domingo, 7 de noviembre de 2021

Reconnecting Hispanic and Latinos with their Jewish Ancestry

AIPAC, Monday, March 25, 2019
Video of this panel is available at Ashely Perry's and Genie Milgrom's Facebook pages. 

Panelists: Dr. Ofir Haivry, Herzl Institute (Israel), Genie Milgrom, Genealogist & Author (U.S.A), Ashely Perry, President of Reconnectar (Israel), and Michael Freud (moderator), President of Shavei Israel (Israel)
1- Numbers of Hispanic and/or Latinos with Jewish ancestry

Ashley: Based on academic research from more than 60 experts 1 in 4 people in Latin America have Jewish ancestry to which it should be added Latinos in the U.S., and people from Spain & Portugal, which studies state that 1 in 3, 1 in 5 also have Jewish ancestry. That puts the number at 100 million. Not all of these people want to return to Judaism though, based in a survey Reconnectar did, 14% of them would like to identify as Jews with the Jewish people, 30% are aware of their Jewish ancestry and they want to know more. Other numbers from the survey are: 51% want to know more about the state of Israel, 50% want to visit Israel, 46% would like to advocate for Israel. These are game changing numbers.

Dr. Haivry: There are many levels to this numbers. Most are interested in learning about Israel, Judaism and even Hebrew language. There are also a significant number that organize in groups in different places (e.i. Brasil), they are very proud of their Jewish ancestry, and in many cases advocate for Israel more than in the (traditional) Jewish community where people might be afraid of over exposure, and to prevent attacks to their synagogues. There are also organized Jewish communities that want to become officially renown. Some want to convert, some wish to be recognized, and a small % want to come to Israel.
We should clarify that the numbers vary depending of the areas, for example, Chile has smaller numbers than Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. I would say that it is a grassroots movement at this time, and there is not a central command or israeli effort. 99% of what's going on is from people who want to reconnect. We need to find ways to approach this grassroot movement.

Genie: The ultimate question here is how all of this reconnection relates to Israel. I come from a catholic family from Cuba, however, I always felt Jewish, and converted to Judaism many years ago. After my conversation I had this need to go further in my feelings, which I did when my grandmother died leaving me some jewelry of Jewish motifs that she had inherited from her mother and grandmother. Because of this, I did my genealogy, and was able to track my Jewish maternal linage back to 1405 Pre Inquisition Spain. This is also the story of many people in this grassroot movement that Dr. Haivry mentioned. Not everyone though has the tenacity and resources to find the documents in the archives, and officially return as I did. 

The difference with families like mine and other diaspora Jews is that even when this documentation affects the entire family so far it has been only me that is interested. This is a one on one journey which makes the situation different from, for example, Russians Jews emigrating to Israel by the thousands. We - in the Hispanic and Latino world- return one by one. One here, and another there, it is when adding all this up that it sums up to millions, but it is not that we all return together. 

When someone says to you "I feel Jewish" it is not because they want to please you, it is a serious statement that needs to be taken into consideration. It is a phenomenon in the last 20 or 30 years. Before converting, Israel was for me, part of a sacred history book, but afterwards, Israel become something larger than life.

Michael: The scope of the phenomenon is vast, we see it from Barcelona to Brazil, from Peru to Palma de Mallorca, also we see it across socioecomic status, from peasants in northen Brazil to professors in northen Portugal. When people hear the numbers of those with Jewish ancestry it can be intimidating, and frightening at times. What we see in the field is the reluctance of many organized Jewish communities to welcome such people into their nest, and that is the next question

2- a) Why does this concern about the numbers?, b) How do you think Jewish communities should advocate about this?

Dr. Haivry: The actual number of people, who want to convert is small, in part due to the difficulties in getting it done. On the other hand, morally I don't feel we should close the door to people who, in many cases, where taken by force out of the Jewish people (reference to Spanish, Portuguese, and later Latin American conversos). Also, because of antisemitism, Jewish laws for many generations have been very strict, the moment someone left Judaism they would dissapear, children of those who converted to christianity wouldn't even know that they were Jewish, also there was a lot of intermarrige, therefore I think that this New Diaspora (of Latinos) is a wonderful thing, we can have a core of Jewish people plus all people who identify as Jewish being part of the Jewish World. My personal position is that we should welcome them, and bring them closer.

Genie: These numbers are from DNA studies certified by demographers like Dr. Sergio Della Pergola. As Dr. Haivry said most of these people don't want to convert, however as Jews we should ask ourselves how limited are our friendships around the world, and how important it is to engage those who identify with the Jewish people, even when they continue going to church every Sunday, but proudly say "I have Jewish ancestors", imagine what it would mean to the Jewish people, and the State of Israel, to have millions of new friends.

