Starting about two generations ago as a curiosity, and a relatively minor one at that, a scattered but global phenomenon is gradually becoming a major force that is redefining Jewish reality. Millions of individuals who in the past would have been regarded as irretrievably lost to the Jewish people are now visibly in contact with it, and some of them or their descendants are actively returning to the fold. At the same time, many more persons or groups with at best very distant Jewish connections are strengthening those connections and moving closer to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Even if only a small part of those with such affinities pursue some form of identification with the Jews, the demographic and cultural result will be momentous, an influx possibly on the scale of tens of millions of people wishing to forge strong ties with the Jewish people and, in a significant number of cases, to join it outright.
In both scope and intensity, this is a situation unprecedented in Jewish history, and certainly at any time since the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago. Yet because it is still diffuse, and by nature disorganized, it is also largely misunderstood.
Having headed the first official Israeli government body to investigate this development, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing it in depth and up close. Our five-member special committee was created in 2015 by the Israel Ministry for Diaspora Affairs; two years later, we submitted our findings to both the ministry and the cabinet. What follows is a history, a synthesis, and a set of conclusions about the significance of this phenomenon and what needs to be done in order to meet the wholly welcome challenge that it presents to world Jewry and to the state of Israel.
I. The Jewish City
For our purposes here, we may liken the Jewish people today to an ancient city that, after long periods of stasis and decline, is now newly thriving and open, gradually outgrowing the old city walls, expanding into adjacent valleys and plains, with new neighborhoods sprouting up spontaneously on its outskirts awaiting incorporation into the metropolis.
Let’s begin by mapping this new landscape, moving from the old center to the outer rings—mindful that, as on any map, the constituent elements are not symmetrical and sometimes overlap significantly.
At the core, there are the 14-odd million people around the world who are accepted by all as Jewish. Of these, about half live in Israel, which has itself emerged as the indisputable center and first circle of contemporary Jewish life. Israeli Jews, besides inhabiting the globe’s only fully committed Jewish society, enjoy political sovereignty and an unparalleled array of religious, cultural, and intellectual means of Jewish expression. They are also by far the most demographically robust component of the worldwide people: about two-thirds of all Jewish children born each year are Israelis.
Also in the core, occupying the second circle, are the existing Jewish communities of the Diaspora. These present a multi-varied patchwork, from minute dying remnants in small cities of Greece or the Caribbean to very large and vibrant communities in places like New York and Paris. Although still numbering about half of the Jewish people, almost all Diaspora communities are experiencing a decades-long numerical decline that shows no sign of halting and that, unchanged, will eventually result in the loss of up to half their numbers within a generation. The exceptions are those communities, as in larger U.S. cities, still sufficiently flourishing to remain vigorous for the foreseeable future.
Until two or three generations ago, these first two circles would in themselves have made up almost all of the world’s self-identified Jewish people, with, in the Diaspora, a more or less clear division between Jews and the society at large. As for those born Jews who no longer were to be found in the core, by their own volition or by reason of their progenitors’ decision to leave, in past times they would likely have become adherents of another religion or at least have concealed their Jewish descent, which if disclosed could represent a liability among Christian or Islamic majorities.
In the past two centuries, while religious persecution waned, a new and potent factor—a virulent strain of secular anti-Semitism—emerged to induce many, mainly in Europe, to cut ties with their old community. But after the end of World War II and the revelations of Nazi atrocity, most of the Western world underwent a dramatic shift in attitude. The next decades witnessed a widespread societal discrediting of anti-Semitism along with the adoption of a more tolerant attitude toward minorities in general; the birth of an independent Jewish state; and, eventually, the fall of the Communist bloc with its own ruthless if often covert brand of anti-Semitism.
This brings us to the mixed picture of the present day, which has seen the reemergence in some quarters of old-fashioned anti-Semitism and the birth in other, more advanced quarters of dangerously new forms of the disease. Yet for many people, what with the visibly strong presence of the Jewish state and the attraction still exercised by Jewish civilization and the Jewish way of life, the positive appeal of a Jewish identity now outweighs its real or imagined drawbacks.
It’s within that framework that we can turn to the burgeoning areas outside the old core.
The third circle is composed of an estimated nine or ten million people who collectively may be best defined as persons eligible for citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return. That law, enacted by the new state in 1950, enables every Jew so inclined to return to the ancestral land and automatically assume citizenship there. (The Hebrew word aliyah, meaning “ascent,” designates the act of “return.”)
In its original formulation, to which further amendments and court rulings have accreted over the years, the Law of Return purposely cast a rather wide and loose net. The intent was not to exclude individuals whose own Jewish descent was uncertain or disputed, or who were married to non-Jews. The law did, however, come to draw the line at an individual’s conversion to another religion, an act that in the eyes of the state expressed a willing and purposive abandonment of the Jewish people. Consequently, not only recent converts (including so-called Messianic Jews or Jews for Jesus) but also applicants whose parents or grandparents had converted to another religion would not qualify for automatic eligibility under the law.
