Majorcan Descendants of Spanish Jews Who Converted Are Recognized as Jews
PARIS — Centuries after the Spanish Inquisition led to the forced conversion of Jews to Catholicism, an ultra-orthodox rabbinical court in Israel has issued a religious ruling that recognizes descendants from the insular island of Majorca as Jews.
The opinion focused narrowly on the Majorcan community of about 20,000 people known as chuetas and did not apply to descendants of Sephardic Jewish converts in mainland Spain or the broader diaspora of thousands of others who scattered to the Ottoman Empire and the Spanish colonies in South and North America.
The island, isolated until a tourist boom that began in the late 1960s, is a sociological preserve for descendants of Jews who formed an insular community of Catholic converts that intermarried through the centuries because of religious persecution and discrimination that barred them from holding certain positions in the Roman Catholic Church through the 20th century. Most carry the names of 15 families with ancestors who were tried and executed during the 17th century for practicing Judaism.
The religious court in Israel, led for more than 40 years by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, sent another rabbi to the island in May to explore its warren of streets where a synagogue once stood and to examine the family trees of some of the chuetas who trace lineage back 500 years.
In a two-paragraph opinion — typical of the private rabbinical court that deals with matters of conversions, marriage conflicts and financial disputes — Rabbi Karelitz issued a statement that said because of the intermarriage patterns of the chuetas, “all those who are related to the former generations are Jews.”
“The decision is a headline ruling,” said Rabbi Israel Wiesel, a judge from Israel who explored the community in Palma, roaming the street where, for generations, many chueta families have operated jewelry stores. “Unlike other Marranos in Spain and Portugal, who lost their line of history,” he said, “this particular community is unique and kept the pure line of history for the last 700 years, which means they are Jewish.”
In May, the regional government of the Balearic Islands became the first to create a memorial ceremony for Jewish descendants, marking the deaths of 37 people who were executed in 1691 by the Inquisition, and expressing regrets for persecution that chueta families suffered through the centuries.
Bernat Aguiló Siquier, an amateur local historian who is descended from one of the 15 chueta families, said most of them stopped practicing Judaism altogether in the 18th century. But he said he still found the decision significant because it is “a recognition of a fact, as much as an act of justice.”
Shavei Israel, a private group that offers support and religious training for Jewish descendants in Spain and Portugal, had been pressing for the recognition for years. The result, according to its founder, Michael Freund, is that now “they no longer need to live in between worlds. We have succeeded in opening the door for them to come home.”
What that means in actual practice is still evolving. Mr. Aguiló said he hoped that it would inspire the state of Israel to grant citizenship to the chuetas.
For now, Rabbi Wiesel said, the next steps for the Spanish island were more modest.
“Rabbis will come and teach whoever is interested in learning,” he said, “and offer every assistance to those who want to come back to the Jewish fold.”