Sephardic Bnei Anusim
Sephardic Bnei Anusim (Hebrew: בני אנוסים ספרדיים, pronounced ['bnei anu'sim sfara'dim], lit. "Children [of the] coerced [converted] Spanish [Jews]) is a modern term used to define the contemporary Christian descendants of estimated quarter of a million 15th-century Sephardic Jewish which were coerced or forced to convert to Catholicism during the 14th and 15th century in Spain. The vast majority of Conversos remained in Spain and Portugal, their descendants in both these countries numbering in the millions. The small minority of Conversos who did emigrate normally chose destinations where Sephardic communities already existed, particularly in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa, but also more tolerant cities in Europe, immediately reverting to Judaism. Although a few did their travel to Spanish America, doing so was particularly difficult since only those Spaniards who could certify no recent Muslim or Jewish ancestry were allowed to travel to the New World. Nevertheless, the constant flow of Spanish emigration to Latin America up until well into the 20th century led to many Latin Americans with Converso ancestry, in the same way as modern Spaniards do.
The Bnei Anusim concept has gained some popularity among the Hispanic Community in the American South West and in countries in Latin America, whereby hundreds of Hispanics have expressed a belief that they are descendants of such Conversos and a desire to return to the fold of Judaism. Such desire may perhaps be understood within the complex identity politics of both Latin and Anglo-America and their interplay with social mobility. Belief in Converso identity is normally based on memories of family practices which may resemble their perceptions of Jewish customs and religion and internet genealogical research and public availability of population genetics and atDNA analysis. Genetic testing cannot ascertain Jewish heritage in an individual, but can find genetic markers originating in the Near East, something quite common among Spanish, Portuguese and other Mediterranean populations.
In the last 5 to 10 years a growing number "of [Sephardic] Benei Anusim have been established in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and in Sefarad [Iberia] itself" as "organized groups." Some members of these communities have formally reverted to Judaism, operating as functional communities of public Judaizers. For more information on these groups, please see Neo-Western Sephardim.
Although, reversion to Judaism among these communities is largely a question of individual belief and interest and any knowledge of Jewish ancestry has been long lost over the past four centuries, two specific exceptions exist: The Xueta community of the island of Majorca in Spain and the Marrano community of Belmonte in Portugal. Both communities have practiced endogamy over generations, thus maintaining awareness of their Jewish heritage. In the case of the Xuetas, they also suffered social stigma and discrimination well into the 20th century for their converso origin.
The Jewish Agency for Israel estimates the Sephardic Bnei Anusim population to number in the millions. Although they are the least prominent of Sephardic descendants, Sephardic Bnei Anusim are nonetheless numerically superior to their Jewish-integrated Sephardic Jewish counterparts, which consist of Eastern Sephardim, North African Sephardim, and the ex-converso Western Sephardim. With up to 20% of Spain and Portugal's population and at least 10% of Latin America's Iberian-descended population estimated to have at least some Sephardic Jewish ancestry (90% of Latin America's modern population being persons of at least partial Iberian ancestry, in the form of criollos, mestizos, and mulattos), the total population size of Sephardic Bnei Anusim (67.78 million) is not only several times larger than the combined population of Jewish-integrated Sephardic sub-groups, but also more than four times the size of the total world Jewish population as a whole, which itself also encompasses Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews and various other smaller groups.
Under Jewish religious law, also known as Halakha, the Jewish status of Sephardic Bnei Anusim as a collective group is not, by most religious authorities, automatically recognized for two reasons. Firstly, because of issues regarding generational distance, and secondly, because of issues relating to the proving of an unbroken direct maternal Jewish lineage.
In regards to the first issue, the number of generations that have passed since the coerced conversions of the anusim forebears of the Sephardic Bnei Anusim is now multiple. Depending on Jewish legal rulings being followed, the maximum generational distance for acceptance as Jews (without the requirement of formal reversion/conversion) is between 3 and 5 generations from the anusim forebear/s who was/were forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism.
In regards to the second issue, in Rabbinic Judaism, a person's Jewish status is determined in one of two ways:
- a Jew by conversion, if he/she has personally gone through a formal conversion to Judaism, or
- a natural-born Jew, if he/she was born from an unbroken direct maternal Jewish lineage which is
- a Jewish lineage ab initio ("from the beginning", from time immemorial descending from an Israelite-era Hebrew woman), or
- a Jewish lineage established by a female ancestor's formal conversion to Judaism whose unbroken direct Jewish maternal lineage descendants encompasses only the children borne to her after her conversion (and the direct maternal-line descendants of only her post-conversion children).
