On a small island off the coast of Spain, a tragedy that began more than six centuries ago may finally be coming to an end.
For the first time since their Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Chuetas of Palma de Mallorca have been formally recognized as Jews by a leading Israeli rabbinical authority, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz of Bnei Brak.
This is a momentous development, one that opens the door to thousands of Chuetas to return to their roots and rejoin the Jewish people.
Just who are these people? No one knows with certainty when the first Jews arrived in Mallorca, but the Jewish presence there is said to date back to as early as the fifth century CE.
At the turn of the 14th century, the Jews' situation began to deteriorate sharply. In 1305, anti-Jewish rioting erupted, and the island's first blood libel occurred in 1309, when several Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Catholic child.
The turning point, however, came in 1391, when anti-Jewish pogroms swept across Spain.
On August 2 of that year, the rioting and violence reached Mallorca, where hundreds of Jews were massacred, while others were forcibly converted. In 1435, the remaining Jews were either murdered or dragged to the baptismal font, and Mallorca's Jewish community was destroyed.
Nonetheless, the native Mallorcans never accepted the converts, and began referring to them as Chuetas, the Catalan word for "pig." Many continued to practice Judaism in secret, risking their lives to remain faithful to the ways of their forefathers.
Subsequently the Inquisition became particularly active in the area, ruthlessly hunting down those suspected of secret Judaism. In 1691, some 300 years after the forcible conversions, 37 Chuetas were put to death by the Inquisition in Palma for the "sin" of "relapsing" to Judaism.
From the start, the Chuetas faced hostility from their Catholic neighbors, who never truly accepted them as Christians and refused to marry them – a phenomenon that continued well into the modern era.
Indeed, it was not until the French captured Mallorca in the early 19th century that the Inquisition was formally abolished in the area, though even that did not spell the end of anti-Chueta discrimination.
Writers such as the Frenchwoman George Sand in the 19th century and Englishman Robert Graves in the 20th wrote about the Chuetas with much sympathy, lamenting the hatred to which they continued to be subjected by their fellow Mallorcans.
Ironically enough, that hatred only served to reinforce their sense of Jewish identity.
LEGAL RESTRICTIONS against them were ended only in 1931, when the Spanish Republic was incorporated, and it is only in the past 40 to 50 years that "intermarriages" between Chuetas and Mallorcan Catholics have begun to take place.
As a result, for generations, the Chuetas have been living between worlds, with Catholic Mallorcans viewing them as Jews, and Jews considering them Catholic.
An estimated 15,000-20,000 Chuetas still live in Mallorca, and in recent years a growing number have begun to express an interest in reclaiming their Jewish roots.
Now, thanks to Karelitz's halachic ruling, their dream may soon become reality.
In his written opinion, Karelitz stated that "since it has become clear that it is accepted among them [i.e., the Chuetas] that throughout the generations most of them married among themselves, then all those related to the former generations are Jews, from our brethren the children of Israel, the nation of God."
Karelitz further wrote that efforts should be made to draw the Chuetas closer to their Jewish heritage, and that they should be encouraged to embrace a life of Torah and observance of the mitzvot.
This decision carries enormous weight, as Karelitz heads one of the most important haredi rabbinical courts in Bnei Brak. He is considered one of Israel's foremost arbiters of Jewish law, and is the nephew of the famed Hazon Ish, one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century.
Earlier this week, I traveled to Mallorca to share the news of Karelitz's decision with the Chuetas and to encourage them on their journey back to the Jewish people.
On Sunday night, in a packed room, I told the Chuetas of the decision, which prompted an immediate, sustained applause along with tears of joy.
Many said they never thought such a decision would be reached in their lifetimes.
A young Chueta in her early 20s approached me afterward, her eyes still red from crying. She told me of her experiences in high school, just a few years ago, when she was humiliated because of her identity.
"I always knew that I was a Jew, and I always felt this in my heart," she told me. "But now, thanks to the rabbi's decision, it is official, and we are getting recognition from the people of Israel. I can't believe it!" I believe the Jewish people have an historical responsibility to reach out to the Chuetas and facilitate their return. We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to help those among them who wish to rejoin the Jewish people.
Over the centuries, the Inquisition invested a great deal of effort and energy in seeking to tear the Chuetas away from us. Our task now is to show the same determination in welcoming them home.