The Law of Return thus includes within its definitional compass non-Jews who are first-degree relatives of Jews (such as a spouse or a child). It also embraces many individuals and families who are connected to the Jewish people but not necessarily Jewish themselves by halakhah (Jewish religious law). These range from Jews who are formally recognized as such only by some Jewish communities or religious denominations—like those that accept the criterion of patrilineal descent alongside the traditional norm of descent from a Jewish mother—to persons who, while not themselves Jewish, can trace their descent to at least one Jewish grandparent (as long as there has been no conversion to another religion along the line).
In this last category, the largest single cohort comprises many individuals from the former Soviet Union, where intermarriage without conversion was widespread for generations; a real-life example is Roman Abramovich, the Russian-born billionaire businessman, son to a Jewish father and an ethnic-Russian mother. Among those eligible under the law who are definitely not Jewish but are married to Jews, one might name the American film director Quentin Tarantino whose wife, Daniella Pick, is a Jewish Israeli.
Clearly, the current list of qualifications under the Law of Return can produce sometimes paradoxical results. Thus, a Christian married to a Jew might be deemed eligible under the law while a person recognized as halakhically Jewish, and even self-defining as Jewish, might be declared ineligible. Two concrete examples: Chelsea Clinton, a Christian married to a Jew (Marc Mezvinsky), is eligible, as will be her children and grandchildren; but Laurent Fabius, the former French prime minister, both of whose Jewish parents converted to Christianity after World War II but who regards himself as Jewish, is a Jew under the strict halakhic definition, and was never actively Christian, is ineligible.
The hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to Israel hailing from Russia or Ukraine, who have been admitted under the Law of Return and many of whom are the products of intermarriage, present a particular challenge to the country’s establishment. Still to be found is an efficient and timely way of coping with those among them who wish either to convert or simply to prove their Jewishness to the rabbinic authorities in charge of such personal and family matters as marriage, divorce, burial, and the like.
And this brings us into the tangled relations between state law and religious law or, to speak institutionally, the Israeli government and Israel’s chief rabbinate. (To complicate matters further, the latter is also an arm of the former.) To see how all of this plays out, let’s continue with our story.
In the fourth circle of the Jewish city is a population whose size is hard to establish but is estimated to lie anywhere between five and ten million people. These individuals have direct and demonstrable links to the Jewish people but are ineligible to become Israelis under the Law of Return. In the main, they are descendants of converts or of intermarriages in which, even if the Jewish spouse did not convert to another religion, the children have been brought up as Christians or Muslims.
To get a sense of the extent of this population we might list some hypothetical applicants. In addition to the just-mentioned Laurent Fabius, they would include the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (the grandson of a Greek Jew who emigrated to France and converted); the former British prime minister James Callaghan (a Baptist whose paternal grandmother was Jewish); the former U.S. senator John Kerry (grandson of Fritz and Ida Cohen who came to America from the Austro-Hungarian empire and converted); the former World Chess champion Garry Kasparov (son of a Russian Jew and an Armenian mother, who regards himself as Christian and Russian); the former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (grandson of the German Jewish industrialist Ludwig Gumpel, whose illegitimate son Gustav was raised as a Lutheran); John Elkann (chairman and majority shareholder of Italy’s Fiat Chrysler corporation, son of the French Jewish journalist Alain Elkann but raised Christian by his mother); and the sisters Esther and Alicia Koplowitz, the richest women in Spain thanks in part to the business empire built by their father Ernesto Koplowitz (a Polish Jew who immigrated to Spain and converted to Catholicism).
Such second- or third-generation descendants of converts to other religions, or of mixed marriages, are of course nothing new in Jewish history. What is new is the fact that increasingly so many among them have taken to openly acknowledging their Jewish origins and, frequently, have become publicly supportive of one or more Israeli and/or Jewish cause. Some have even begun to move closer to Judaism, becoming converts themselves (as in the case of the swimmer and twelve-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres, and of Cameron Kerry, brother of John Kerry), or raising their children as Jews after marrying Jewish spouses (as in the case of the American actor Robert Downey, Jr., the son of a lapsed Jewish father).
Alongside these examples we can also include within the fourth circle many individuals who are more distant—commonly, fourth- or fifth-generation—descendants of intermarried Jews and who in principle, since the Law of Return recognizes eligibility only up to the third generation, fall outside its embrace. To be sure, it is uncommon for an individual to be aware of such a distant forebear, but the increased availability of online genealogical information and of DNA tests makes such knowledge easier to obtain than in the past.