Thus, natural-born Jewish status of a child (male or female) comes from its mother, via its maternal grandmother, via its maternal great-grandmother, and so on. As a consequence of the number of generations that have passed since the forced conversion of the Anusim ancestors of the Sephardic Bnei Anusim, the likelihood of a broken direct maternal Jewish lineage in that time (or the difficulty in producing documentary evidence proving otherwise) precludes the establishment of natural-born Jewishness. If the direct maternal lineage of a Sephardic Ben Anusim is not Jewish or cannot be proven to be Jewish (due to a lack of documentary evidence to that effect), it is irrelevant whether some or all other lineages of that Sephardic Ben Anusim are confirmed Jewish lineages (be it the direct paternal lineage, all other paternal lineages, or all other maternal lineages).
Halakhically non-Jewish status, however, does not preclude Sephardic Bnei Anusim from being classed as Zera Yisrael, since they are otherwise of Jewish ancestry. On that basis, some individual Sephardic Bnei Anusim have begun formally returning to the Jewish fold by reverting/converting to the faith, regaining their status as individual Jews.
It should also be noted that at least one Israeli Chief Rabbi has ruled that Sephardic Bnei Anusim should be considered Jewish for all purposes, and that a symbolic ceremony denoting reversion/conversion is necessary only in the event of a marriage where a Sephardic Bnei Anusim origin is not shared by both spouses (i.e. a marriage between a spouse of Sephardic Bnei Anusim origin with a Jew from a community not of Sephardic Bnei Anusim origin). This pro-forma conversion for the purpose of marriage is solely to remove any doubt relating to any possibility of a broken maternal lineage (which religiously might affect the status of offspring borne to that marriage), and it in no way infers that the Sephardic Bnei Anusim are otherwise of Jewish ancestry.
Although not halakhically Jewish as a collective group, Sephardic Bnei Anusim are broadly categorized as Zera Yisrael (זרע ישראל, literally "Seed of Israel"). Zera Yisrael are the Halakhically non-Jewish descendants of Jews who, for practical purposes, are neither Jews nor completely gentile.
According to some of the most prominent medieval Jewish sages, the designation of Zera Yisrael means that although these persons are not halakhically Jewish, they do nevertheless embody “the holiness of Israel.”
Relation to other Sephardi communities
The term Sephardi means "Spanish" or "Hispanic", and is derived from Sepharad, a Biblical location. The location of the biblical Sepharad is disputed, but Sepharad was identified by later Jews as Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula. Sepharad still means "Spain" in modern Hebrew.
The relationship between Sephardi-descended communities is illustrated in the following diagram:
|Pre-Expulsion Sephardi Jewish Population of Iberia|
|Spanish Alhambra Decree of 1492, Portuguese Decree of 1497|
|Iberian Exile in the late 15th century||Conversion to Catholicism up to the late 15th century|
|North African Sephardim||Eastern Sephardim||Sephardic Anusim|
|Those Jews fleeing from Iberia as Jews in the late 15th century at the issuance of Spain and Portugal's decrees of expulsion. Initially settled in North Africa.||Those Jews fleeing from Iberia as Jews in the late 15th century at the issuance of Spain and Portugal's decrees of expulsion. Initially settled in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.||Those Jews in Spain and Portugal who, in an effort to delay or avoid their expulsion (and in most cases in Portugal, in an effort by Manuel I of Portugal to prevent the Jews from choosing the option of exile), are forced or coerced to convert to Catholicism up until the late 15th century, at the expiration of the deadline for their expulsion, conversion, or execution as set out in the decrees. Became conversos/New Christians in Iberia. As Christians, were under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church and subject to the Inquisition.|
|Migration of Conversos from the 16th to 18th centuries||Clandestine migration of conversos to Ibero-America and their settlement during colonization from the 16th to 18th centuries|
|Reversion to Judaism from the 16th to 18th centuries||Extension of the Inquisition to Ibero-America in the 16th century|
|Western Sephardim||Sephardic Bnei Anusim|
|The first few generations of descendants of Sephardic Anusim who migrated as conversos out of Iberia (to regions beyond the Iberian cultural sphere) between the 16th to 18th centuries where they then reverted to Judaism. Initially settled in the Netherlands, London, Italy, etc.||The later generation descendants of Sephardic Anusim who remained, as conversos, in Iberia or moved to the Iberian colonial possessions across various Latin American countries during the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Subject to the Inquisition until its abolition in the 19th century|
|Abolition of the Inquisition in the 19th century|
|Reversion to Judaism in the 20th to 21st centuries|
|The nascent and growing population of returnees to Judaism among the Sephardic Bnei Anusim population whose recent return began in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Iberia and Ibero-America.|
The common feature between Western Sephardim, Sephardic Bnei Anusim, and Neo-Western Sephardim is that all three are descended from conversos. "Western Sephardim" are descendents of ex-conversos from earlier centuries; "Sephardic Bnei Anusim" are the still nominally Christian descendants of conversos; and "Neo-Western Sephardim" are the increasing in number modern-day ex-conversos returning to Judaism from among the Sephardic Bnei Anusim population.
