In 2015 the Israeli Knesset held a conference exploring how to proceed with the reconnection between Israel and the growing number of B’nai Anusim who desire to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Shimon Peres, former President and Prime Minister of Israel, said that the “Descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities are a unique part of the tapestry that makes up the Jewish nation. Anusim are our past, our present and our future. They are part of our story, the Jewish story and the next chapter in Jewish history should include this historic reconnection.”
B’nai Anusim are the descendants of Jews who were forced to abandon their faith and heritage in order to survive the horrific persecutions in Spain and Portugal prior to and during the Spanish Inquisition. Anusim is a Hebrew word that means “forced ones”. The term refers to Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Catholicism against their will during a period of time from the late 1300s through the 1800s. B’nai, plural of ben, is a Hebrew word meaning sons, or as in this case descendants. Today, B’nai Anusim comprises a substantial percentage of the Hispanic population throughout the American continents.
Benzion Netanyahu, the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was a renowned Jewish historian whose field of expertise was the history of Jews in Spain. He authored several books on the subject of the Spanish Inquisition and Anusim. Benzion estimated that there are approximately 66 million Anusim in Diaspora.
A recent genetic study of people from five Latin American countries revealed that at least a quarter of the population contained Jewish ancestry. However, according to DNA authorities, these numbers do not include many Latinos whose Jewish DNA has become hidden due to widespread intermarriage and assimilation.
Rabbi Peter Tarlow, chairman of the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations and Crypto-Jewish Studies at Texas A&M, has studied the plight of B’nai Anusim extensively and has traveled throughout Latino America meeting with B’nai Anusim who are inquiring of their Jewish connections and heritage. Rabbi Tarlow said the original Spanish settlers in Texas and Mexico were Jews who hid their religion because of hardship and persecution. Rabbi Tarlow estimates that 80 percent of all Hispanics in south Texas have Jewish roots.
A committee appointed by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister recently stated that there are approximately 95 million people around the world who descended from Jews but who no longer identify themselves as Jews. However, Ashley Perry, who served as Director General of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the
Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities, says those numbers are most likely higher. Perry, who also heads up Reconectar, an organization that purposes to reconnect B’nai Anusim with their estranged Jewish heritage, says there are possibly 100 million B’nai Anusim alone, with most of them living in the Americas. Perry stated that there is a “tremendous awakening among the descendants who want in some way to reconnect with their roots, their people, the Jewish world and Israel.”
Rabbi Isaac Abravanel was a leading figure during the 1400s in Spain. He was a finance assistant to King Ferdinand and played a vital role in the exploration voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Abravanel wrote in his commentaries to Ezekiel that the ingathering of the exiles will include not only those who are part of the community of Israel, but also those who were compelled to leave the faith. “In the End of Days,” he wrote, “the prophet foresaw that God would awaken in the hearts of the Anusim a desire to return to Him.”