The question of “who is Jew?” and “who can become an Israeli?” are complex issues that deserve serious consideration. I am neither a lawyer nor a religious authority, but nevertheless, from personal experience I can provide some analysis. Also, having last week been at the Conference on Anousim organized by the Inst. for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College (NAC) (see IsBlog 25/3/15) I have been discussing these issues with people concerned about them and have gained renewed insight.
Let me start with a statement made by the young woman, Chana Eyal, originally from Porto, Portugal, who in her short speech at the extemporaneous bracha for her recent marriage in Israel said that those who research the issue of Anousim should remember that it is not just a dry subject in history books, but involves real people like her and real issues that can change a person’s life forever.
As far as Bnei Anusim (the descendents of the forcibly converted Jews) are concerned there are at least three categories: 1. Those who don’t know they are Bnei Anusim and have no interest in the subject; 2. Those who know that they are Bnei Anousim but have no interest in establishing their Jewish identity either because they don’t care or don’t see the relevance to their current lives; 3. Those who know they are Bnei Anusim and wish to establish their Jewish identity either genealogically and/or by conversion. I have been asked what percentage of the Bnei Anusim are in the third category and who might wish to make aliyah to Israel. The answer is nobody knows, it could be 0.1% or 1%. But, since the estimates are that there are at least 5 million Bnei Anusim and possibly as many as 20 million in the whole Spanish-Portuguese world, that could be a large number. According to estimates ca. 25% of the Spanish population of ca. 50 million have some Jewish antecedents and some 40% of the Portuguese population of 10 million also, that’s an estimate of 16.5 million, and of course, in many communities in Central America, S. America and the USA (for example, New Mexico) there are certainly millions more.
Now to the issue of who is a Jew. The halachic (Jewish religious) definition is simple, one who has a Jewish mother. This can be proven usually with a religious marriage certificate showing that one’s parents were married in a synagogue, since no rabbi would marry a Jew and a non-Jew (except until recently in some Reform congregations). So to establish Jewish lineage a Bnei Anous needs to establish the Jewish origins of his/her matrilineal line. But, there are other definitions, for example the Law of Return under which Jews are automatically granted Israeli citizenship, has a different standard. After WWII and the Holocaust, when under Nazi law anyone who was at least a quarter Jewish (a mischling) was considered Jewish and could be transported and killed, the Jewish State adopted the same criteria. So in order to be accepted as an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return, one has a lesser constraint, one need only establish the Jewish status of at least one parent, including the father, or one grandparent, including the paternal line.
Then of course, there is the route of conversion. Conversion to Judaism should not be entered into lightly. It is a complicated process where the applicant is traditionally rejected three times before being allowed to proceed. In the case of a convert making aliyah under the Law of Return, conversion outside Israel is accepted by the Ministry of the Interior provided the convert has lived within a recognized Jewish community for at least a year. Conversion within Israel is dominated by the Chief Rabbinate and is Orthodox. Those who do not convert to Orthodoxy abroad often have a difficult time when it comes to life-cycle events in Israel, particularly marriage. Non-Jews can of course come to Israel as tourists or on a working visa, but citizen status is rarely given to non-Jews, although a process does exist.
At this point I want to mention my recent meeting with Joe Maldonado, a physician from upstate NY. After I wrote a description of the upcoming Anousim Conference at the NAC (IsBlog, 27/2/15) Joe wrote me a long letter expressing his frustration in trying to establish his Jewish origins. Joe was brought up in NY City, but his parents came from Puerto Rico and he had done genealogical research and had established that his ancestors had come from Spain to Puerto Rico in the 17th century. He established that in Spain they had been affluent and well-connected, yet they suddenly left and settled in the “wilds” of the mountainous interior of Puerto Rico. Why? After considering other possibilities he was forced to the conclusion that they were in fact Anousim. Joe is knowledgeable about Jews and Jewish customs, having grown up in NYC and having studied medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and is an Asst. Clinical Prof at Touro College. Yet, he found very little sympathy from the organized Jewish community in NY for his quest.
We exchanged some letters and then Joe decided to come to Israel (for his second visit) to attend the Conference on Anousim at NAC. I think I can say that the experience of being at this conference and meeting so many people in similar circumstances has been a life-changing experience for Joe. He has returned to the US with a renewed enthusiasm to continue his genealogical research and try to establish his Jewish origins. Joe pointed out to me an interesting facet, namely that if a poor Bolivian or Brazilian can establish that he/she is of Jewish origin, they might prefer to apply for citizenship to Spain or Portugal (if from Brazil), because those countries have passed laws to accept former Sefardim/ Anousim, rather than Israel, because of the language and cultural similarities. On the other hand, those dedicated to their Jewish origins from more affluent countries might prefer to make aliyah to Israel. Those of us who are involved in the issue of the Anousim and wish to see as many as them as possible return to their Jewish roots should bear these factors in mind. Joe emphasizes that merely researching the Anousim is not enough, it is necessary for the Jewish community to embrace the Bnei Anousim.