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How 90 Peruvians became the latest Jewish settlers (fwd)
by Amandeep Sandhu
22 August 2002 16:24 UTC
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Here is the English version of the article.


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 

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

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

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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