The distinguishing factor between "Western Sephardim" and the nascent "Neo-Western Sephardim" is the time frame of the reversions to Judaism, the location of the reversions, and the precarious religious and legal circumstances surrounding their reversions (including impediments and persecutions). Thus, the converso descendants who became the Western Sephardim had reverted to Judaism between the 16th and 18th centuries, they did so at a time before the abolition of the Inquisition in the 19th century, and this time frame necessitated their migration out of the Iberian cultural sphere. Conversely, the converso descendants who are today becoming the nascent Neo-Western Sephardim have been reverting to Judaism between the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they have been doing so at a time after the abolition of the Inquisition in the 19th century, and this time frame has not necessitated their migration out of the Iberian cultural sphere.
Differentiating Anusim and Bnei Anusim
The Sephardic Anusim ("forced [converts]") were the Jewish conversos to Catholicism and their second and third, fourth, and up to fifth generation converso descendants (the maximum acceptable generational distance depended on the particular Jewish responsa being followed by the receiving Jewish community). The Sephardic Bnei Anusim ("[later] children [of the] coerced [converts]"), on the other hand, were any subsequent generations of descendants of the Sephardic Anusim. These descendants, the Sephardic Bnei Ansuim, remained hidden in Iberia and Ibero-America ever since, due to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions in the Iberian Peninsula and its Inquisition franchises exported to the New World. The converso descendants of Sephardic Anusim in the Hispanosphere became the Sephardic Bnei Anusim.
Conversely, those Sephardic Anusim who left for the non-Hispanosphere (such as the Netherlands and Italy, among other places), where they then reverted to Judaism, became the ex-converso Western Sephardim.
At least some Sephardic Anusim in the Hispanosphere (both in Iberia and their colonies in Ibero-America) had tried to at least maintain crypto-Jewish practices in privacy. Those who had gone to Ibero-America, especially, had initially also tried to revert to Judaism outright. Neither, however, was feasible long-term in that Hispanic environment, as Judaizing conversos in Iberia and Ibero-America remained persecuted, prosecuted, and liable to conviction and execution. The Inquisition itself was only finally formally disbanded in the 19th century.
Past and present customs and practices
Among descendants of Sephardic Anusim, there were those who attempted to maintain crypto-Judaism. There are people still today in Spain, Portugal and throughout Hispanic America and Brazil who retain familial customs of Jewish origins.
The specifics and origin for these practices within the family are more often than not no longer known, or the knowledge of the origin of the customs is vague. Some of these communities have only just begun a reemergence in Iberia and throughout Latin America.
In the last 5 to 10 years, "organized groups of Benei Anusim in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and in Sefarad [Iberia] itself" have now been established. Some of these congregate and associate as functional communities of openly out Judaizers. While this behavior was particularly persecuted under the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, the inquisition was finally abolished in the 19th century. Under the Inquisition, the penalty for "Judaizing" by Jewish converts to Christianity (and their Jewish-origin Christian-born descendants) was usually death by burning.
Among the modern day organized groups of Sephardic Bnei Anusim who are openly out Judaizers, a few of their members have recently formally reverted to Judaism.
Old and New World Inquisitions and Migrations
The Spanish Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition back in the Old World (in the Iberian Peninsula), their persecution of New Christians of Jewish origin, and the virulent racial anti-Semitism are well known, and further information can be found on their respective articles.
The branches of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas, however, were originally established as a result of the complaints made by Spanish conquerors and settlers of Old Christian backgrounds to the Catholic Monarch back in Spain regarding the significant illegal influx of New Christians of Sephardi origin into their colonies, many coming in via the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
Only Spaniards of Old Christian backgrounds were legally allowed passage into the Spanish colonies as conquistadors and settlers. Many Spanish "New Christians" falsified their pedigree documents, or obtained perjured witness statements attesting pureza de sangre (purity of blood) from other New Christians who had themselves already made it into the colonies and built up "Old Christian" identities. Others yet simply evaded the screening process altogether, through influence from family, friends, community connections, and acquaintances who were already passing as Old Christians. Some immigrants became members of ship crews and assistants of conquistadors, lowly positions which did not require evidence of "pureza de sangre" (though later on, this too was clamped down on).
Portuguese New Christians, on the other hand, were settling in the Spanish colonies through what essentially became the backdoor entry, via Brazil. As a Portuguese colony, Brazil was more lax at enforcing the prohibition on Sephardic New Christian immigrant passage. Then between 1580 and 1640, when the Kingdom of Portugal was annexed to the Spanish Crown, the influx of Portuguese conversos into the Spanish colonies in South America became such that by the early 1600s the term "portugués" had become synonymous with "Jewish" in the Spanish colonies, a practice which the Old Christian majority among the Portuguese in Portugal and Brazil lamented as unjust on their ethnonym. To this day, Portuguese surnames can still be found among their descendants in Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas, although many have since Hispanicized their surnames to fit Spanish orthography, hiding their "Portuguese" (i.e. Jewish) origin.
