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Jews from the Amazon

M., originally from Barcelona and now in Jerusalem, had been a volunteer in Wahat al-Salam during the 2nd Gulf War. All the other volunteers had fled, before the airlines cut their flights Since that time I hadn’t seen her. I only knew that she had initially gone to live in Efrat (the West Bank settlement), where she had converted to Judaism. I assumed that she was still there and happily married to a religious Jew.

On Saturday afternoon, she suddenly showed up on our doorstep, together with a friend originally from Milano, and we spent an hour or two chatting.

M’s conversion to Judaism and settlement in Israel had resulted from an inner conviction that her true identity was Jewish. She was convinced, without much factual evidence, that she was descended from Spanish Jews. It wasn’t so much a spiritual identity: "I am not at all a religious person." When we asked her how the conversion process had been for her, she said at first that it had been all right, then confessed, with a chuckle, that it had been terrible. The conversion, learning a language, and all the other hassles of adapting to a new country had been, she said, "a parenthesis in life". During the process she had learned facts about Israel that would have daunted someone with a weaker personality or lesser sense of purpose.

Among the stories she told was her meeting during Hebrew studies with the "Jews of the Amazon". Dorit and I had not heard that there were a group of people from Iquitos, Peru, who underwent conversion to Judaism, were brought to Israel, and then settled in Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Dorit was incredulous at this story, and I resolved to check it. But apparently it’s true. I found a web page with an account by a progressive rabbi of his journey to meet them in Iquitos, in order to establish their connection with Judaism. They, like our friend M, believe that they are descended from Jews. The rabbi describes his encounter with them:

"Standard questions received very strange answers. “I think a Chassid is one that is glued”, said one, awkwardly correct. (Dvekut, the state of total attachment to God, is central in Chassidism). Some confused Purim with Chanukah and a Mezuzah with a Menorah, and yet with a little help, strange old stories came out: “My mother lit the seventeen candles every first of December”… “… Since the leprosaria is open every day 9 to 6, I arrive always a little late for washing the hands and go to Friday Shabbat services here in Iquitos…

"Tapir[13] is not kosher, but I don’t really know what is Kosher,” said a lady from Santa María de Nieva, six days away by boat into the deepest Amazon. And so the line between ignorance and different codes was, despite all our efforts, an uncertain line, adding up to our puzzle...”

He also mentions the Kiryat Arba connection:

"To make it even harder, reports of an orthodox nationalist Jewish preacher urging these people to settle in Kiryat Arba, Hebron, made us aware of a possibility for them that made our role as progressive Jews even more compelling, urgent. Our abstention could lead to a sin of omission, to a vacuum to be filled by a nationalistic, arrogant and humiliating Judaism, which may corrupt all we stand for as liberal Jews. We made it very clear that we were not signing the certificates for them to end up in a trailer on a Judean hilltop, thus blocking a peaceful, secure and democratic Israel, hopefully alongside a future peaceful Palestinian state. Danger loomed there as well."

Well they ended up in Kiryat Arba after all, mate. The wonderful thing about Zionism is that its long arm can reach to the Amazonian jungles, the deserts of Africa, or the borders of Burma, discover people with the most marginal connection to Judaism, then spirit them away to Israel. All in order to win demographic points against Palestinians, many of whom are themselves descended from Jews.