Two prominent Englishmen we might name in this connection are the current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose maternal great-grandfather, the paleographer Avery Lowe, was of Russian Jewish origins, as well as the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, whose great-great-grandfather was a Jewish banker named Emile Levita. Other examples include the late actor and martial-arts champion Bruce Lee, whose great-grandfather was recently discovered by a biographer to have been a Dutch Jew named Mozes Bosman Hertog, and the American actress Jessica Biel, who while participating in a television program about family origins was informed that her paternal great-grandfather was the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants.
Although such distant descent does not make one a Jew, the discovery often begets an interest in, and sometimes even a measure of affinity for or identification with, the Jewish people and its faith.
Another group within this circle are descendants of anusim (the Hebrew term for forced converts to another religion). They come in two varieties, “black” and “red.” The former are Jews from Eastern Europe who, with or without a formal conversion to Christianity, hid their identity while under black (i.e., Nazi) rule and later continued to do so under red (Communist) rule, until it was rediscovered by their children or grandchildren after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. In Poland, the numbers of reverting Jews from red families are so high as to make up the majority of the Warsaw Jewish community. The same is true of other East European countries, especially Hungary. The same phenomenon extends to descendants of both black and red anusim who emigrated to the West.
Although Jewish and Israeli law will overlook a conversion that can be shown to have been undertaken under threat, many individuals two or three generations removed from such an event, or who only later in life become aware of their descent from Jews, are unlikely to have ties to the Jewish religion and would find it a struggle to reconnect with their people. But they sometimes do. An instructive example is the famed British playwright Tom Stoppard, born Tomas Strassler but raised by his Czech-born mother and a British Christian stepfather. After the fall of Communism, he found out that all of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in concentration camps. During a long and successful career, he had never addressed overtly Jewish themes. But just recently the now eighty-two-year-old Stoppard has completed a new play, Leopoldstadt, set among the Jewish community of Vienna in the first half of the 20th century.
Then there are more complicated cases in which even more distant descendants are regarded by others as Jewish. This happens mainly in areas of the former Soviet Union where both religious affiliation and conversion were officially discouraged for generations even as formal documents included a designation (Evrei, “Hebrew”) marking Jewish ethnic identity, generally transmitted through the patrilineal line. Today, according to Jewish Agency officials, there are in the former Soviet Union (FSU) hundreds of thousands fourth- or fifth-generation descendants of Jews who have had little or no direct contact with a Jewish community or knowledge of Judaism but are nevertheless identified as Jewish by themselves or by others in their society.
Some of these individuals do become involved in local Jewish life, and in places where most of the old Jewish community is gone, they may even become leading fixtures of the local synagogue and active in local affairs. The children of such distant descendants may even receive a Jewish education and take part in community events, all the while being ineligible for aliyah under the Law of Return.
The current attitude of most Jewish and Israeli institutions to this particular phenomenon is evasive at best; but sooner or later it will no longer be possible to ignore it, especially if more of these individuals assume increasingly prominent roles in Jewish communities.
We now arrive at the fifth circle, numbering tens of millions of people who are aware to some degree of an even more distant Jewish ancestry. By far the largest component of this group are the descendants of Iberian Jews forcibly converted to Christianity starting in the 14th century.
A minority of these conversos (the term now favored by scholars) or their descendants later returned openly to Judaism when circumstances permitted; we’ll come to them in a moment. But the majority did not. Some among the latter found their new lives as Christians or Muslims agreeable; many others conformed gradually and more or less willingly to outside pressure; still others, while outwardly conforming, secretly kept alive for generations their Jewish identity and certain Jewish practices—like, most commonly, lighting candles on Friday night—eventually losing the awareness that these were specifically Jewish rather than merely familial traditions.
Descendants of the last-named are to be found today not only in the Iberian peninsula but also in the many places once under the control of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, including not only all of Latin America and certain southern areas of the U.S. that were formerly parts of Mexico but also the Netherlands and southern Italy as well as smaller regions in Asia (like the former Portuguese colony in Goa) and Africa (like the island state of Príncipe and São Tomé). Nor should we overlook other instances of forced conversion in England and France and later in Germany, Italy, and areas of Eastern Europe, as well as in several Islamic countries.
Today, some individuals in this broad category take the hard path of a full return to Judaism. But even among those who do not wish to do so, many nevertheless tend to become active supporters of Jewish causes and the state of Israel.
Now let’s revisit the minority of conversos who, after successfully maintaining their covert Jewish identity for generations, reverted to Judaism when it became possible to do so. Their ranks included founders of the Amsterdam Jewish community when freedom was won from Spanish rule. They also included the crypto-Jews from northern Brazil who reverted to Judaism when the area came briefly under Dutch rule, only, with the return of the Portuguese, to flee to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Among the descendants of these Brazilian crypto-Jews were such American luminaries as Benjamin Cardozo, Emma Lazarus, and others too numerous to list.
