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,3604,770235,00.html

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


"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


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


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 heart." 

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 heart." 

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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