Ocasio-Cortez and the Sephardim

This all began when the leftist firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected as the Congresswoman for a district of NY, and who is well-known for her anti-Israel views, mentioned at a Hanukkah gathering that one of her ancestors in Puerto Rico was a Sephardi Jew.  I suppose she did this to indicate that she wasn’t all bad after all, to sort of even the balance.

Some people took up the point that it was quite feasible for her, coming from Puerto Rico, to have had a Sephardi Jewish ancestor.  In fact, many Sephardi Jews and their descendants, went thru Puerto Rico to the Americas and some even stayed there.  They had been forcibly converted to Christianity (because it’s a better religion of course) mainly in 1492  (they were called Conversos or “New Christians” even after generations, might as well have called them Jews).  Many of them continued to practice Judaism in secret (they were called Marranos or Crypto-Jews) and they escaped from the Inquisition and scattered to the periphery of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires.

One of the articles entitled “What the Ocasio-Cortez ‘coming out’ can teach us,” discussing this aspect was published in The Jerusalem Post by Ashley Perry (Pereira), an Israeli-American who is active in the area of the Crypto-Jews.  He supported her contention that she could have had a Sephardi Jewish ancestor.  But, others took the view that she shouldn’t be allowed to ameliorate her anti-Israel views with such a spurious claim.  One such was Daniel Santacruz, who wrote a scathing article entitled “Challenging Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Sephardi’ Claims,” rebutting Ashley Perry and attacking Ocasio-Cortez (https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Challenging-Ocasio-Cortezs-Sephardi-claims-575146 ).  But, in that article he made the false claim that there were never Sephardi Jews in Puerto Rico or in fact in any of Latin America.  He was one of those persons who because these Crypto-Jews practiced their version of Judaism in secret, claimed that they never in fact existed.

I was angered by the tone and inaccuracy of his article, but instead of dashing off a quick letter to the Editor, instead I e-mailed my friend Joe Maldonado in NY.  Joe has two special characteristics, he is from a Crypto-Jewish family from Puerto Rico and he is now a practicing Orthodox Jew, recognized as such by the Queen’s NY Rabbinate.  He wrote a perfect and very informed reply to Santacruz, which put the record straight and which was published under the title “Historical Ignorance.”  I reproduce his letter here.

In this past Friday’s opinion section, Ashley Perry tried once again to raise awareness of the opportunity for Israel and the Jewish community at large to address the growing awareness amongst some Hispanics of their Sephardic ancestry.  Such an effort has hit against not only ignorance of historical facts but also resistance to healing the 500 years’ rift between those Jews who converted and practiced their faith secretly in the diaspora and those who chose to leave the Iberian Peninsula for communities in Morocco, Turkey, Holland and England.  Rabbi Freundlich, a Canadian Orthodox Rabbi delivered an insightful lecture two years ago on the continued painful memories that plagues both sides of this issue and now wreaks its painful head once again in this discourse.  [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVWd8vfRGFg]

I speak as an Orthodox Jew whose Sephardic ancestors left Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries traveling to Puerto Rico via London, Mallorca and the Canary Islands.  Having discovered the genealogical evidence of this ancestry, the genetic testing results supporting Jewish ancestry and the vestigial remnants of Jewish practices in my family, I made a halachic return via the process of an Israeli Rabbinate approved Orthodox beit din in New York.  I did so after a soul-searching journey which included attending a conference at the Institute for Sefardi and Anusim Studies in Netanya and learning of the spiritual awakening taking place around the world for many similar descendants.

It is well established that Puerto Rico was the first place in the New World where the Inquisition was instituted and where the first New World autos de fe took place and sambenitos were hung.  Abbad y Lasierra (1778) and Lea (1922) among others attest to the establishment of the Inquisition in Puerto Rico in 1519.  Bishop Alonso Manso, first bishop of Puerto Rico and in the New World was made Grand Inquisitor, exercising that office by November 1519.  Van Middeldyk (1903) writes “It is said that in San Juan they were not tied to a stake but enclosed in a hollow plaster cast, against which the faggots were piled, so that they were roasted rather than burned to death.”  He further notes that as late as 1592, Bishop Nicolas Ramos held Inquisitorial privileges and “was very severe, burning and punishing, as was his duty, some of the people whose cases came before him.”  Numerous historians have highlighted the Manso trials of Juan and Blas de Villasante based in part on their grandfather having been tried as “judiazante”.

Easily 40% of Puerto Ricans trace their ancestry to the Canary Islands which have been repeatedly associated with a high population of conversos.  Many trace their ancestors to Mallorca and to the families that Rabbi Nissim Karelitz in 2011 stated unequivocally were part of the people of Israel.  Medical genetics research in the past 30 years has further highlighted the presence of genetic diseases associated with individuals of known Jewish ancestry e.g. Machado Joseph Disease,  Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency and Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome, within Puerto Rican families raising suspicion of Jewish ancestry in these families.  The work of Bennett Greenspan at Familytreedna has raised awareness amongst Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics to genetic ties to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, thus motivating them research the possibilities of Jewish ancestry.

It is sad that the lessons of this past week’s parsha have fallen on deaf ears and brethren refuse to put away the bitterness that divided us when our ancestors parted in separate directions at the time of our expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula.  There is no question that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez needs to substantiate her claims in a more evidentiary fashion if she wishes to be a part of Klal Yisrael but to fabricate baseless assertions against the wider Anusim community of Puerto Rico because of one’s political view of her is merely showing one’s bitterness and ignorance of history.  Kudos to Ashley Perry and those at the Institute for Sefardi and Anusim Studies who work tirelessly to bring back the anusim after 500 years of separation from their brethren.

Joseph R. Maldonado, Jr., M.D. (EinsteinYU), MSc (Oxon), MBA (Oxon), DipEBHC (Oxon), Assistant Clinical Professor and Former Assistant Clinical Dean, Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine – New York, Past President Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, Past President Medical Society of the State of New York

A slightly edited (shortened) version of Joe’s letter appeared in the J. Post on Dec 28 at https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/December-25-2018-Greatness-and-tragedy-575442, the sixth letter down.  For further background see my book “The Reawakening: the re-emergence of Jews after 500 years of Spanish-Portuguese Catholic persecution,” available on Amazon.com.