Perhaps the most famous example of group return is the story of Belmonte, a remote rural community in northern Portugal where a number of families secretly held to dwindling Jewish traditions for centuries, unaware there even remained any other Jews in the world. So remote from mainstream Judaism had their own internal practices and liturgies grown that a chance encounter in 1917 with a traveling Polish-Jewish engineer almost failed to pierce the veil of mutual incomprehension, until the two sides hit upon the only remaining common piece of liturgy—the Hebrew appellation for God in the sh’ma formula—and were finally able to acknowledge their kinship.
The Belmonte case illustrates how crypto-Jewish practices sustained for centuries under oppression, without benefit of the spiritual leadership of scholars and rabbis and confined almost exclusively to the household, might make a modern return fraught with difficulty. One community that successfully overcame that hurdle was the Jews of Meshhed in eastern Iran, who in 1839 were ordered to choose between expulsion and forced conversion to Islam. While a minority (among them my own ancestors) chose the perilous journey to an unknown future in Afghanistan, the majority elected to stay put, outwardly converting to Islam while for the most part, for nearly a century, remaining secretly Jewish, observing Jewish practices and marrying cousins. In the mid-20th century, they returned openly to Judaism.
Smaller groups long isolated from the wider Jewish world fared less well. The most famous are the Jews of Kaifeng, a city in northeastern China that served as an imperial capital when the Silk Road was in its prime. Jews originating from Persia and central Asia who settled there in or around the 12th century, they thrived for several subsequent centuries and were endowed by one Ming emperor with distinct surnames by which their eight clans are still identifiable today.
But as the Silk Road trade became disrupted and the city lost its importance, the community, despite facing neither persecution nor any pressure to convert, gradually declined. By the time the Kaifeng synagogue burned down in the 19th century, there was no community left to rebuild it. Today there remain perhaps a thousand people who can trace their ancestry back to the eight clans, and recently a few dozen have actively sought to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Some twenty are in the process of conversion to Judaism, and a few have come to Israel and served in the IDF.
What are the prospects for other descendants of forced converts, or indeed of long-lost ancestors in general? The numbers of people of some Jewish descent in Latin America alone are staggering. Various genetic studies suggest that about a quarter of the population in countries from Brazil to Colombia, from Peru to Mexico, bear measurable genetic traces of Jewish ancestry at levels of 5 percent or higher. This amounts to upward of 100 million people with some degree of Jewish ancestry.
How does this vast number translate into an actual awareness of Jewish roots? An organization named “Reconectar” (Reconnecting) has for years gathered and analyzed Internet activity related to searches for information on Jewish descent. It has come to the conclusion that about 30 million people in Latin America are aware at some level that they might have some Jewish component in their identity; of these, more than a third, some ten million, self-identify to some degree as being of Jewish descent or even as Jews. Naturally, the vast majority of those ten million will never take any further step, but if even only 2 or 3 percent embark upon a path to reconnect with their heritage, the demographic impact will be significant.
And in fact this is beginning to happen: scores of small communities have sprung up that are eager to learn more about their Jewish past, to adopt Jewish practices, and to move ever closer to the Jewish people. Our committee interviewed many members of such communities. In Colombia alone their combined membership is now estimated at upward of 20,000 souls, outnumbering by more than four to one the 4,500 members of the “regular” Jewish community. (In Colombia as in the rest of Latin America, a strong traditional resistance to performing conversions to Judaism has kept these groups separated from the established Jewish community. I will return to this issue later on.)
Similar groups of descendants of forced converts have appeared on the scene in many other Latin American countries, most prominently in Mexico and Brazil. I’ve met personally with representatives of twenty such groups from Brazil, the majority of whose members are lawyers, pharmacists, judges, and other professionals. While not currently pursuing anything like a full conversion, they nevertheless tend to be very supportive of Jewish causes and of Israel, and they hope for some kind of recognition on the part of the Jewish establishment and especially the Jewish state—not least for the sake of their children, for whom they seek a Jewish education. At the moment, the only organized help they receive comes from small organizations like the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel, which lack anything like the resources necessary for addressing the sheer numbers involved.
We’re nearly done enumerating the Jewish city. The sixth and final circle is composed of groups who either claim a very distant and unprovable historical connection with the Jewish past, such as a long-lost Jewish community or tribe, or who assert an affinity with the Jewish people on the basis not of an historical connection but of a spiritual one.
Prominent examples of the first kind are the B’nei Menashe of northeastern India, whose story I’ll relate later, and the Lemba of southern Africa. Examples of the second kind are the Judaizing communities of Subbotniks in Russia, who gradually moved from Christian Orthodoxy to Judaism, with many members coming to the Land of Israel in the late 19th and early 20th century; the small San Nicandro community of southern Italy, most of whose members converted en masse and came to Israel soon after 1948; and the Abayudaya of Uganda, who are still seeking recognition from Jewish institutions and the state of Israel after living for decades as a distinct community adhering to Jewish practices.
