The Middle East:

Commentary and Analysis

Right of Return by Conversion

How 90 Peruvians became the latest Jewish settlers

When a delegation of rabbis travelled to Lima to convert a group of South American Indians to Judaism, they added just one condition: come and live with us in Israel. As soon as these new Jews arrived in the country, they were bussed straight to settlements in the disputed territories. So how are they coping? Neri Livneh tracks them down

Neri Livneh
Wednesday August 7, 2002
The Guardian

In a prefab structure at a school in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, a few dozen people are sitting and singing a popular Hasidic song: "The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid." They are singing with feeling, even though most of them don't understand a word of the song. As is the custom in religious schools, the class is divided into a men's section and a women's section. The women are wearing hats and the men's heads are covered by knitted skullcaps. The men and women alike have distinct South American Indian features.

Almost unnoticed, a new branch of Jews is springing up in the settlements, Jews who are connected to Israel and all things Israeli by a very narrow bridge indeed. They have yet to visit Tel Aviv or Haifa, and have never even heard of Degania, the very first kibbutz, or its neighbour, Kinneret. Miki Kratsman, the photographer, and I had the privilege of being the first secular Jews they had ever met. Nevertheless, they are fired with a historic sense of their right to this land.

"We are of Indian origin," says Nachshon Ben-Haim, formerly Pedro Mendosa, "but in Peru, in the Andes, there is no Indian culture left. Everyone has become Christian, and before we became Jews, we also were Christians who went to church."

The miracle of the creation of this community of new Jews has to be chalked up wholly and exclusively to the credit - or debit - of the chief rabbinate of Israel. At the order of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, a delegation of rabbis travelled to Peru. During their two weeks in the country, they converted 90 people to Judaism, most of them of Indian origin.

"We found a small river between Trujillo and Cajamarca and everyone immersed in it. We took the people from Lima to be immersed in the ocean and then we also had to remarry them all in a Jewish ceremony according to the halakha [Jewish religious law]," says Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a judge in the conversion court and a member of the delegation.

The rabbis converted only those who said they were willing to emigrate to Israel immediately. "We laid down that condition because in the remote areas where they live, there is no possibility of keeping kosher and it was important for us to ensure that they would live in a Jewish environment. In fact, there was no need for the condition because they were in any case imbued with a love of the land of Israel in a way that is hard to describe," says Rabbi David Mamo, the deputy president of the conversion court.

"Because we saw their enthusiasm for the land of Israel, we understood that conversion was part of a complete process including aliyah [immigration to Israel], so we told them: just as you live in a community here, you should join a community in Israel, too," says Birnbaum. "Rabbi Mamo and I both live in Gush Etzion [a group of settlements south of Bethlehem] and we believe that when it comes to community-oriented settlements, there are none that can compare with Alon Shvut and Karmei Tzur [both in Gush Etzion], which said they would be willing to absorb the new immigrants."

The 90 new immigrants, comprising 18 families, were taken straight from the airport to the two settlements. Leah Golan, director of the Jewish Agency department responsible for immigration, says: "We, as the Jewish Agency, bring to Israel anyone who has been defined as being entitled to aliyah - that is, anyone who has been recognised as a Jew by the chief rabbinate or the interior ministry.

"Generally, the potential immigrants are in touch with our aliyah emissaries and are given very reliable information about housing, employment and education possibilities in Israel. But in Peru, we do not have an emissary: there is only a small Jewish community of about 3,000 people there, so we only have an office in Lima that is staffed by a local woman. Therefore, the Jewish Agency was not involved in any way in the decision about where these new immigrants would live or what kind of work they would do. All the decisions on those subjects were apparently made by the rabbis." Theoretically, the new Jews had the option of joining the Jewish community in Peru, but that was ruled out.

"How can I put it without hurting anyone?" Birnbaum says. "The community in Lima consists of a certain socio-economic class and did not want them because they are from a lower level. There was a kind of agreement that if they were converted, they would not join the Lima community, so there was no choice but to lay down the condition that they immigrate to Israel."