Reverting to Judaism
Currently, there is only a trickle of reverting to Judaism by assimilated people of colonial-era Sephardic descent in Spain, Portugal, Hispanic America, or Brazil (especially reversions which are officially sanctioned or sponsored by Jewish religious institutions, including the Israeli Rabbinate). Despite the reservoir of millions of people of Sephardic Bnei Anusim backgrounds in those regions, no more than several thousands, or tens of thousands, are actively in search for reversions back to the faith. Furthermore, only a minuscule proportion of these millions of descendants have completed reversions to Judaism.
Over the last decade, however, there has been a steady growth in interest by descendants to return to the Jewish people and normative Judaism. A much larger proportion of Sephardic Bnei Anusim seem to not incur personal conflict from the mosaic that is their historical Jewish ancestry, their contemporary Christian affiliation and their modern ethnic identities as Spaniards, Portuguese, Hispanics, and Brazilians.
Others have begun to move towards syncretizing their current Christian religious identities and ethnic identities with an ethnic Jewish secular non-religious identity, without seeking a reversion back to Judaism. Among these there are some who have moved towards adopting Messianic Judaism (that is, Jewish-emphasizing forms of Christianity). Messianic Jewish congregations (styled less like churches, and more like synagogues) have been sprouting up around Latin America in the last several years, and are composed largely of Sephardic Bnei Anusim. Members of these congregations often call their congregation a "sinagoga" (Spanish for "synagogue"), "Beit Knesset" (Hebrew for "synagogue") or "Kehilah" (Hebrew for "congregation").
This modern phenomenon of Sephardic Bnei Anusim gravitating towards Messianic Jewish forms of Christianity, rather than reverting to normative Judaism itself, has been proposed to be a paradigm resulting from several sets of impeding factors; some stemming from the Bnei Anusim themselves, and the others stemming from the local normative Jewish community in Latin America.
Internal reluctance due to habitual tradition
One factor impeding reversions back to Judaism stems from a reluctance by many Sephardic Bnei Ansuim to fully abandon a Christian faith, which although it was imposed on their ancestors several centuries ago, it has nevertheless become almost second-nature or habitual tradition to them over the course of five centuries.
It should be noted that some Sephardic Bnei Anusim who journey through the Messianic Judaism form of Christianity seem also to be doing so as a stepping stone in their process towards embracing normative Judaism. Once they have fully abandoned central Christian doctrines incompatible with Judaism (such as the messiahship and divinity of Jesus), they also abandon Messianic Judaism and seek to embrace normative Judaism.
Targeting by Messianic Judaism
Riding on the internal reluctance by many Sephardic Bnei Anusim, however, there has also been some controversy over Messianic Jewish organizations which have been accused of deliberately targeting Sephardic Bnei Anusim ever since their public re-emergence has become more well known and documented.
These Messianic Jewish organizations have been accused of discouraging or dissuading Sephardic Bnei Anusim from rejoining normative Judaism, offering themselves and their form of Christianity as an alternative.
Takkanah prohibition on conversions in Latin America
The major factor impeding reversions, however, stems from a takkanah, or Jewish religious edict, which was decreed in 1927 in Argentina, at the behest of the then recently arrived Eastern Sephardim from Syria. In this takkanah, it was agreed by the normative Jewish community in Argentina (composed of by the Syrian Sephardim minority and a European Ashkenazim majority) that for the sake of combating the high rate of assimilation of the relatively newly arrived and formed Argentinian Jewish community of that time, conversions to Judaism would not be performed in Argentina by the local normative Jewish communities "until the end of time".
Although Sephardic Bnei Anusim were not envisioned as the intended targets of the takkanah, but rather it was geared towards gentiles of no historical Jewish ancestry, the applicability of the takkanah generally on all conversions has meant that it has nevertheless come to affect the Sephardic Bnei Anusim who only recently have begun their public re-emergence and seeking to re-join the Jewish people.
The takkanah itself was a response to combat the high rates of insincere conversions being performed solely for the sake of facilitating intermarriages of Jews to gentiles, which were resulting in net losses to the Jewish population. Instead of increasing the Jewish population from the addition of new Jews and any children borne to them and their Jewish-born spouses (plus subsequent generations descended from them), the losses came from the insincerely converted new Jews not adopting Jewish identities, which in turn led to a dilution of the Jewish identity of the household, and ultimately resulted in the children and subsequent generations being assimilated and lost to the Jewish people (in addition to the loss of the Jewish-born spouse).