Alongside such groups are others looking for some degree of learning and emulation of Jewish practices and beliefs but without proceeding to join the Jewish people. Examples are mostly ex-Christian groups usually described as “Noahides,” based on the talmudic term for non-Jews who lead a moral and just life. And then there are all of the individuals and families around the world who without any communal affiliation, but only out of their own spiritual, intellectual, or personal reasons, feel drawn to the Jewish people and choose actively to join it.
II. Enter Zionism
None of these circles now growing around the Jewish core is a completely new development. In the long reach of Jewish history one can name successive instances of fellow travelers of and/or recruits to Judaism, from the “God-fearers” in the Greco-Roman world who observed certain Jewish religious rites and traditions without becoming full converts, to various individuals and groups of proselytes among the elite and royal families of the Hellenistic Adiabene kingdom (modern-day Kurdistan) in the 1st century CE, the Himyarite kingdom (southern Arabia) in the 5th century, the Khazar kingdom (southern Russia) in the 9th century, and numerous others, mainly individuals, thereafter. But since the rise of Christianity and Islam, both of which persecuted apostates, such occurrences became increasingly rare.
Meanwhile, Judaism itself has not been an actively proselytizing religion for millennia—the exception being the period of Jewish sovereignty in antiquity when significant numbers did attach themselves to the House of Israel. Since then, conversions to Judaism have always represented a small “trickle” compared with the much greater number of Jews “leaking” away. During the 20th century, the trickle gradually grew, but until recently it was still relatively negligible as compared with the leakage, especially through intermarriage. But now that the numbers of prospective returnees and converts have leaped upward, possibly even competing with the numbers of those leaving, we find that factors internal to Judaism, in the form of foot dragging, resistance to, and active discouragement of proselytes, often stand in the way.
The most forbidding situation exists in Latin America, where, as I mentioned earlier, conversions to Judaism are virtually unheard of. In 1927 the Jewish community in Argentina, alarmed by a high rate of allegedly insincere conversions to Judaism on the part of Christians seeking to marry Jews—issued a takkanah, or halakhic ordinance, according to which conversions to Judaism would not be performed in that country “until the end of time.” The ordinance was soon adopted throughout the rest of Latin America, where to this day local Orthodox communities essentially uphold a prohibition of all conversions.
The unfortunate result has been that in the area of the world with the largest numbers of those seeking to join the Jewish people, the gate has been closed shut. Latin Americans wishing to convert usually do so in Israel or the U.S., and only then return to their country. This situation obviously poses a grave challenge not just to the Jews concerned but, in the event of intra-Jewish disputes, or of some question as to who represents the Jewish community as a whole, to the host country’s authorities as well. The most likely result will be that all such issues will land one day in the lap of the state of Israel, and that everyone will expect it to decide the matter.
And here, finally, is where Zionism and the sovereign Jewish state of Israel enter the picture.
Early on, some Zionist figures recognized what a successful “ingathering of exiles,” as the traditional phrase has it, would entail. In 1924, almost a century ago, a Committee for the Dispersed of Israel was founded by a small group committed to the enterprise as vital to the Jewish future. Among them were Jacob Faitlovitch, a member of the religious-Zionist Mizraḥi movement; Naḥum Slouschz, from the founding generation of Herzlian Zionists; and, most prominently, Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi, an outstanding leader of Labor Zionism and future president of the state of Israel.
After the establishment of the state, the committee, now renamed as an “association,” was active primarily in establishing the eligibility under the Law of Return for isolated communities like the B’nei Israel of India and the Beita Israel of Ethiopia whose credentials were disputed by parts of the Israeli establishment. The group was at its height during Ben-Zvi’s presidency from 1952 to his death in 1963; his patronage gained it some visibility and a measure of cooperation from official institutions like the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Organization.
But the massive challenges to the young state in those years and the limited resources at its disposal meant that little could be done. By the mid-1960s, when national circumstances were more propitious, the initiative’s founders had died or retired, and no replacements had appeared on the scene. Since then, the cultivation, education, and promotion of isolated communities have been carried forward by small organizations like (in the 1970s and 80s) Amishav, headed by the late Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, and (since 2003) the aforementioned Shavei Israel, headed by Michael Freund.
Still, even without an official program for actively seeking out and assisting those wishing to strengthen their ties to the Jewish people, the issue has never been too far from Israeli decision-making. As the massive ingathering of larger Diaspora populations went forward during the state’s early years, handfuls from hitherto remote and isolated communities began coming as well, sparking disputes as to their halakhic status and thus their eligibility for aliyah under the Law of Return. Even though these communities were clearly highly traditionalist in their outlook, and had endured for many generations as Jews both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others, the rabbinic establishment largely looked askance at their acceptability.
This was particularly true of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis as well as of many rabbis and politicians in the National-Religious (modern-Orthodox) party, an integral component of the country’s political establishment. As for that establishment itself, it largely took the expedient route of ignoring these newcomers from relatively unknown communities.
