The Zionist Politicization of Conversos and Its Risks

By David Ramírez

Source/Fuente: Hamodia.com, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Source/Fuente: Hamodia.com, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

As we had mentioned in other articles, [1] the renaissance of returning conversos, descendants of Iberian Jews who were converted to Catholicism with or against their will, has gone through several phases in the last decades. Without having any regulating element in the way, the results have been equal to that of a perfect free market system, where the anarchy of supply and demand direct the results. In the most recent phase, nationalist elements of the state of Israel have become involved in the subject.

Historically the return of the conversos since the 16th c. until the first half of the 20th c. had been administered by Sephardic communities in the Jewish Diaspora. Generally speaking, it was done in a very discreet manner and with no drama. Particularly, the Sephardic communities of Western Europe, destined generous resources to encourage their return to Judaism during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the second half of the 20th c., the conversos confronted another very different reality. The massive change suffered by Sephardic communities and institutions made them to become dismantled or were diminished in numbers, so to adapt themselves to the new realities in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora, with new lay and religious leaders divorced from the culture and history that preceded them. The new realities forced the Jewish world by proxy to adapt to the desires and prerogatives of an Ashkenazi leadership, who were not prepared with the necessary information and attitude for the resurgence of the conversos seeking their ethno-historic-cultural roots.

Lacking the proper and brotherly channels, in other words the supply, the conversos had to confront with the shameful option of giyyur, process which denies them cutthroat a real recognition of their heritage. Being that Judaism is not a proselytist religion, adding the misanthropic attitude of Orthodox Ashkenazim which influences the religious world of today, the road that the conversos had to recur has been tortuous, conflictive, lonely, distressing, disappointing and confusing.

Some had also had to confront many cases of fraud, where not only have they been cheated off their money but they have also found out that their “conversions” do not hold any value before the rabbinic courts, be it in the state of Israel or the Diaspora.

The subject has also given way to Christian opportunist of the missionary movement “Jews for Jesus,” economically supported by Baptist congregation in the U.S., who have taken advantage of the subject to make their own brand of proselytism among the Iberians and Iberoamericans—and enrich themselves with the same all in the name of Jesus (sic.)

Even in the Jewish academic work, this subject has been an opportunity to study the “phenomenon” as if the conversos were lab rats, thus increasing the level of misunderstanding, and bringing with it more skepticism among Jews, and shame and dishonor to the conversos.

In the midst of this Pandora box, there has entered a worrying “Zionists” political interest, motivated by demographic and diplomatic interests which could benefit the state of Israel—not necessarily the conversos. The most successful organization in this pro-nationalist branch has been Shavei Israel, managed by the once Deputy Director of Communications for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Under the pretense to help “lost Jews”, Shavei has created a whole organization, backed by a rabbinic court recognized by the state of Israel, with the end to make a passive proselytism for any group or person who claims to have a Jewish heritage, no matter how real or far fetched such declarations happen to be. By “passive proselytism” we meant to say that, according to the declarations of Michael Freund—Shavei’s director, it is those holding interest who recur to them for help, it does not mean that they go out and seek proselytes. Nonetheless, we must indicate that Michael Freund is very active in publishing articles about his organization in the majority of right-wing Jewish media sources, in Israel as in the Diaspora.

That who does not show his wares, does not sell.

Representatives with Israeli migratory interest already started to take notice. This we first mentioned in the article “Kaifeng and the Diversification of Freund’s Cottage Industry,” where the leader of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Nathan Sharansky, showed interest according to what was reported in the New York Times.

In a recent article published in the Jerusalem Post, “Undoing the Inquisition[2], we have an Ashley Perry also giving us advice about this opportunity.

