A new global campaign has been launched to locate Bnei Anousim, Jews who were forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1391 and continued until 1497. The initiative, headed by Shavei Israel, has the potential to return millions of Jews to the global community in a massive ingathering of exiles. Estimates by the Jewish Agency have put the potential total population of Bnei Anusim at twice the present Jewish population.
“We are at the beginning of an historic turning point, one that will see millions of people throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world reconnecting with their Jewish roots,” said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, in a statement. “There are millions of people throughout Spain, Portugal, and Central and South America who are descended from Iberian Jews, and we believe it is time for the Jewish people to reach out to them.”
According to genetic studies conducted over the past decade, 20 percent of men in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) have Jewish ancestry. Similar studies in Brazil estimate that 5-10 million people there are descendants of Bnei Anousim.
Shavei Israel set off a wave of interest when the organization published a free Spanish-language practical guide to discovering Jewish heritage, “Do You Have Jewish Roots?”, which has been distributed to almost 10,000 people. It contains information on subjects such as how to conduct a genealogical search, traditionally Jewish names, names unique to Bnei Anusim, and identifying hidden Jewish customs.
The term “crypto-Judaism” describes the phenomenon of secretly observing Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith. Often, secret observance of Jewish customs and commandments can go on for many generations within a family. There have even been cases discovered of entire communities continuing to observe customs they no longer understand and don’t realize have Jewish origins.
Many Bnei Anusim keep Jewish burial customs, wrapping the deceased in white shrouds as opposed to coffins. Some dietary customs are clear indications of Jewish heritage. Many Bnei Anusim have an oral tradition of having an allergy to pork or not eating blood in the form of the traditional Spanish blood sausage. There have been cases of Bnei Anusim who refrained from eating leavened products during Holy Week, which coincides with the observance of Passover. Some Bnei Anusim relate to Saturday as their day of rest. Lighting candles on Friday night is another tradition that has lasted throughout many generations, even after the connection to Judaism has been lost.
The legacy of the Inquisition and hidden Jews is not a myth or a legend, but a reality recognized by the Spanish and Portuguese governments, which have extended an offer of citizenship to the millions of descendants of expelled Sephardic Jews.
This is not a uniquely European phenomenon. Many communities in remote corners of the globe have been discovered to have Jewish roots. The discovery of the Jews of Ethiopia led to a dramatic rescue mission by the State of Israel. The Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and most recently, the Bnei Menash Jews who arrived in India by way of China, have all been able to trace their roots back to a Jewish source.
Jews hide their identity not out of shame, but as a reaction to the anti-Semitism which has accompanied the Jewish people throughout their exile. During that time, they were scattered among the nations. Many were lost in their wanderings, intermarrying and converting, their descendants assimilating into their adopted cultures until their Jewish identity disappeared. Part of the messianic prophecy, the proof as well as the promise, is the ingathering of the exiles, a miracle that is happening in front of our eyes. These prophetic days are bringing back Jews from the farthest corners, reawakening Jewish souls that have forgotten their roots in the Holy Land.