In its June 21 edition, the New York Times carried a feature by Simon Romero titled “Adopting Forebears’ Faith and Leaving Peru for Israel,” which describes the story of the more than 400 Peruvian descendants of Jewish pioneers who converted to Judaism in the past decade and relocated to Israel.
Most of the “new” Jews in Iquitos, located deep in the Peruvian jungles, were descendants of Jews from Morocco, Gibraltar, Malta, Britain, France and other countries, who settled in Peru in the late 19th century in search of adventure, many of whom seeking to make a fortune in the rubber trade, which was booming at the time. After the rubber trade collapsed, many left Iquitos, others died from disease, while some married locals and became assimilated, losing touch with their faith.
Toward the end of the 1990s, a revival of sorts occurred and the descendants felt a need to reconnect with their Jewish ancestry. Víctor Edery, a patriarch in Iquitos, began holding religious ceremonies at his home; by the beginning of this decade, the Jews of Iquitos were observing Shabbat every Friday as well as holy days. They learned Hebrew from cassette tapes, and launched a campaign to be officially recognized as Jews and to be allowed to emigrate to Israel.
There was a problem, however: As most of the Jews who settled in Peru in the late 1800s were men, the great majority of descendants today could not claim to have Jewish mothers, which through a strict interpretation of Jewish law means that they cannot be Jews. They nevertheless succeeded in convincing Guillermo Bronstein, the chief rabbi at the largest Ashkenazi synagogue in the capital, Lima, to perform two large conversions. This done, hundreds of new Jews from Iquitos emigrated to the home of their ancestors, Israel.
While it is moving to see individuals reconnect with their past and adopt a faith that suits their spiritual needs, this otherwise touching story masks an ugly injustice in Judaism and Israel: While new converts and descendants of Jews who have lived abroad for more than a century are allowed to move to Israel, the descendants of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who were forced out of their homes during the Nakba (“catastrophe”) — the birth of Israel — are not allowed to return to their homeland, generation after generation forced to live in desultory conditions in refugee camps throughout the Middle East. According to the UNRWA agency, there are more than 4.6 million Palestinian refugees today, and none has a right of return, while new converts to Judaism in distant Iquitos, Peru, can do so by simply converting. Even more troubling is the fact that some of the Palestinians who saw their entire villages destroyed in a campaign of terror to make way for the birth of Israel are still alive today; none of the descendants covered in Mr. Romero’s feature had any attachment to Israeli/Palestinian soil in 1948. In fact most, if not all, were not even born when it happened. And yet, the latter have a “right of return” conferred by religion.
Moreover, under right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, which now houses more than 250,000 Israelis, will continue to expand, further encroaching on, and disconnecting people from, Palestinian land. Some such settlements could, one day, conceivably accommodate the newly arrived converts featured in the Times story — a beautiful one at that, were it not for the fact that it comes at the cost of a grievous injustice against a dispossessed people.