The Unbelievable Crypto-Jews

By Philip Jenkins

The Washington Post recently gave prominent coverage to a bizarre religion story, so wildly improbable as to raise serious doubts about the paper's critical faculties. The piece also contributes to a potent modern mythology.

The story reported that "Colombian Evangelical Christians Convert To Judaism, Embracing Hidden Past." It tells of a village with a strong evangelical church, of the sort that has become very popular in modern Colombia. In the 1990s, a minister visited Israel and felt the attraction of Judaism, and subsequently, many families converted to that faith. Now, if this were the whole narrative, that would be an interesting item, on which I would have a simple comment: if those people find fulfillment in that incredibly rich tradition, I wish them all success and happiness.

But oh no, there's much more. Allegedly, according to the Post, these Colombians were so amenable to conversion because they were crypto-Jews whose families had spent centuries hiding from the Inquisition. When they encountered authentic modern-day Judaism, they were drawn by mystical forces, by reawakening memories: "what some here called a spark, an inescapable pull of their ancestors."

The paper then explains how this phenomenon has manifested itself around the world: "the small community in Bello joined a worldwide movement in which the descendants of Jews forced from Spain more than 500 years ago are discovering and embracing their Jewish heritage. They have emerged in places as divergent as the American Southwest, Brazil and even India. In these mostly remote outposts, the so-called Anusim or Marranos, Jews from Spain who fled the Inquisition and converted to Christianity, had found refuge." A representative of the Israeli group Shavei Israel declares that "The Jewish spark was never quenched, and these Anusim are really fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors in that they are taking back the Jewish identity that was so brutally stolen from their forefathers."

At no point does the Post story raise the slightest question about these outrageous assertions of mystic continuity and race-memory.

There's so much wrong here, it's hard to begin. Yes, crypto-believers undoubtedly exist around the world in their millions, secret adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and such groups can indeed maintain a clandestine existence for centuries. There's an active Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies. Some geneticists argue that they can identify a distinctive gene associated with the kohanim, the ancient Jewish priesthood, and this gene is well represented in the relevant region of Colombia -- although that simple identification is highly controversial.

In other ways though, we find massive potential problems of evidence, and so many reasons why people with no Jewish roots whatever might choose to assert them. When new Christian communities explore the Bible fully and discover the Old Testament, many try to return to the old Law and to restore Jewish ways and habits. This is a common feature in African independent churches, many of which prohibit pork in keeping with Old Testament precepts. One of the distinguishing marks of European Protestants in the Reformation era was a fanatical devotion to Sabbath enforcement, and some sects adopted the Saturday Sabbath. If modern-day outsiders discovered churches with those beliefs, they would be quick to speculate about secret Jewish roots.

Whenever I hear about alleged crypto-Jews in any part of the world, my first impulse is always to ask whether evangelical or charismatic Christian churches with an Old Testament slant have been evangelizing in those areas in recent decades. They certainly have all across Colombia, and also in Peru, Chile, Brazil and much of Central America -- all of which can confidently be predicted to turn up alleged crypto-Jews in the next decade.

Equally commonly, many Christians who visit Israel do fall prey to mystical visions -- Israelis call it Jerusalem Syndrome. That certainly does not mean that sudden realizations of being Really Jewish have any objective validity. I also know enough about Christian history to get alarmed when people start searching for Hebrew "Lost Tribes," a theme that has inspired a lot of cranky pseudo-scholarship through the centuries (see the excellent book on this subject by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite).

Once you do start channeling that lost Jewish identity, though, there are plenty of true believers around the world who are only too happy to claim new crypto-Jewish communities, without demanding the kind of evidence that might satisfy a secular-minded observer. This is a favored cause of Israel's religious Right: Shavei Israel asserts its global mission to help "hidden Jews and lost tribes."

When enthusiastic believers start investigating putative "cryptos", they use similar questions, and local people soon learn the right answers to give. Oh sure, we used to light candles on Friday nights! And we even used Jewish names like Isaac, Ruben and Gabriel! Nope, there's no part of Christianity we could have found those names from, is there? (And seriously, the story does list these names as evidence for clandestine Jewish roots). Gradually, people look back and attach significance to every odd dietary choice or bit of unexplained behavior in their family history. Memories are duly constructed and reinforced.

Without an ounce of conscious deceit on either side, the comedy of errors proceeds until we have added yet another list to the roster of errant Marranos.

The people of Bello might or might not be the descendants of crypto-Jews, but we really need a huge amount more evidence before we can begin to speak of "embracing a hidden past." That comment also applies to the next few dozen similar claims we can expect in coming years. It would be useful if the media treated all such ideas with at least a smidgeon of skepticism.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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