Mr. Perry, “was adviser to Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 2009 to January 2015. He has also worked with several other government ministers, Members of Knesset and many of the leading international Jewish, Zionist and Hasbara organizations. Perry is currently a Knesset candidate with the (political party) Yisrael Beytenu,[3] a secular and right-wing nationalist Israeli political party, which describes itself as a “national movement with the clear vision to follow in the brave path of Zev Jabotinsky,” [4] and which was founded by the extreme-right politician of Russian origin, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman in turn once belonged to another Israeli party, Kach, declared illegal to operate in Israel since 1994 due to its openly racists postures. Kach was founded by the rabbi Meir Kahane— who was one of the extreme-right exponents of Religious Zionism of most influence, whose ideas propel an influential minority of religious extremists connected to the movement of Greater Israel, and its consequent controversies in respect to the Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory—, which is listed as a terrorist organization in the U.S., Canada and the European Union.

Having such a portentous pedigree, it must be of interest how does Perry want to sell the subject of conversos to a Jewish public.

As it is of rigueur, Perry gives us a brief introduction on the conversos historic saga. Then he gives an emphasis on Sephardic and converso demographics. Afterwards, he mentions there is a growing interest for their descendants to return to Judaism, and how there are a good number of forums and organizations dedicated to extend assistance. This introduction leads into in the main reason of the article, which is to encourage the Israeli government to adopt a similar posture as that of Spain and Portugal, which accepted to readmit the descendants of Sephardic Jews, which also includes provisions for the descendants of those who were converted to Catholicism against their will. If the Israeli government accepted such proposal, Perry tells us, “It can change the face of Israel and the Jewish world forever.”

What most caught my attention in his article was the distortion of Sephardic demographic realities, making inflated representations without citing any serious source to back them up. The subtext of this message appeals to a constant theme in Israeli nationalism since its inception, which is to maintain a Jewish demographic majority before the always constant worry of the growing birth-rate of the Arab-Palestinians, within the state of Israel as well as in the Palestinian territories. And basically it wants to tell us all, “look, here it is a mine gold where to get more Israeli citizens!”

But as the saying goes, “not everything that shines is gold.”

Despite the exaggerated demographic claims Perry makes, the statistic reality is that potentially many people from Europe, the Arab world or Spanish or Portuguese America have at least one Jewish ancestor in his or her genealogical tree. This is due to the fact that wherever there have been Jewish communities, there were and are occasions of Jews who separated and separate themselves from the Jewish community to assimilate with non-Jews, or had converted with or against their will to the dominant religion of their region. But from this to the point that some of their descendants may have a strong or remote Jewish identity is another story entirely.

What makes the conversos case particularly attractive for the demographic interests of Israeli nationalists such as Perry, and it is the way which he tries to sell it, it is that the conversos belong to a group who are quite numerous, and through history they were relatively homogenous.

However, today’s realities are very different. The majority of those who claim a converso identity have done so through different means, which does not necessarily have to do with belonging to a homogenous group of conversos, or to have direct memory of being one in his or her family heritage. Many of them, motivated by a genuine religious sentiment, are attracted to Judaism because of what Jews have represented in history and the Western pro-messianic Christian imagination.

The opening of religious freedoms in the Luso-Hispanic world has engendered an exponential growth of Protestant sects, particularly in Latin America, thing that does not make the Catholic Church very happy. Within the evangelical movements there has been a spurt of groups with philo or pseudo-Jewish inclinations. Together with the recent history of the reemergence of the conversos, this has created all sorts of legends and myths badly informed and propagated through the Internet, and as a consequence the number of people claiming this ancestry has been growing progressively.

It is not a significant number at present, as Russian and Ethiopian immigrants once were, but it is a number that in potentia could become significant and a constant source of ‘olím (Jewish immigrants to Israel) to serve the Israeli demographic interests, or at least a source of political support in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries.

Differently of what had happened with the Russians and Ethiopians, this new strategy has not left behind the subject of the religious status of the potential Luso-Hispanic ‘olim. One has to understand the abysmal difference that exists between the Israeli law of the so-called ‘Law of Return’ and what the religious rabbinic establishment considers for a person to have a ‘Jewish’ status in his or her Israeli identity card.

The Israeli ‘Law of Return’ gives “Jews the right of return and the right to live in Israel and to gain citizenship. In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people of Jewish ancestry, and their spouses.” [5]

For the segment of the rabbinic establishment (dominated by right-leaning Orthodox Ashkenazim), who are on the payroll of the Israeli state, the only thing that matters to have a Jewish identity is to have been born from a Jewish mother, and has the way to prove it according to its strict criteria, or that he or she may be converted according to its indeterminate and whimsical criteria.

