Fundamentally Freund: Demography and Jewish destiny

We are standing on the cusp of a tidal wave of return, one that will see countless Jewish descendants reconnect with Jewry. Let’s embrace this opportunity.

By Michael Freund
April 4, 2018 20:08

Fundamentally Freund: Demography and Jewish destiny

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrim blows a shofar, near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The otherwise arcane subject of demography made quite a splash in recent days, thanks in no small measure to a courageous report prepared by a committee established by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Tasked with exploring how the government should relate to millions of people around the world with Jewish ancestry, the committee did not shy away from tackling the crucial subject head on, offering a variety of practical recommendations to strengthen the connection between Israel and “lost Jews.” These included ideas ranging from encouraging more academic research on the subject to facilitating visits to the Jewish state by those with a historical connection with the people of Israel.
And while the panel’s suggestions have yet to be debated or approved by the cabinet, there is no understating the significance of this watershed moment.

The State of Israel has at last recognized the importance of grappling with an issue that activists such as myself have been pressing for years, which is the need to reach out to those who were once part of the Jewish people.

As the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, which for the past 15 years has been at the forefront of helping Jewish descendants reconnect with our people and our land, I am proud to have been one of the first experts called before the committee after its establishment in 2016, which I enthusiastically supported.

Indeed, I can attest to the sea change that is taking place on a global scale, as people with Jewish roots from all walks of life are awakening to their heritage, with many – though not all – seeking a way back into the fold.

From the Jews of Kaifeng, China, whose Sephardic ancestors traveled along the Silk Road, to the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, who claim descent from a lost tribe, to the hidden Jews of Poland from the Holocaust, a growing number of individuals and communities are exploring what it means that their forefathers were part of the people of Israel.

Perhaps the largest group of them all is the Bnei Anusim, whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos” and whose forebears were Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scholars estimate their numbers worldwide to be in the tens of millions. Genetic tests have revealed that 10% to 15% of Hispanic Americans have Jewish roots, while the percentage among Spaniards and Portuguese is even higher.

IF WE are wise enough to seize the opportunity and extend a hand to these communities, then in the coming decades we will witness the return of hundreds of thousands, and possibly more, to our ranks. This is not a form of “missionary activity.” After all, the idea is not to go out and convince the unconvinced, but rather to pry open the door to those who are already in the process of seeking us out. Not all will choose to do so, of course. But the very act of engaging with such people will create a greater affinity within them for Israel and Jewish causes, even if they prefer to remain committed Catholics in Madrid or proud Protestants in New Mexico.

By cultivating their identification with their Jewish roots, be it in a cultural, intellectual or spiritual manner, at a minimum we will expand the numbers of those who look warmly and sympathetically upon Jews and Israel.

But we can and should aim higher. Size does matter, whether in basketball, business or diplomacy. To make a difference in the world and to live up to our national mission as Jews, we need a much larger and more diverse “team” at our disposal, one with an expanded roster and a strong bench. In other words, we need more Jews.

Historians estimate that during the Herodian period two millennia ago, there were approximately eight million Jews worldwide. At the same time, the Han Dynasty conducted a census in the year 2 CE which found that there were 57.5 million Han Chinese. Jump ahead to the present, and the numbers are of course quite different, with China home to well over 1.1 billion people, even as world Jewry barely numbers more than 14 million souls.

During the 2,000 years of exile, we have lost countless numbers of Jews, whether through assimilation or oppression. Many of their descendants are now clamoring to return. This development is testimony to the power of Jewish memory and the inevitability of Jewish destiny.

The world is said to be growing smaller by the day thanks to the processes of globalization and growing economic and strategic interdependence. To thrive in this global village, the Jewish people will need Chinese Jews and Indian Jews no less than American and British ones.

This means that we not only need to do more to keep Jews Jewish, but we must also begin to think outside the box about how to boost our numbers.

So why not reach back into our collective past and reclaim those who were torn away from us due to exile and persecution? Many descendants of Jews are knocking on our door, asking to be allowed in. All we need do is turn the knob, pry open the entrance, and they will come. It is time to close the historical circle and restore “lost Jews” to our people.

We are standing on the cusp of a tidal wave of return, one that will see countless Jewish descendants reconnect with Jewry. Let’s embrace this opportunity. Demographically and spiritually, we will only be stronger for it.

The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and other hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people. He is the co-author of Do You Have Jewish Roots? that has been published in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

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