The takkanah now exerts its influence beyond Argentina throughout the rest of Latin America, where local normative Jewish communities continue to uphold a prohibition of all conversions/reversions in the continent. The effects of the takkanah has even spread to New York City's Syrian Jewish community, although there the prohibition was more clearly specified, and is in theory restricted to conversions which are performed for the sake of marriage. As implemented in 1935, the takkanah in New York contains the amendment that "no future Rabbinic Court will have the right or authority to convert non-Jews who seek to marry into our [Syrian Jewish] community." The takkanah in New York City holds no force among the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Jewish population of the city and North America in general.
This situation has resulted in reluctance and friction coming from both parties. It has also further encouraged resentment and accusations by Sephardic Bnei Ansuim of classism, and even racism, on the part of the local Jewish communities (which in Latin America are predominantly European Ashkenazim, even though the decree itself was at the behest of the Syrian Sephardim in Argentina) against Sephardic Bnei Anusim.
For their part, the local Jewish communities (whether Ashkenazi or Syrian Sephardi) have denied both allegations or classism and racism. They have asserted that the status quo of non-conversions/reversions in Latin America by local Jewish communities, and their isolated and insular natures in Latin America, is due to the historical anti-assimilationist needs for the Jewish community in Latin America to survive, and not because of classism or racism. Indeed, it has been pointed out that until recently, it was also not uncommon in Latin American even for the Syrian Sephardim and European Ashkenazim to be isolated from one another, with each having separate congregations, social circles, and neighborhoods, also as a matter of sub-group community survival. This was in no way a suggestion of denial of the Jewishness of one group by the other. It should be noted that both Ashkenazim and Sephardim have now largely melded into a single communal identity in Latin America.
Local Jewish desire to avoid accusations of prosletyzing
Additional to the above impeding factors, there is also the desire by the local normative Jewish communities in Latin America to avoid the accusation of proselytizing of Judaism to people who are at least nominally Christian. The accusation from Latin American Catholics of non-Jewish background being that the Jews are "stealing souls" from the Catholic Church, despite the fact that the nominal Christians whose "prosletyzing" they object to are themselves descendants of Jews who were forced into Christianity in the first place, and it is they (despite the discouragement by the Jews in Latin America) who are seeking conversions to Judaism.
Ibero-America being a region with a culture largely derived from Iberia, with a long history of officially sanctioned anti-Semitism (true for both Iberia and Ibero-America), where the Inquisition was only finally officially disbanded in the 19th century, there is an aversion by Jews of doing anything that might arouse anti-Jewish sentiments of any kind. Thus, of the limited numbers of reversions/conversions to Judaism which have in recent years been performed in Latin America (especially South America), these have been officiated by visiting religious emissaries from either North American Ashkenazi Jewish communities or delegated by the Israeli Rabbinate.
The conversions/reversions which have been performed in the continent (on an individual basis or upon small groups of reverts/converts, whichever may be the case) are only performed after the prospective reverts/converts undergo at least one year of online Jewish religious study with the sponsoring foreign Jewish religious organization or authority, followed by the actual physical requirements of reversion/conversion for the individual or small group which are performed by a delegation sent by the foreign sponsoring foreign Jewish religious organization. Some individual Latin Americans have also reverted/converted to Judaism abroad.
Foreign Jewish outreach programs
There are several foreign Jewish outreach organization catering to Sephardic Bnei Anusim. Among these is Shavei Israel, which operates in Spain, Portugal, and throughout Latin America, with headquarters in Israel. They cater to Sephardi-descended Spaniards, Portuguese, Hispanics and Brazilian who are seeking a late return to the Jewish people, as was initially done a few centuries ago for the Western Sephardim. There are other organizations working to reach out to and/or reconnect the Sephardic Bnei Anusim, such as Sephardim Hope International and Reconectar.
Settlements and concentrations
In 2011 Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, a leading rabbi and Halachic authority and chairman of the Beit Din Tzedek rabbinical court in Bnei Brak, Israel, recognized the entire Xueta community of Bnei Anusim in Palma de Majorca, as Jews That population alone represented approximately 18,000 people, or just over 2% of the entire population of the island.
Of the Bnei Anusim community in Belmonte, Portgual, some officially returned to Judaism in the 1970s, and opened a synagogue, Bet Eliahu, in 1996. The Belmonte community of Bnei Anusim as a whole, however, have not yet been granted the same recognition as Jews that the Xuetas of Palma de Majorca achieved in 2011.
Besides Belmonte, and as a result of the proclamation of the Jews' default acceptance of Catholicism by the Portuguese king, a significant proportion of the population of Portugal in general is actually composed of assimilated descendants of Sephardic Jews. That is, a significant proportion of Portugal is composed of Bnei Ansuim. Besides the Xuetas, the same is true of Spain. According to some figures, up to 20% of the modern population of Spain and Portugal is composed of Bnei Ansuim whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors converted but stayed in the Penisnusla.