The ‘Law of Return’ does not discriminate if the candidate has Jewish lineage on the side of the father or mother, while the rules of the rabbinic establishment in Israel, and the age-old Jewish jurisprudence in history, it is only delimited to the mother or the proselyte. What this means in real terms is while the ‘Law or Return’ allows to obtain Israeli citizenship under their criteria, the rabbinic establishment will not necessarily allow the official identity as a Jew. And this has ample repercussions in Israeli Jewish society.

Having a ‘Jewish’ identity recognized by the rabbinic establishment of the state allows the citizen access to resources and opportunities not enjoyed by other Israeli citizens. Due to the fact that the Israeli rabbinic establishment regulates Jewish marriages, divorces and funeral processes, the ‘olím who are accepted as Israelis—but not as Jews—have painful emotional difficulties when having relations with Israelis who are recognized as Jews, and also at the time of where to bury them, specially if they died during combat as soldiers for the Israeli military forces.The discrimination difficulties increase exponentially when it comes to live within a religious community.

This has created difficult and uncomfortable situations for the Russian and Ethiopian ‘olím who were not recognized as Jewish, problems which persist to this day.

The innovative strategy first developed by Freund, and now promoted by Perry, wants to close the breach between the pragmatism of the ‘Law of Return’ and the demands of the rabbinic establishment. The up-hill race for these passive pro-Zion proselytists, such as Freund and Perry, it is not only to continue widening the criteria of the ‘Law of Return’—issue which is not very difficult to accomplish in the Knesset—, but also to find the right rhetoric formula to convince an Israeli rabbinic establishment which has become more xenophobic and anti-proselyte as the years have gone by. And here it is where the cardinal issue lies.

The relationship between the state and the rabbinic establishment is very complex and conflictive. This relationship was imposed since the beginning of Israel as a state by religious “Zionists” in exchange for favors and political support (see the article “Why Rav Goren Matters: The Legacy of the Langers[6]). In recent memory, the Ministry of Interior—in charge to process who enters or does not enter the country, and which sometimes it is controlled by people who are part of the rabbinic establishment—, has rejected the admissions of foreigners who arrive to the state of Israel with the purpose to convert to Judaism. There has been even cases of family members of former conversos living as Jews in the state of Israel who have been rejected, with motives of a temporal visit, by the Israeli immigration authorities.[7]

There are three dams that that proselytes interested to become Israeli citizens, with an authorized Jewish identity, which they have to overcome:

  1. The Jewish Agency for Israel, which is the one that coordinates the application for aliyáh (Jewish immigration to Israel).
  2. The Ministry of Interior, which is the one that gives the visa or Israeli citizenship.
  3. The Conversion Authority, which is managed by a few bureaucrat rabbis paid by the state—generally religious “Zionist”—, which is the one that approves the Jewish identity of the solicitor before the eyes of the state. Though the candidate may have gone through a process of conversion by a local orthodox rabbinic court, if this court is not approved by the Conversion Authority, such person is not recognized as Jewish before the Israeli state. Worse yet, if this immigrant stays illegally in Israel, his citizenship application is automatically cancelled.

The relationship among these three establishments of the state is complex, and particularly contentious with the last one.

Should they have success to overcome these ideological and bureaucratic obstacles, then the floodgates will certainly open to an attractive demographic possibility for “Zionist’ political ends. But it is a possibility that may mean the perdition of the secular “Zionists.”

The nationalist currents of the extreme right in Israel have two streams, one secular and the other religious. Both share the same territorial idealism of the “Greater Israel,” but their visions on how to govern the state of Israel could not be more different. The secular current is composed by non-religious Jews, many of them Atheists, who adopt many of the sociopolitical principles of modern democracies; the religious ones would wish to run the state of Israel according to their rabbinic rulings, what would many would call a ‘theocracy’ similar to that of the Republic of Iran or the Saudi kingdoms.