The new Jews have not encountered similar difficulties in the settlements, where they have been integrated smoothly. "Now, thank God, we live where the patriarch, Abraham, the number one Jew, roamed," says Ephraim Perez, who until two weeks ago, in Trujillo, Peru, was known as Nilo.

It turns out that Peru also had an ancient Jewish forefather of its own: "It is known that Christopher Columbus was a Jew," Batya Mendel who, until two months ago, was a Peruvian citizen whose first name was Blanca says. "And since he was in Peru, many Jews have been born there."

Columbus was Jewish? "They always say that about him in Peru, and he visited many places in Peru and left Jewish blood everywhere," says Mandel. "There are also a lot of Christian sects that obey the commandments since then. When we were Christians, we also observed all kinds of commandments, such as Pascha [sic] and Shavuot."

So, in fact, are of Jewish origin? "No. In Peru everyone is a mixture of natives and all kinds of conquerors, but there was a great deal of Jewish influence through the Marranos [Jews living during the Spanish Inquisition who secretly kept their faith despite converting to Christianity] and through Columbus. When we were still Christians and went to the church we observed some commandments such as Shabbat and holidays."

Rabbis Mamo and Birnbaum, along with officials of the settlements, refer to the 90 new Jews as the "third aliyah " as there were two previous groups who came over from Peru in 1990 and 1991.

Batya Mendel decided, on the occasion of her immigration to Israel, to Hebraize not only her first name, but her surname as well: "I Hebraized my name to Mendel," she explains, "because every year in the 1990s, a rabbi named Miron Sover Mendel came to Peru at Passover and he would always spend a few days in Trujillo and a few days in Cajamarca and a few days in Lima, and teach us Judaism. He died about half a year ago, so when they asked me at the conversion about a name, I asked in his memory that my surname be changed to Mendel."

What made you come to this settlement? "The Absorption Ministry told us to go here and thank God they sent us here," says Mendel. "This is the land of the patriarch, Abraham, and the people here are very nice."

According to Ben-Haim, "the idea that there are Palestinians here at all is a lie. The Palestinian people never existed and only when the Jews leave their country, the Arabs come in and try to take over and prove they have a right here. But we cannot agree to that because the Lord gave the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for all time, and all the Jews will be united and love the Lord with all their heart, and then all the problems will be solved."

What is the solution? "In Peru I thought that all the Jews in Israel were religiously observant," says Mendel. "It was only when I came here that I heard that almost 30% of the Jews are not religious, and that broke my heart."

Is that what you were told, I ask - that the majority of the Jews in Israel are religious? "Yes, the majority but not everyone. But if they all become fully religious and unite, the Messiah will come and the problems with the Palestinians will be solved because they will get out of here."

Mendel's eyes glitter as she talks: "It will be the most wonderful day in the world when all the Arabs will become Jews and observe the commandments and love the Lord and when the Messiah comes, there will be no one in the land of our fathers who does not love the Lord and Judaism with all their heart."

You only became a member of this nation a few months ago, and have been in the country less than two months, I say. Do you know that there are Arabs whose families have lived here for hundreds of years?

"But God said that whomsoever becomes a Jew with a full heart and observes the commandments - only to a Jew like that will He give the land for generation unto generation."

Ben-Haim is not bothered by the fact that by being sent to a settlement, he has also been effectively recruited to a particular political group: "We knew we were coming to a place that is called 'territories' because people we know immigrated earlier and are living in the settlements in the territories. But I have no problem with that because I do not consider the territories to be occupied territories. You cannot conquer what has in any case belonged to you since the time of the patriarch, Abraham."

Ben-Haim says that after he finishes the Hebrew course, he may join the army, "because I wasn't in the army in Peru and that is something I lack, and also because I want to defend the country and if there is no choice, I will kill Arabs. But I am sure that Jews kill Arabs only for self-defence and justice, but Arabs do it because they like to kill."

He bases this belief on his scientific view of Judaism: "The Arab has the instinct of murder and killing like all gentiles, and only Jews do not have that instinct - that is a genetic fact."

But if you were not born a Jew genetically, don't you have that instinct? "Maybe it was there, but it makes no difference because now we are all Jews."

This is an edited extract of an article which first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

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