Historical documentation shedding new light on the diversity in the ethnic composition of the Iberian immigrants to the Spanish colonies of the Americas during the conquest era suggests that the number of New Christians of Sephardi origin that actively participated in the conquest and settlement was more significant than previously estimated. Famous and renowned Spanish conquerors, administrators, settlers, even the most famous chronicler during the Spanish conquest, Pedro Cieza de León, have now been confirmed to have been of Sephardi origin.
Recent revelations have only come about as a result of newly discovered records in Spain, which had been either lost or hidden, relating to conversions, marriages, baptisms, and Inquisition trials of the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of the Sephardi-origin Iberian immigrants.
Overall, it is now estimated that up to 10% of colonial Latin America's Iberian settlers may have been of Sephardic origin, although the regional distribution of their settlement was uneven throughout the colonies. Thus, Iberian settlers of New Christian Sephardi-origin ranged anywhere from none in most areas, to as high as 1 in every 3 (approx. 30%) Iberian settlers in other areas. With Latin America's current population standing at close to 590 million people, the bulk of which consists of persons of at least partial Iberian ancestry (including both New World Hispanics and Brazilians, be they criollos, mestizos or mulattos), it is estimated that up to 50 million of these possess Sephardic Jewish ancestry to some degree.
Recent DNA evidence and historical settlement patterns of Sephardi-origin New Christians indicates that the concentration of these Hispanic/Latino-assimilated Christian-professing descendants of Sephardic Jews are found primarily in the following localities (from north to south):
- The formerly Spanish/Mexican-held American Southwest, especially northern New Mexico and southern Colorado
- The northernmost states of Mexico bordering the American Southwest, particularly Nuevo León
- Seridó region in northeastern Brazil
- The Paisa region of central Colombia
- South and central regions of Ecuador, especially Loja and Zaruma
- The sierra areas of northwestern Peru
- Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia's east
- The Río de la Plata Basin region in eastern Argentina, and
- The southern region of Chile.
The common denominator between all the abovementioned localities is that they are situated in remote areas, isolated either by distance or geographical features from the Spanish colonial administrative centers, which at the time were Mexico City, in central Mexico, and Lima, in central Peru. This is in complete contrast to the initial settlement patterns of the Sephardi-origin New Christians during the early days of the Spanish Conquest. Most, in fact, deliberately arrived and settled in the urban colonial and commercial hubs of Mexico City and Lima, seeking to recreate the lives they left behind in Spain, in a new but familiar Spanish cultural environment half a world away, and thus free from persecution of the inquisitors themselves back in Spain.
When the Spanish Inquisition followed them to the New World, however, it was precisely Mexico City and Lima that became the locations where the Inquisitors set up their New World headquarters. This resulted in the Sephardi-origin New Christians again fleeing, this time settling in the most geographically isolated areas in neighboring Spanish colonies. These events accomplished the depopulation of Sephardi-origin New Christians from all of Peru and Mexico other than their respective northernmost regions.
Later Sephardic arrivals
After the Inquisition was finally officially disbanded in the 19th century, descendants of Sephardim once again arrived in Ibero-America, this time as Jews, not as New Christians or conversos. These Sephardic descendants have a clearly distinguishable history from the Sephardic Bnei Anusim, and are thus separate from them. The following are a few of the more notable migrations of Sephardic Jews into Latin America since the 19th century.
During the rubber boom in the 19th century, Peru again received Sephardic immigrants, this time being North African Sephardim from Morocco. Thousands of their mostly assimilated mixed-race (mestizo) descendants still live throughout the Amazon basin. See also Amazonian Jews.
Venezuela, on the other hand, received Western Sephardim in its northern region from neighboring island nations to its north. These Western Sephardic immigrants usually came in via Dutch possessions in the Americas like Curaçao. They have also settled in places such as Panama, Honduras, and Colombia. Their ancestors had emigrated to places like Curaçao from the Netherlands, where they had earlier settled after leaving Spain and Portugal. This multi-stop migration was a centuries-long process. Among the descendants of Western Sephardi immigrants in Latin America, at least two heads of state have emerged, including the Jewish-raised Ricardo Maduro (former president of Honduras) and Catholic-raised Nicolás Maduro (current president of Venezuela).
As stated, the descendants of these more recent Sephardic arrivals in Hispanic America (whether North African Sephardim, Eastern Sephardim, and Western Sephardim) are separate from Sephardic Bnei Anusim, irrespective of whether they too have assimilated (as is mostly the case of North African Sephardim in Peru) or are still Jewish-integrated (as is mostly the case of Eastern Sephardim in Mexico). Western Sephardim in Hispanic America have tended to include as many who have assimilated as have remained Jewish-integrated.
There is a small but strong contingent of Jewish immigrants to Israel from Latin America, predominantly from within the normative Jewish (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) communities resident in Latin America. Among these immigrants from Latin America, however, there are also some, but not many, persons of Sephardic Bnei Anusim origin that have also immigrated, most of which arrived in Israel after official reversions/conversions outside Israel.
