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Coming home: The profession of faith of a group of Israeli settlers

—Neri Livneh originally published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, edition of July 19, 2002

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 and are dark-skinned.

Manifestants à Boston, avril 2002 —photo Tanbou

Demonstrators in a Boston rally, April 2002. —photo Tanbou

Batya Mendel, who until two months ago was a Peruvian citizen whose first name was Blanca, analyzes the situation with surprising passion and self-confidence: “Yasser Arafat isn’t even a Palestinian and he has no rights to the Land of Israel because he wasn’t born in the Land of Israel. This land was promised eternally by God only to those who were born here. Just because I was born in Peru and don’t have Jewish roots makes no difference, because the Book of Zephania states that those who want to believe in the Holy One and be believing Jews—only they have rights to the Land of Israel. Maybe, when the Messiah comes and all the Palestinians are converted to Judaism and believe in God with complete faith, only then will we allow them to live in the Land of Israel.”

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 they have never even heard of Degania, the very first kibbutz, or its neighbor, Kinneret. Miki Kratsman, the photographer, and I had the privilege of being the first secular Jews they ever met. Nevertheless, they feel as deeply rooted and authentic as that composer of quintessentially Israeli songs, Naomi Shemer. They are fired with a historic sense of their right to this land, as though they were the Zinati family from Peki’in, the ancient Jewish town in Galilee.

“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. Two months ago, at the order of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, a delegation of rabbis traveled 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 immigrate 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,” explains Rabbi David Mamo, the deputy president of the Conversion Court.

Birnbaum adds: “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. Rabbi Mamo and I both live in Gush Etzion [a bloc 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.”

Mamo notes that his settlement, Neveh Daniel, also in Gush Etzion, “would have been happy to receive such a distinguished reinforcement, but we are unable to provide complete housing and absorption—and you have to understand what absorption means in Karmei Tzur and Alon Shvut. Words cannot describe the warm personal attitude toward each new immigrant, the care and the concern for all their physical and spiritual needs, and, of course, the ulpan [intensive Hebrew course] and the organized social activity. It is the best community integration program that we know of.”

The Columbus factor

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 that is responsible for immigration from all Western countries (apart from those in the former Communist Bloc), 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 recognized as a Jew by the Chief Rabbinate or the Interior Ministry.”

Adds Golan: “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 socioeconomic 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 No.1 Jew, roamed,” says Ephraim Perez, who until two weeks ago, in Trujillo, Peru, was still 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,” Mandel relates. “And since he was in Peru, many Jews have been born there.”

Columbus was Jewish?

Mendel: “They always say that about him in Peru, and he visited many places in Peru and left Jewish blood everywhere. 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, you 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.”

Mendel’s eyes glitter as she talks about that future day: “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 heart.

“It was a shock for me to discover that there are nonreligious Jews in Israel. You are blind and do not see the wellspring we have in our hands which is the Torah. Your mouths are sealed and you cannot drink from the well, and your eyes are blind and you do not see, and your ears are sealed and you do not want to hear. I pray to God that you will all become religious for the good of the state, because the Torah has preserved us as a people for all the years from the time of the patriarch, Abraham, and because of the Torah, we have a right to live here and the Arabs do not.”

You only became a member of this nation a few months ago, and you have been in the country less than two months. Do you know that there are Arabs whose families have lived here for hundreds of years?

“But God said that whosoever 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.”

In Trujillo, he worked as a cab driver and in commerce. “Most of our people did work like that, so we would have time for our prayers and commandments and holidays,” he explains.

Mendel and her husband also engaged in commerce. They are not bothered in the least by the employment situation in Israel. God will help them find work, Mendel says.

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-defense 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?

Ben-Haim: “Maybe it was there, but it makes no difference, because now we are all Jews.”

—Neri Livneh Ha’aretz, Friday July 19, 2002

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