Challenging Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Sephardi’ claims

Jpost – Opinion

The Judaism the crypto-Jews brought go the colonies, beginning in the early 1500s, was as diluted as the one they left behind.

By Daniel Santacruz
December 23, 2018 02:26

4 minute read.
US Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks up to participate in drawing a lottery

US Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks up to participate in drawing a lottery number for her new office on Capitol Hill November 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP)


Ashley Perry’s article, “What the Ocasio-Cortez ‘coming out’ can teach us,” published in Friday’s edition of this paper, is a study in naivete.

At a party on the final night of Hanukkah, Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected New York congresswoman, told guests that she had Sephardi heritage.

Her ludicrous claim cannot stand a rigorous historical and rabbinical examination. And, Perry, who is an activist and not a historian, does not challenge her but rather goes along with the charade.

He writes: “And while I am sure she is the product of an interesting array of ancestries and cultures, her Jewish heritage was maintained in fear and secrecy.”

By saying “fear and secrecy,” Perry is implying that practicing Judaism in secrecy, also known as crypto-Judaism, shaped the life of Ocasio-Cortez’s family and possibly that of others in Puerto Rico, where they hail from.

Judaism and Catholicism are practiced openly today in Portugal, Spain and the Americas, and there are no inquisitions to hide from. Although “fear and secrecy” make Ocasio-Cortez’s story more attractive, it is not historically faithful.

The only Latin American countries where crypto-Jews, also known as marranos, conversos or secret Jews, were found and tried were Mexico and Peru in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

During that period no cases of crypto-Judaism where found in Puerto Rico, which was under the jurisdiction of the Cartagena, Colombia tribunal of the Inquisition.

A quick chronological overview shows why the claims of Ocasio-Cortez and others Hispanics who claim an alleged Sephardi heritage do not agree with serious historical research.

The first wave of forced conversions of Jews to Catholicism took place in Spain after the massacres of 1391. The second took place in 1492 when they were confronted with the dilemma of staying as Catholics or leaving the country.

After 1492, when thousands of Jews left Spain, institutions like synagogues and schools practically disappeared and owning Hebrew books, like the Talmud, the Mishna and other sacred texts, was dangerous and evidence of Judaizing. Besides, after two generations, many conversos had lost touch with traditional Judaism.

The conversos began to rely on the Old Testament, which was available in Latin, or on others with a flimsy knowledge of Judaism. Historians note that few were versed in Hebrew. Rabbis and mohels were no longer available either.

As time passed, whatever form of Judaism they had retained, had been influenced decidedly by Catholicism. As historian Martin Cohen, an expert on crypto-Judaism in the Spanish colonies, said that by 1580 Spanish New Christians had been successfully absorbed into Catholicism and had all been baptized.

Fast forward to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Americas, among them Puerto Rico, between 1493 and 1825. It cannot be denied that the presence of conversos had a great influence on their economic development and their presence in the early days of the colonial period was appreciable. Tribunals of the Inquisition were established in the vice-royalty of Peru (all of South America, except Brazil), the vice-royalty of New Spain (Mexico, the southwestern US, Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines) and Cartagena, Colombia after the Spanish crown learned that Jews had settled in the colonies. As mentioned before, several were burned at stake in Mexico and Peru, while others reconciled.

The Judaism the crypto-Jews brought go the colonies, beginning in the early 1500s, was as diluted as the one they left behind.

Allan Metz, writing in Sephardim in the Americans, confirms that when he writes that the Judaizers of the colonial period regarded their beliefs as authentic Judaism, but “were really a wild blend of biblical Judaism, post-biblical reminiscences and Catholic influences.”

Another scholar, David Glitz, also takes a skeptical position when he writes in Secrecy and Deceit: The religion of the Crypto-Jews around the mid-twentieth century unverified legends of remnant crypto-Jews surfaced through Latin American and the southwestern US, details of which suggest that the “self-labeled marranos are not cultural descendants of the seventeenth century crypto-Jews.”

He adds that these sorts of vestiges may indicate a “reintroduction of Judaizing customs from recent Ashkenazi models at hand into communities that have some “vestigial memories of their remote converso ancestry.”

Seymour Liebman, author of New World Jewry, 1493-1825, weighs in and writes that “the Jews of Latin American and the Caribbean islands of this century are not the descendants of the Sephardi colonial Jews.

They are mostly Ashkenazim who migrated to the New World beginning in the 1800s. There are some descendants of the colonial Jews, but they are now Catholic or Protestants. Many admit to having Jewish ancestry.”