It has been reported in the Israeli media that some Sephardic Bnei Anusim have regularized their status once in Israel after arriving as tourists or visitors. Other Sephardic Bnei Ansuim have been deported or threatened with deportation. In one instance in 2009, the Interior Ministry sought to deport the elderly Bnei Anusim parents of Colombian siblings who were Israeli citizens. All the members of the family are of Bnei Ansuim heritage, but only the younger generation (the siblings) had reverted to Judaism, while their parents had not. The siblings made aliyah as Jews and acquired Israeli citizenship. Having been left alone in Colombia, the parents then followed their children to Israel, where they lived with them for 5 years. The parents were then threatened with deportation.
Law of Return
The Israeli Law of Return does not apply to Sephardic Bnei Anusim in their own right unless, on an individual basis, a prospective applicant for the Law of Return who is of Sephardic Bnei Anusim origin has officially reverted/converted to Judaism.
In the case of Sephardic Bnei Anusim who officially revert/convert to Judaism through a normative Jewish community, the Law of Return then encompasses that individual not because the applicant is of Sephardic Bnei Anusim origin (i.e. having Jewish ancestry), but because he or she is now an official normative Jew following formal reversion/conversion to Judaism. Please see that article for further information on the details of the Law of Return.
Public awareness campaigns
Several organizations catering to Sephardic Bnei Anusim have been established around Israel. Some are cultural and information centres for the education of the general Israeli public, while others are a combination of cultural and information centres which also promote and provide assistance and advocate for rights to conversions, immigration and absorption of reverts to Judaism of Sephardic Bnei Ansuim origin.
Shavei Israel, with headquarters in Jerusalem is an advocacy and Jewish outreach organization with links to religious institutions in helping Bnei Anusim in their branches in Spain, Portugal and South America return to Judaism. Shavei Israel has thus far assisted over 2,000 Bnei Anusim in Spain and Portugal to return to Judaism.
Reconectar has a mission to reconnect those descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities that wish it, and at the level they seek, with the Jewish world. Ashley Perry is the current president of the organization and also director of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities.
Outside of Iberia and the Iberian colonies in the Americas, the former Portuguese colony of Goa, in India, also received Sephardic Anusim, where they were subjected to the Goa Inquisition. In 1494, after the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, authorized by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal was given the right to found colonies in the Eastern Hemisphere and Spain was given dominance over the New World. In the East, as Professor Walter Fischel, the now deceased Chair of the Department of Near Eastern History at the University of California - Berkeley, explains, the Portuguese found use for the Sephardic anusim in Goa and their other Indian and Asian possessions. Jews were used as "letter-carriers, translators, agents, etc." The ability of the Sephardic Jews and anusim to speak Arabic made them vital to Portuguese colonial ambitions in the East, where they could interact and go on diplomatic and trade missions in the Muslim courts of the Mughal Empire. India also attracted Sephardic Jews and anusim for other reasons. In his lecture at the Library of Congress, Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Chair in Social Sciences at University of California, Los Angeles, explains that Sephardic anusim were especially attracted to India because not only was it a center of trade in goods such as spices and diamonds, but India also had established and ancient Jewish settlements, such as the one at Cochin, along its Western coast. The presence of these older communities offered the anusim, who had been forced to accept Catholicism, the chance to live within the Portuguese Empire, away from the Inquisition, and, if they wished, they were able to contact the Jews in these communities and re-adopt the faith of their fathers. The presence of anusim in India aroused the anger of the Archbishop of Goa, Dom Gaspar Jorge de Leão Pereira and others who wrote polemics and letters to Lisbon urging that the Inquisition be brought to India. Twenty-four years after Portuguese Inquisition began, the Goan Inquisition came to India in 1560 after Francis Xavier placed another request for it to the King of Portugal. The impact of anusim in Portuguese India and Portugal's other eastern colonies continues to be a subject of on-going academic research.
There was also an influential presence of Sephardic anusim in the Fort St. George which was later called Madras and is today called Chennai, India. In its earlier years under Governor Elihu Yale (who later founded Yale University) appointed three Jewish aldermen (out of a total of 12 aldermen) to represent the Jewish population in the fledgling city.
DNA and genetics
In some cases, Sephardi-descended Hispanics of the communities of Bnei Anusim have inherited genetic mutations and diseases to Jews or Sephardi Jews in particular, including Jewish-specific mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which increases the risk of breast cancer (found also among Hispanos of the Southwestern United States) and Laron syndrome (found also among Ecuadorians).
The mutations are found in Ashkenazic Jews of European maternal linage, who have European mt-DNA that is passed from mother to child, and in Anusim women of Hispanic maternal linage. The Ashkenazi Anusim and Hispanic Anusim are different from the Middle Eastern Sephardi Jews Anusim. The Ancestors of the Middle Eastern Sephardi Jews Anusim exiled from the Middle East to Spain. "...This is the largest study to date of high-risk Hispanic families in the United States. Six recurrent mutations accounted for 47% (16 of 34) of the deleterious mutations in this cohort. The BRCA1185delAG mutation was prevalent (3.6%) in this clinic-based cohort of predominantly Mexican descent, and shared the Ashkenazi Jewish founder haplotype.