Fortunately, a number of prominent rabbinical figures within Israel’s Mizraḥi population stepped in and, over the decades, have proved the decisive authorities in these matters. Their principled position is, in a nutshell, that as long as such communities are willing to adhere to traditional Jewish teachings, the Jewish state is obligated to accept them as fully Jewish. Foremost among these decisors have been two Mizraḥi chief rabbis, Ben-Zion M.H. Uziel and, more recently, Ovadiah Yosef. Other important figures include Rabbi David H. Shloush, the author of halakhic rulings vis-à-vis the B’nei Israel of India and Beita Israel of Ethiopia, and Rabbi Haim Amsalem, who has gone even farther in his groundbreaking Zera Yisrael (“The Seed of Israel,” 2010), arguing that it is religiously incumbent on the Jews and thus on their state to seek out and encourage into the fold non-Jews who are descended, no matter how distantly, from Jews.
For these rabbis, it is axiomatic that the state, as the guardian of the Jewish nation, has inherited a transcendent halakhic and spiritual responsibility to realize the biblical vision of renewed Jewish sovereignty and the ingathering of exiles. In welcoming such communities not merely as a practical good but in fulfillment of the words of the prophets, they have succeeded in influencing not only hesitant state authorities but even the bulk of the religious establishment.
In the early years of the state, the most prominent controversy was over the B’nei Israel community of Jews from India’s western coast (not far from Mumbai). When members of that community started to arrive in Israel and several prominent rabbis declined to recognize their Jewishness, it was Rabbi Uziel, joined in that instance by the Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yitzḥak HaLevi Herzog, who declared the community to be unequivocally Jewish.
In a replay of the same scenario a generation later, objections were again raised when the status of the Beita Israel community of Ethiopia was questioned in the early 1970s. It was again the Mizraḥi chief rabbi, by then Ovadiah Yosef, who broke the impasse. Braving pressure from both the government, mainly in the person of Minister of the Interior Joseph Burg, and of most other rabbinic authorities, he stated his conclusion: “I decree they are Jews, and we must save them from assimilation and intermarriage and quicken their aliyah to the land.” In subsequent years, Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzḥak Shamir brought virtually all of the Beita Israel community to Israel.
III. Israel as Judge
These decrees by chief rabbis of Israel, later adopted as policy by the Israeli government and embraced by Israeli society, highlight the crucial role that Israel has assumed in determining who is to be regarded as part of the Jewish people and how one is to join it. After all, there is no lack of Jewish communities and authorities in the Diaspora, and ultimately nothing can prevent some of them from either recognizing or rejecting the Jewishness of individuals or whole communities. In truth, however, and for reasons both practical and symbolic, there is now only one judge. Since its creation, the Jewish state has become, in such matters, the measure and the standard.
This accumulated authority also explains why any notion of a full separation of religion and state in Israel is impossible. The country’s most basic law, and in one real sense the justification for its very existence, is the Law of Return. It is therefore incumbent on the state to decide whom the law covers and whom it does not. Yet, by the mixed nature of Jewish identity—the Jews being at once a people and that people’s faith—such decisions cannot be made without involving religious considerations. Thus, so long as Israel is a Jewish state, it will have to accept some form of religious authority as a component of its standards for who is and who is not to be regarded as part of the Jewish people—and what is to be done about it.
In practice, irrespective of political conflicts and pressures, Israeli governments have shown that in the right circumstances they are willing to go even beyond the letter of the Law of Return and make special provisions. Thus, in the last decades, groups from the fourth, fifth, and sixth circles, who are definitely not encompassed within the Law of Return, have nevertheless been accepted by Israeli authorities into the Jewish people and state.
The first such community, from among the fourth circle, were the Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews (that is, Beita Israel) who had converted to Christianity over the last century or so. Since the departure of virtually all of the Beita Israel to Israel during the 1980s and 1990s, a movement started among the Falash Mura for reverting to Judaism and claiming that their original conversion had been, to one degree or another, performed under duress and should thus be considered void.
But it was also clear that the Falash Mura could not simply be given blanket recognition as Jews. Again it was the Mizraḥi chief rabbi, then Shlomo Amar, who devised a solution, ruling that any member of the Falash Mura who was related to a member of Beita Israel through matrilineal descent could be actively supported as a valid returnee to Judaism after a period of study.
By this special dispensation, a path was opened to justify eligibility through means not included in the Law of Return. In 2004, the cabinet duly adopted a plan to bring groups of Falash Mura to Israel after gaining an explicit commitment on their part to undergo a year-long regimen of study and conversion to Judaism, after which they would be recognized as returning Jews. Tens of thousands have already “graduated’ from this curriculum.
