Dozens of people whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition over 500 years ago, often referred to by the derogatory term “Marranos,” gathered this past weekend in Barcelona for a special seminar run to train them to make Israel’s case to the media.

Amid rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment throughout Europe, especially in Spain, the Shavei Israel (Hebrew for “returning to Israel”) organization convened a special seminar this past weekend in Barcelona with the aim of training to become effective advocates for Israel and its cause in their home countries.

A number of experts on Israel advocacy were brought in to take part in training sessions for the participants and to provide them with guidance and tools to defend the Jewish state in the local and international media.

The seminar was held at the Jewish community center in Barcelona and drew some 70 participants from Spain and Portugal.

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This marks the first time these “Marranos” have organized themselves to promote Israel in their own countries.

The idea behind the seminar arose several months ago when descendants of the Inquisition rose at a demonstration in support of Israel that was held in front of the Israeli Embassy in Madrid during the recent Gaza conflict. Many had traveled for hours to Madrid for the sole purpose of expressing their support for Israel.

According to “Shavei Israel” Chairman Michael Freund, there are tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, in Spain and Portugal who are conscious of their actual identity and their special relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. Mr. Freund said they “can serve as a wonderful corps of goodwill ambassadors for the Jewish state, and it behooves us to reach out to them and forge a stronger relationship with them.”

Shavei Israel is a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening ties between the State of Israel and the Jewish people and descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of distant Jewish communities in India, Spain, Portugal and South America, and even in Kaifeng, China.

Historical Background

The Jewish community in Spain in the early Middle Ages was one of the oldest and most successful Diaspora Jewish communities. Despite this, from 1391 onward, a series of terrible disturbances and great tribulations befell the local Jewish community. One of the direct results was an unprecedented wave of forced conversions. These events continued on through 1492, when they reached their peak, and the remaining Jews were formally expelled from Spain. Many of those who had been compelled to convert to Catholicism – known by the Hebrew term “Bnai Anousim” – remained behind, where they continued to preserve their Jewish identity and to practice Jewish tradition covertly. As a result, this unique phenomenon is still evident even today, even though the Inquisition invested enormous efforts over the centuries to eradicate it.

Bnai Anousim

In Portugal

In 1497, the Portuguese monarch forced the Jews of his kingdom to convert to Catholicism. Despite this, these “New Christians” did their utmost to remain loyal to their Jewish roots, secretly passing on their identities down through the generations, despite the wrath of the Inquisition. Many of those who were caught practicing Judaism in secret were made to pay a heavy price by the Inquisition for their fidelity to the faith of their ancestors. One of the most famous examples of Portuguese Bnai Anousim was the community of Belmonte, in northern Portugal, which was discovered 80 years ago by a visiting Jewish engineer. Two decades ago, the Bnai Anousim of Belmonte were formally restored to the Jewish people by a rabbinical court sent from Israel.

Bnai Anousim In Brazil

When the doors of the New World swung open in the 16th century, Brazil came to play an important role for those with initiative, opening new opportunities for a better life. In addition, because of its geographical distance from Portugal, many Bnai Anousim saw Brazil as a possible place of refuge that might put them beyond the reach of the Inquisition. Nonetheless, the long arm of the Church reached across the Atlantic and continued to pursue the Bnai Anousim. But many remained undeterred, and continued to preserve Jewish rituals and traditions in secret, passing down their covert Jewish identity from generation to generation.

David Bedein can be reached at dbedein@israelbehindthenews.com

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David Bedein is an MSW community organizer and an investigative journalist.   In 1987, Bedein established the Israel Resource News Agency at Beit Agron to accompany foreign journalists in their coverage of Israel, to balance the media lobbies established by the PLO and their allies.   Mr. Bedein has reported for news outlets such as CNN Radio, Makor Rishon, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, BBC and The Jerusalem Post, For four years, Mr. Bedein acted as the Middle East correspondent for The Philadelphia Bulletin, writing 1,062 articles until the newspaper ceased operation in 2010. Bedein has covered breaking Middle East negotiations in Oslo, Ottawa, Shepherdstown, The Wye Plantation, Annapolis, Geneva, Nicosia, Washington, D.C., London, Bonn, and Vienna. Bedein has overseen investigative studies of the Palestinian Authority, the Expulsion Process from Gush Katif and Samaria, The Peres Center for Peace, Peace Now, The International Center for Economic Cooperation of Yossi Beilin, the ISM, Adalah, and the New Israel Fund.   Since 2005, Bedein has also served as Director of the Center for Near East Policy Research.   A focus of the center's investigations is The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In that context, Bedein authored Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict - UNRWA Policies Reconsidered, which caps Bedein's 28 years of investigations of UNRWA. The Center for Near East Policy Research has been instrumental in reaching elected officials, decision makers and journalists, commissioning studies, reports, news stories and films. In 2009, the center began decided to produce short movies, in addition to monographs, to film every aspect of UNRWA education in a clear and cogent fashion.   The center has so far produced seven short documentary pieces n UNRWA which have received international acclaim and recognition, showing how which UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and incitement to violence in their education'   In sum, Bedein has pioneered The UNRWA Reform Initiative, a strategy which calls for donor nations to insist on reasonable reforms of UNRWA. Bedein and his team of experts provide timely briefings to members to legislative bodies world wide, bringing the results of his investigations to donor nations, while demanding reforms based on transparency, refugee resettlement and the demand that terrorists be removed from the UNRWA schools and UNRWA payroll.   Bedein's work can be found at: www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com and www.cfnepr.com. A new site,unrwa-monitor.com, will be launched very soon.

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