Ashley: Whenever I meet with descendants, conversos, Anunsim, Crypto Jews or whatever you want to call them, I always tell them that the difference between them and me is locked in time. I can trace my last name Perez to a man in Portugal. Those who were not forcely converted in Spain & Portugal fled to other places, including Great Britain, where they founded a community, which is the same case for other countries, for example, the first Jews in the United States were Sephardic Jews running away from the inquisition in Brazil, same for Latin America. I am a Jew today because my ancestors had a better luck escaping.

Many of the Jews in this room today are also B'nei Anusim, first because regarless of Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Mizrahi, you probably had an ancestor in the Iberian Peninsula. Jews in the Iberian Peninsula were forcely converted three times: by the visigoths, by the muslims, and then by the catholic monarchs; same had happened with Hungarian, German, Russian, Yemenite, Persian Jewry, and others. All of us, almost all of us, have ancestors who were forcely converted at some point in history, what does this mean? It means that they also returned therefore, since antiquity, Rabbis have had to write a halacha (Jewish law) deciding what these people represent; are they Jews or not? Some say they are not formal Jews others had other opinions, and the question is what to do today, in the 21st century, when there are no massive forced conversions. What is our responsability?

I don't like to compare, but the inquisition means for Jews from Spain & Portugal what the holocaust means for ashkenazi today to the point that in Yom Kippur in the Kol Nidre we include "our brethren imprisoned by the inquisition", so why are we still doing this? It is my firm belief that it is because there are so many people mentally in prision, although physically the dungeons are open -there are no more Autos da Fe, there are no more burning at the stake, etc, etc- but there are tens of millions of people out there still living in the imprisioment of the inquisition. We are not missionaries, we are not going out to convert people or tell them what to do, but when their hands are out- stretched, it is our moral and ethical obligation to meet them.

Michael: For clarification, Ashley mentioned the term B´nei Anusim which is a Hebrew word referring to those who were coerced to christian conversation, the generation that was forcely converted is named by historians by the derogatory term Marranos. We prefer B´nei Anusim today.

Since we are at AIPAC, and the state of Israel is at the center of it, I would like to take this conversation a step further on how this might translate into support for Israel. 

According to the Pew Research Institute there are around 58 millions Hispanics Latinos in the U.S. making them 18% of the American population, according to the Census Bureau this number will double by the year 2050. This is clearly a community that is growing not only quantitatively but also in its economic impact, social and political power and at the same time, our surveys found that half of American Hispanics have no views on Israel either positive or negative, as they are basically a blank slate, they are coming from Central and South America where Israel is not in the news like the way it is here. Giving these facts, we must focus on the role that Hispanics will place in coming generations in America

3- What can Israel, and the American Jewry do to involve this community in our cause?

Dr. Haivry: My expertise is not the American Jewry. For some reason that I don't know, Israel places a central part in the return of Hispanic - Latino Jews, but Israel is very cautious on accepting Jewish communities regardless of their origin; I think that there should be some kind of understanding among Jewish institutions, and communities about how to address this issue more seriously. Before an effort can be made - and I think that it should be made - there should be a clarification between Israel and the Jewish leadership on how to go about this.

Genie: In the Americas, for example, in Honduras and Guatemala, countries that have moved their embassies to Jerusalem, people can began to comprehend Israel. In the U.S. with the Jewish Federations in larger cities they could invite the Hispanic community to their celebrations, I am Cuban, but now in Miami there are huge amounts of Venezuelans that could draw closer. Federations, and the Synagogues, can start by inviting the Hispanic communities to their celebrations and building those ties toward Israel.

Ashley: I have worked for 10 years in the government in Israel with many Jewish organizations, and I know how much time, money and resources are spend reaching out, I think that we should base the relation with the Hispanic Latino community in our shared ancestry and history; the vast majority of Jews wherever they are today have roots in the Iberian Peninsula, and in the Hispanic culture, if you play ladino music to a Hispanic person they instinctive recognize it, they feel it. I have done it with Latino celebrities in Israel when they visit, and they love it, and want to hear more, there are so many connecting points.

We have tested this in our website with thousands of people registering to know more about their Jewish roots, when we ask them about the state of Israel they want to know more; we should speak to them as brothers and sisters, as part of a wider Hispanic family, we can talk different languages, for example, not only mention those who speak Yiddish, but also people that speak Judeo Spanish, that way we can find a point of conversation.

I have asked Hispanics, who used to share anti-Israel bias, what made them changed, and what brought them to understand Israel better, and I have noticed that it was their patriotism to their own countries what also brought them closer to their Jewish ancestry. The point is that the more you discover your own family history the more you discover your Jewish ancestry, and that gets you closer to the land of Israel; this is another part of the journey.