Another case is that of applicants who can demonstrate an unbroken chain of matrilineal descent from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in the distant past—i.e., conversos. Proof of such forced conversion can sometimes be traced to the historical records of the Inquisition, which detailed cases of trial and punishment, the latter often by gruesome death, of Jewish converts or their descendants who had been discovered by the Church to be secretly keeping Jewish practices or to have fully reverted to Judaism. To date, understandably enough, very few individuals have successfully applied under this rubric and been recognized as Jews by Israeli authorities.
But there is at least one group, belonging to the fifth circle, from the Spanish town of Palma de Majorca whose case is somewhat different. On this small Mediterranean island, descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity were for centuries kept apart from the rest of local society, which designated them as Xuetas (pigs). Moreover, watchful church and state authorities compiled exact records of the community’s members through the generations, making certain that they continued to live apart in their assigned area and married only among themselves.
In 2011, some members of this community, which now numbers about 18,000, brought evidence of their history and requested that as the segregated descendants of forced converts they be recognized as Jews. Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, chief of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court in Bnei Brak, indicated in a formal letter that all those among the Xuetas who could document their ancestors’ forced conversions were to be so recognized. As Karelitz’s rabbinical court is notoriously stricter than those of the state rabbinate, those who choose to apply will probably be recognized by the latter as well.
A third case, belonging to the sixth circle, is that of the already mentioned B’nei Menashe. Since at least the 1950s, this group from among the Mizo people of northeastern India have professed their descent from the biblical tribe of Menasseh, one of the ten Israelite tribes exiled by the Assyrians in 722 BCE and presumed lost forever. Since the 1960s, they have increasingly adopted mainstream Jewish practices.
According to their own account, the B’nei Menashe were still preserving ancient Jewish traditions in the 19th century when Western missionaries converted them to Christianity by informing them that all other Jews in the world had already adopted that faith. When, in 1948, news of the birth of Israel reached them and proved the missionaries’ claim false, groups among the Mizo started to revert to the traditions of their forefathers.
Scholars may and do question this account, but belief in their descent from the lost tribe of Menasseh is quite firmly held by the group. Starting especially in the 1980s, as many as 10,000 gradually adopted mainstream Jewish identity and practice. By 2005, a track was devised in Israel similar to the one for the Falash Mura. Since then, by cabinet decision, small groups of B’nei Menashe have come to Israel with the explicit commitment to undergo a year-long process of study and conversion to Judaism, after which they will be recognized as Jews under the Law of Return. To date about 3,000 already live in Israel, while about 7,000 still await their turn in India.
Also from the sixth circle is the case of the B’nei Moshe community of Peru (also known as “Inca” Jews), which claims not a historical ethnic connection to the Jewish people but rather one that is only spiritual. The community originated in 1958 when brothers studying the Bible in the city of Trujillo in northern Peru came to the realization that the Jewish way was the true one; gathering around them 500 or so others, they started and steadfastly continued to adhere strictly to Jewish practice. But the longstanding unwillingness of Latin American Jewish communities to perform conversions temporarily blocked that path.
A solution involving Israel was finally devised: to avoid more friction with the local community, a non-Peruvian rabbinical court would perform the conversion, and B’nei Moshe members would then emigrate to Israel. And so it has transpired: by 2004, the majority of the community had moved to Israel; several hundreds more are waiting for the complex machinations of Israeli politics to permit them to follow.
To conclude this recital: at any point in time today, many thousands of individuals are undergoing conversion in various Jewish communities around the world. Most are doing so in Israel. In its 70 years of existence, the Jewish state has already carried out more than 100,000 conversions—a number large enough to win for these converts, if we were to regard them as a single group, a place among the ten largest Jewish communities in the world.
IV. Unprecedented in Jewish History
The developments we’ve been scrutinizing are, to repeat, unprecedented in Jewish history. Never in the past have there been so many wishing to forge closer connections to the Jewish people, and never have so many joined it. Nor is the process likely to grind to a halt any time soon. To the contrary, for reasons we’ve touched on but that bear revisiting, it is more likely to grow exponentially in size and intensity,
The maturation of the information age, and especially of the Internet, means that even previously isolated individuals or groups residing in remote rural areas now enjoy increasingly easy access to a rapidly burgeoning array of resources. The incessant media presence of Israel alone, and more moderately of Jewish issues, means that news of the reputation and deeds of the Jewish people now reaches places where until recently very little, if anything, was seen or heard of them.
Alongside and accompanying this phenomenal growth of resources is the increased accessibility of genealogical information like family trees, historical documents, and academic studies, all of which provide opportunity for anyone seeking to investigate a possible Jewish familial connection. Also, as more and more official archives become available in electronic form, whether provincial records from small towns in Portugal or state papers from tsarist Russia, many will be able to establish such a connection and, with it, a new sense of personal identity and purpose.
Next, new advances in the field of DNA sequencing, together with the easy accessibility and falling prices of tests, will also play a part. Although more controversial and probabilistic than historical documents, the results of such tests have already brought millions of people around the world to contemplate the possibility of some Jewish ancestry, however remote, thereby kindling an interest in or even some nascent identification with the Jewish people.