The majority of the religious “Zionists” possess obscurantist, messianic tendencies and do not know much about the world outside their world, and they do not care—because they come from a culture that never transcended the Middle Ages. If they would ever occupy the seats of power, it would be the end of Israel as a free, plural and democratic state.

Of the two, the religious ones have more vehement and decided convictions. If one were to bet who of the two will come ahead pushing their political agendas with more heart and soul, the religious ones always win. Always.

The covert proselytist campaign that Perry proposes not only would achieve to increase the number of Israeli citizens with a Jewish I.D. card, but also would strengthen the numbers and political representation of extreme-right religious Jews in Israel. Due to the fact that the proselytes have to go through a strict indoctrination (or if you prefer, “brainwash”), carried out under orthodox rabbinic supervision, those are not good news for the secular “Zionists”, specially in today’s environment where we have seen the radicalization of certain sectors of Jewish Orthodoxy.

Many of the target candidates who gravitate to this opportunity concocted in the “Zionist” religious imagination like Freund’s possess the ideal combination of religious conviction, millennial hope, messianic expectation which would be the envy of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi. After all, the neo-millennial evangelical movements which seethe everywhere are all about the imminent coming of the messiah, something that perfectly fits with the messianic sentiment of the religious “Zionists” to “force” the triumphal return of Israel’s redeemer.

For the people with neo-messianic sentiments, this would be of great symbolic profit, despite of the bureaucratic and economic costs they may have to endure.

For the authentic conversos, they have much to loose despite the marginal win to be recognized as a Jew, proselyte, but at least a Jew.

First, the fact that the process of conversion relegates them to the status of second class citizens. According to Jewish law , the proselytes are not allowed to take leadership roles in a community or Jewish government, and their women are not allowed to marry members of the priestly caste of the Kohanim.

Worse yet, in the xenophobic and anti-nomistic environment of the current orthodoxy it is very common to encourage proselytes to marry other proselytes, whether male or female; that is, although there is no prohibition in Jewish jurisprudence that a Jew from birth to marry a proselyte (with the exception of Kohanim caste), unfortunately many Orthodox Jews prefer not to. Adding the uncertainty that currently the rabbinical establishment of Israel is given to annul conversions according to their whims, which does not exist in Jewish Law.

Ironically, this would create a situation exactly like the conversos had to live with during the time of the Inquisition, where despite enduring the painful forced conversions, for centuries their descendants had to suffer a society which doubted their status as Christians.

Adding that there is no official recognition of their ethnic heritage, second, there is no way to recover their ethno-cultural roots in the present state of destruction in which Sephardic tradition finds itself. All that exists in Israel today is a hybrid between a vulgar and cheap oriental expression of Sephardic culture combined with the religious and reactionary ideology of Ashkenazim.

All the realities described above reveals the apparent enthusiasm to “recover” the conversos as another vulgar farce made-up by “Zionists” militants,  an advertising trick that fools a Jewish audience that does not have the knowledge and information necessary to discern the subject critically.

Unfortunately, the ill and capricious handling of the converso issue today has not only taken socio-economic and cultural victims, but we have started to see fatalities too. In October of 2014 we learned of the murder of Karen Yemima thanks to the wave of terrorism that followed the Israeli military intervention in Gaza. And sadly unfortunate are the sorrows these people have had to go through in life, and still continue after their death.

Yemima was one of those typical cases of many dreamers who made ​​great sacrifices to go live in Israel to be recognized as Jewish in Israel; her journey was arduous, an University graduated Ecuadorian professional reduced to cleaning houses to survive in Israel. Apart from being killed by a terrorist act, inflamed by the military actions of the state that she loved so much, after her death we had to witness the shameful publications that on one hand called her “giyores (proselyte) descendant of Marranos,” [8] but that also showed an almost unanimous rejection by members of the Israeli government to attend her very public and announced funeral,[9] and to add insult to injury to the already defunct Yemima, the sacrosanct Conversion Authority stated that she was not Jewish,[10] despite having completed the entire conversion process by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish court which the Conversion Authority did not approve:

“Mosquera had recently gone through a conversion in Bnei Brak, arguably the most religious city in Israel, under Nissim Karelitz, one of the most celebrated Charedi rabbis of this generation. But because it wasn’t the state’s centralized Conversion Authority, Israeli officialdom considers her to be non-Jewish.”