Almost all Sephardic Bnei Anusim today carry surnames which are known to have been used by Sephardic Jews during the 15th century. Surnames known to have been carried by Jews included Pérez, López, Salazar, Córdova, Torres, Rodríguez, Castro, Álvarez, González, Gómez, Fernández. It is extremely important to note, however, that all of these mentioned surnames, and almost all other surnames which were carried by 15th century Sephardim, were never specifically Jewish in origin, that is, they were never exclusively "Sephardic surnames", if such a thing exists other than in the most rarest and limited of cases.
Almost all these surnames are in fact surnames of gentile Spanish origin (or gentile Portuguese origin) which only became common among Sephardic Jews (and consequently among Sephardic Anusim when Sephardic Jews converted to Catholicism under pressure, and passed by these onto their Bnei Anusim descendants) precicely because Sephardic Jews deliberately adopted these surnames, which were stereotypically common among the Old Christian population. In this way, they hoped to be associated with being Old Christians, in an attempt to obscure their true Jewish pedigrees, and avoid discrimination and social ostracism. After conversion, New Christians of Jewish origin generally adopted Christian given names and Old Christian surnames. Eventually, all Old Christian given names and surnames were in use by New Christians of Jewish origin.
Only a small number of surnames held by Sephardic Bnei Anusim (or for that matter, only a very few surnames held by modern-day Sephardic Jews who may still carry Spanish and Portuguese surnames) are surnames that pertain exclusively to a Sephardic or Sephardic Anusim origin to the exclusion of any Old Christian carriers of the same surname.
Among descendants of Sephardic Jews today, there are three categories of descendants:
1) Eastern Sephardim and North African Sephardim, being those who are today Jewish because they descend from Sephardim who remained Jewish (never becoming New Christians), and left Iberia before the deadline set in the Alhambra Decree.
2) Western Sephardim, being those who are today Jewish because they descended from Sephardim who initially became New Christians because they did not, or could not, leave Iberia by the deadline set in the Alhambra Decree, but later reverted to Judaism (even if generations later) once they finally left Iberia by venturing to places other than the Iberian colonies in the Americas.
3) Sephardic Bnei Anusim (including Neo-Western Sephardim), the subjects of this article, being those who are today fully assimilated as Spanish, Portuguese, Hispanic or Brazilian Christians, since they descend from Sephardim who became New Christians, never reverted to Judaism in any subsequent generation, because they could not leave Iberia or they ventured to the Iberian colonies in the Americas where the Inquisition eventually followed them.
Generally, it is only those who descend from Eastern Sephardim and North African Sephardim who carry surnames which typically identify the surname (and thus the carrier of the surname) as being of Jewish origins. The other descendants of Sephardic Jews (those descended from Western Sephardim, and especially those who are Sephardic Bnei Anusim and Neo-Western Sephardim) almost always carry "Old Christian" Spanish surnames or Portuguese surnames because they became nominal Christians, whether intermittently or permanently.
Especially for Western Sephardim, Sephardic Bnei Anusim, and Neo-Western Sephardim, only a very and extremely limited number of surnames carried by are exclusively Jewish or "New Christian" surnames being capable of, on their own, indicating Jewish origins of the surname or the surname-carrier. The great majority of the surnames of persons in these groups are, per se, Old Christian surnames, and these surnames alone cannot indicate a Jewish origin without congregational membership (if the person is a Western Sephardic Jew), or accompanying genealogical documentation, family traditions and customs, and/or Genealogical DNA testing (if the person is a Sephardic Ben/Bat Anusim or a newly reverted Neo-Western Sephardic Jew).
Although it is true that a few surnames among those specifically mentioned above became popularly adopted by New Christians (including, most notably the surname Pérez, because of its similarity to the Hebrew surname Peretz), such popularly adopted surnames by New Christians remain Old Christian surnames in origin, and carrying these surnames does not by itself indicate Jewish ancestry.
This phenomenon is much the same as is the situation with surnames which are typically considered to be Ashkenazi "Jewish" surnames. Most "Jewish" surnames among Ashkenazi Jews are not in fact "Jewish" per se, but are simply German or Slavic surnames (including so-called "Jewish" names like Goldberg) which were adopted by Ashkenazi Jews, some of which became so overwhelmingly carried by Jews that they came to be seen as "Jewish", although there are gentile carriers of those same surnames, because it is with those gentile families that the surnames originated to begin with. Only some surnames found among Ashkenazi Jews today are surnames which are exclusively "Jewish" surnames being capable of, on their own, indicating Jewish origins of the carrier.
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