Barcelona with the aim of training to become effective advocates for Israel and its cause in their home countries.

A number of experts on Israel advocacy were brought in to take part in training sessions for the participants and to provide them with guidance and tools to defend the Jewish state in the local and international media.

The seminar was held at the Jewish community center in Barcelona and drew some 70 participants from Spain and Portugal.

This marks the first time these “Marranos” have organized themselves to promote Israel in their own countries.

The idea behind the seminar arose several months ago when descendants of the Inquisition rose at a demonstration in support of Israel that was held in front of the Israeli Embassy in Madrid during the recent Gaza conflict. Many had traveled for hours to Madrid for the sole purpose of expressing their support for Israel.

According to “Shavei Israel” Chairman Michael Freund, there are tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, in Spain and Portugal who are conscious of their actual identity and their special relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. Mr. Freund said they “can serve as a wonderful corps of goodwill ambassadors for the Jewish state, and it behooves us to reach out to them and forge a stronger relationship with them.”

Shavei Israel is a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening ties between the State of Israel and the Jewish people and descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of distant Jewish communities in India, Spain, Portugal and South America, and even in Kaifeng, China.

Historical Background

The Jewish community in Spain in the early Middle Ages was one of the oldest and most successful Diaspora Jewish communities. Despite this, from 1391 onward, a series of terrible disturbances and great tribulations befell the local Jewish community. One of the direct results was an unprecedented wave of forced conversions. These events continued on through 1492, when they reached their peak, and the remaining Jews were formally expelled from Spain. Many of those who had been compelled to convert to Catholicism - known by the Hebrew term “Bnai Anousim” - remained behind, where they continued to preserve their Jewish identity and to practice Jewish tradition covertly. As a result, this unique phenomenon is still evident even today, even though the Inquisition invested enormous efforts over the centuries to eradicate it.

Bnai Anousim in Portugal

In 1497, the Portuguese monarch forced the Jews of his kingdom to convert to Catholicism. Despite this, these “New Christians” did their utmost to remain loyal to their Jewish roots, secretly passing on their identities down through the generations, despite the wrath of the Inquisition. Many of those who were caught practicing Judaism in secret were made to pay a heavy price by the Inquisition for their fidelity to the faith of their ancestors. One of the most famous examples of Portuguese Bnai Anousim was the community of Belmonte, in northern Portugal, which was discovered 80 years ago by a visiting Jewish engineer. Two decades ago, the Bnai Anousim of Belmonte were formally restored to the Jewish people by a rabbinical court sent from Israel.

Bnai Anousim In Brazil

When the doors of the New World swung open in the 16th century, Brazil came to play an important role for those with initiative, opening new opportunities for a better life. In addition, because of its geographical distance from Portugal, many Bnai Anousim saw Brazil as a possible place of refuge that might put them beyond the reach of the Inquisition. Nonetheless, the long arm of the Church reached across the Atlantic and continued to pursue the Bnai Anousim. But many remained undeterred, and continued to preserve Jewish rituals and traditions in secret, passing down their covert Jewish identity from generation to generation.

View this story in the Philadelphia Bulletin
View this story at Israel Behind the News

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