Certainly an splendid example of “Jewish love” by the “Jewish” state!!!

Maybe I am exaggerating when I say that this new development may mean the end of the secular “Zionists” for reasons I stated earlier, but stranger things have happened.

In the centuries past the return of conversos to Judaism—which incidentally I have to mention did not require any conversion process as it is known today—were observed by rabbinical authorities to prevent ideological and religious divisions that could disturb the peace of the community or put the community in an ideological predicament with the Christian majority in the country where they lived. Because many conversos had been educated, and had even been professors at the best Catholic universities of Europe, the rabbinic leaders, as Hakhám Saul Levi Morteira, wrote very erudite treatises for the Jewish instruction of returnees and dispel any theological doubts between Judaism and Christianity.

Today there is no such monitoring that was for life, much less rabbis of the stature and intellectual scope of a Morteira who may contain unpredictable situations. With the pro- messianic sentiment of today, coupled with the radicalization of a “Zionist” orthodoxy, and the attitude of the establishment to leave them to their fate once they have been integrated as Jewish proselytes, a large contingent of this type—which already brings their particularly ideological baggage—would bring a number of problems for the state of Israel and the Jewish people in general.

The immediate risk for conversos, real or imagined, apart from disrespect and vilification, is to be used as propaganda without obtaining any real reward. “Zionists” activists fanning the flames of this new phase of political “Zionism” care little about the integrity and dignity of these people. The long-term risks is to live a similar condition to their New Christian ancestors, who were never accepted by the society that reluctantly adopted them, and even lose their status as Jews.

It ‘s a real shame that Sephardic institutions have not given a real interest to support these individuals. Instead of being exploited by those political vultures with narrow and selfish ends, conversos, even the imagined ones, would be a timely opportunity to strengthen Sephardic tradition and representation in the Jewish world today, which is in much needed repair. But in the current state of deterioration and confusion in which we live, that’s a difficult path to retake. The vast majority of Sephardim today are busier trying to become Ashkenazim and faithful “Zionists” patriots, instead of recovering and rebuilding our traditions and respect in Jewish society.

If Yemima’s experience shows us anything, it is that all these fallacies smell of death.

___________________________

[1] See my “Ba‘alé Teshubá” and “Conversos and Maskilim”.

[2] Perry, Ashley. “Undoing the Inquisition”. Jpost.com. January 15 2015. Web. January 31 2015.

[3] “Ashley Perry” Blogs.timesofisrael.com. Web. January 28 2015. My brackets.

[4]  Bringing the Zionist Dream to Life. This political party’s website. Citied in “Yisrael Beiteinu”. Wikipedia.com. Web. January 28 2015.

[5] “Law of Return”. Wikipedia.org. February 21 2015. Web. February 22 2015. Also see “Law of Return” from the official web page of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

[6] Fischer, Elli. “Why Rav Goren Matters: The Legacy of the Langers”. Mida.org.il. June 6 2015. Web. February 15 2015.

[7] Algazy, Joseph. “Faith is not enough”. Haaretz.com. March 1 2002. Web. February 22 2015.

[8] Hamodia Staff. “Second Fatality in Terror Attack Was Giyores Descended from Marranos”. Hamodia.com. October 28 2014. Web. February 22 2015.

[9] Eichner, Itamar. “Ministers dodge funeral for Ecuadoran victim of Jerusalem terror attack”. Ynetnews.com. October 28 2014. Web. February 22 2015.

[10] Jeffay, Nathan. “Terror Victim Sought To Become Jewish”. Thejewishweek.com. October 29 2014. Web. February 22 2015.

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One response to “The Zionist Politicization of Conversos and Its Risks

  1. Pingback: The Lost Tribes’ Musical Chairs | David Ramírez·

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