Except perhaps in rare cases, none of this by itself will make anyone a Jew. But in many, it can and does create a sense of affinity that may remain dormant, or at the level of just an intriguing bit of family lore—or that, alternatively, may lead to the study of Jewish ideas and history, to an involvement in Jewish activity, and to an ever closer identification with the Jewish people.
All of this, from information once virtually unobtainable to most people but now often only a click away, has already resulted in the emergence of myriad individuals and communities seeking a connection, however faint. Soon they will number in the millions.
On the part of Jews and Jewish institutions, this matter requires serious attention and consideration. But, on that front, the news is nowhere near so hopeful.
In religious quarters, to begin there, hesitancy and bewilderment reign. There is no lack of discussion in traditional Jewish sources about the proper attitude both to “returning Jews” and to prospective converts to Judaism. Nevertheless, with the exception of the mainly Mizraḥi rabbis I’ve cited, very few halakhic authorities today are prepared to venture resolutely into the great reckoning that will be necessary to address the coming challenge in all of its complex diversity. Here, in this aloofness, ultra-Orthodox and ultra-liberal Jewish organizations make otherwise unlikely bed partners.
Similarly, the main Jewish organizations and the Israeli government have still not awakened to the sheer urgency of the matter. The occasional three-hour symposium or brief academic session, usually issuing neither in concrete steps nor in any form of sustained engagement, is hardly adequate for purposes of the research, the analysis, and the policy planning that must be undertaken.
Our own committee handed in its recommendations some time ago. (Its full report and recommendations can be found here,) Depending on circumstances, and on political will, the Israeli government may implement some of them, or all of them. But those recommendations were themselves circumscribed by the limited scope of our mission as defined by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, and they represent at most only a first step.
What substantive efforts, then, need to be undertaken?
First, get serious. The great reshaping of the Jewish “city” is already under way. It merits deep and concentrated discussion, not only within the various interested institutions in Israel and the Diaspora but across the Jewish public sphere where the subject has yet to be seriously introduced, let alone debated.
Nor is this an issue for a one-off conference or conversation. The work required is arduous, ongoing, and multifaceted, whether carried out by existing bodies or by new institutions unencumbered with prior interests and commitments.
Second, more and better information is needed on the contours of the outer circles in the Jewish city. As things stand now, it is often quite hard to separate hearsay from hard fact, and reliable information from wishful thinking. One can find hundreds of historical studies of the conversos and their progeny in the 16th and 17th centuries; much more difficult is finding more than a dozen studies of contemporary groups and communities, let alone any useful materials on the more remote ones. Indeed, there does not exist today even a single book-length study devoted to an overview of these new emerging circles on the periphery of the Jewish people.
The handful of small organizations and academic programs that have made attempts in this direction lack anything like the backing necessary to pursue their aims adequately. Another prime necessity, therefore, is the founding and support of an institute, or preferably more than one, devoted to studying these new Jewish realities.
Third, engagement. Institutional contact with the leaders of the relevant communities must be made by both Jewish organizations and the state of Israel. Many groups around the world lack even the most basic tools of Jewish education, and would avidly welcome any opportunity to learn Hebrew or to study Jewish history, the principles of the Jewish religion, or Israeli culture, not to mention the fundamentals of organizing a Jewish communal life. They and their members should be offered that opportunity, either in their present locales or by bringing select groups to Israel or other Jewish communities equipped for the task, or ideally by some mix of both.
I can hear the objections: so many existing Jewish communities in the Diaspora are struggling today. Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate resources on supporting them? A yawning divide looms between the Diaspora and Israel. Wouldn’t it be better to fund efforts aimed at healing the rift?
These objections should be turned around. Before us lies an opportunity. Encountering and welcoming the emerging masses in the Jewish periphery can open new paths to renewal and comity. Reaching out to individuals and communities on the outskirts, finding new ways to connect them with existing Jewish communities, encouraging the inflow of enthusiastic and committed newcomers, could energize many a languishing Diaspora community and create new bonds between the Diaspora and Israel, in the long run significantly boosting the spirit and strength of the Jewish people worldwide.
Over the centuries, many branches of the Jewish people have withered or been cut off, later to be remembered only as so many dry bones, lost without hope. Jews are now witnessing something yet unseen in their very long history: the bones are healing, coming together, and assuming bodily form, with sinews upon them and breath in their nostrils. We face the beginning of a restoration and flourishing of new-old branches of the House of Israel. On the response of our generation rests the outcome: whether this new Jewish world will be marked by mutual silence and division, by truculence and strife, or by brotherhood, joy, courage, and pride.
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More about: Aliyah, Bnei Menashe, Ethiopian Jews, Israel & Zionism, Latin America, South America, The Jewish World