March 28, 2020

One Nation, Many Faces

Bnei Menashe kids in Churachandpur Manipur in northeastern India Photo courtesy of Michael Freund

Around the world, an unprecedented awakening is taking place. Descendants of Jews from all walks of life are looking to return to their roots and embrace their heritage.

For the past 15 years, through Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, I have come to discern that there are multitudes of people whose forefathers were once part of us and who now seek a way back into the fold. It is a development that will further reshape the contours, character and even the color of Jewry.

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 of Israel, and to the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the Holocaust, there are multitudes with a historical connection to the Jewish people.

Perhaps the largest group of all is the Bnei Anousim, 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 millions, and a recent genetic study published in December 2018 revealed that 23 percent of Latin Americans have Jewish genetic roots.

If we are prudent enough to seize the opportunity and extend a hand to these communities and strengthen our connection with them, then in the coming decades, we will witness the return of hundreds of thousands, and possibly more, to our ranks.

Historians estimate that during the Herodian period 2,000 years ago, there were approximately 8 million Jews worldwide. At the same time, the Han Dynasty conducted a census in the year 2 C.E. that 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 1.1 billion people, even as world Jewry barely numbers more than 14 million.

During the past 2,000 years of exile, we 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 history and the triumph of Jewish destiny.

“We need to start looking at diversity as something that is not only good when building one’s financial portfolio but our national portfolio, as well.”

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

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

Indeed, this nascent process is already underway. With the approval of the Israeli government, Shavei Israel has brought more than 4,000 Bnei Menashe on aliyah from India as well as a dozen young Chinese Jews to Jerusalem.

When we gaze into the future, as this trend gathers steam, it is clear that the Jewish people will be one nation with many faces, far more numerous and diverse than anyone could possibly have imagined at the start of the 21st century.

Rather than fearing this prediction, we should embrace it, because demographically and spiritually, the Jewish people will be stronger for it.

This is not a form of “missionary activity.” After all, the idea isn’t 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.

And we also need to start looking at diversity as something that is not only good when building one’s financial portfolio but our national portfolio, as well. It is a sign of strength for the Jewish people that we don’t all look alike, think alike or have the same background or even skin color.

So as a growing number of descendants of Jews worldwide make the long journey home, let us welcome them with open arms, for it will only further enrich the intricate tapestry of our people.

The writer, Michael Freund is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that reaches out to lost tribes, hidden Jewish communities and descendants of Jews around the world and assists them in returning to their roots.