To make things more bizarre, the day she “came out,” Ocasio-Cortez also told the guests that in Puerto Rico “people [would] open their closets, there would be this small menorah inside].”

Seriously? Hanukkah “appears to have been of minor significance around the time in pre or post-Explusion Iberia and references to it after the Expulsion are rare, according to Gitlitz, only two pre-Expulsion Spanish hanukkiyot are known to have survived, he writes.

Ocasio-Cortez’s claims and their defense have historians are scratching their heads.

Daniel Santacruz is an editor and translator living in Maale Adumim. He is the translator of The Alhambra Decree (Carmi House Press), a novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and The Cavalier of Malaga (Carmi House Press), a novel about life in Inquisitorial Spain. He edits site devoted to Ladino and Sephardic Jews (

How many ‘Lost Jews’ are there worldwide?

Gov’t report claims there are close to 100 million ‘lost Jews’ or ‘crypto-Jews’ around the world. Will Israel reach out to them?


Arutz Sheva – Israel National News

David Rosenberg, 29/03/18 18:47


Members of the Bnei Menashe community arrive in Israel

Members of the Bnei Menashe community arrive in Israel

Yossi Zamir/Flash90

As many as 95 million people worldwide may be descended from Jews, a new government report claims.

The report, which was produced by a special committee formed by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry in 2016, suggests that in addition to the roughly 14 million people who identify as Jews around the globe, there are some 95 million more people who are likely descended from Jews who assimilated or were forced to convert – groups sometimes referred to as “lost Jews”.

The notion of far-flung communities reclaiming their ancestors’ Jewish heritage is hardly new.

Perhaps most famous are the “Anusim” (Hebrew for “Coerced Ones”), sometimes referred to as Marranos – Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who were forced to convert to Catholicism. Despite having nominally converted, many clandestinely practiced Judaism.

As Spain and Portugal settled South and Central America, some Anusim settled in the New World, in some cases covertly maintaining their Jewish faith.

Other examples of lost Jewish communities can be found in Africa and Asia.

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel since the early 1980s, including members of the Beta Israel community known as the Falash Mura – descendants of Jews compelled to convert to Christianity.

In 2005, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the Bnei Menashe, a community from eastern Indian which claimed descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes forced into exile 2700 years ago, as the descendants of a long-lost Diaspora Jewish community.

Thousands of Bnei Menashe have immigrated to Israel over the past two decades, where they undergo conversions by the Chief Rabbinate.

According to the report by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s special committee, however, there are potentially tens of millions of “lost Jews” around the world.

Beyond the roughly six and a half million Jews now living in Israel and close to eight million Jews in the Diaspora, the report claims there are another five million Jews who converted to other religions or are the immediate descendants of individual Jews who converted worldwide.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, these individuals are not eligible for Israeli citizenship, though the committee suggests the government could reach out to those among this category who are receptive to the prospect of returning to their Jewish roots.

A far larger category, however, is that of so-called “lost Jews” who were forced to convert en masse, or were compelled as a community to practice Judaism only in secret.

Communities with known ties to the Jewish people include some 35 million people, the report claims, while a further 60 million have unrecognized or undeclared ties to the Jewish people.

These 60 million lost Jews include “descendants of Jews, descendants of forced converts, and additional communities with an affinity to the Jewish people but are not currently declaring so or are unaware of it,” Haaretz cited the report as saying.

The committee which produced the report for the Diaspora Affairs Committee recommended that the government establish special research body to learn more about lost Jews around the world, and reach out to them.

While some have criticized the recommendation, saying it violates the Jewish ethos of not actively seeking out converts, the president of one of the largest organizations reaching out to those with Jewish heritage defended the idea.

“We aren’t interested in missionizing, that’s not what we’re about at all” Ashley Perry, the president of the Anusim outreach organization Reconectar, told Arutz Sheva.

Raised in London, Perry served as an adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and later to Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. He currently serves as President of Reconectar, as well as the Director-General of the Knesset’s parliamentary Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities.

Perry suggested that despite the seemingly large numbers of people with Jewish heritage cited by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s special committee in its report, the real number could be even larger, estimating that there are at least 14 to 15 million self-identified Bnei Anusim (“Descendants of the coerced”), with as many as 100 million descendants worldwide of Iberian Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism.

“Given the birthrate over the years, studies have estimated the number of descendants of these Jews at anywhere from 100 million to 150 million and even some who claim there are as many as 200 million around the world descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews,” Perry told Arutz Sheva.

“I like to follow the most conservative estimates and say that we are talking about at least 100 million people.”