The Jews of Palma de Mallorca were forced to convert to Catholicism about 600 years ago, but now several hundred of their descendants, known as the Chuetas, are trying to reconnect to their Jewish roots. Members of the Chueta community and Israeli scholars recently participated in a conference in Netanya on the anusim, or forced converts, of the Balearic Islands.Michael Freund wrote about Rabi ben-Avraham and the Chueta community in 2006:
The Balearic Islands, best known for the international party destination ofIbiza, are situated off the eastern coast of Spain. Palma is the main port city in Mallorca, the capital of this archipelago under Spanish rule.
A group of 15 Chueta families have, over the centuries, maintained their Jewish lineage by marrying only among themselves, one of the distinctions of this particular community of anusim. Last year, after visiting the island and examining the family trees of these families, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, chairman of the Beit Din Tzedek, ruled that their descendents, who number about 25,000 today, are indeed part of the Jewish people.
Miguel Segura, a journalist and author who himself is a Chueta and has written a book about their history, told Haaretz that he and two other members of the community, both women, have recently “returned” to Judaism – a term used by the anusim to refer to the symbolic conversion process they undergo to be considered full-fledged Jews. Segura said that over the centuries, the Chuetas, which is considered a pejorative term – one translation is “swine” – were persecuted and ostracized in Spain. So while he isn’t looking to trade homelands, the ruling has validated his identity and beliefs.
“I am 67 years old, so that is too old to make aliyah, but I now make a point of coming to Israel every year,” said Segura, who attended the Netanya conference.
Efforts to educate the community have been enhanced by the establishment of a new Beit Midrash. Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, a Chueta who converted many years ago and moved to Israel, has been traveling to Palma de Mallorca every month in recent years to teach classes there.
Born in 1957 into a religious Catholic family, his given name at birth was Nicolau Aguilo. "My father was a shopkeeper, in a shop that has been in our family's hands since 1700, at least," he recalls. "Religion was a very important matter for my family. We went to church every week and fulfilled all the religious duties of Catholicism".An 1876 book (and also this book from 1719) describes the pretext for the forcible conversion of the Jews of the island:
But one day, young Nicolau made an off-handed comment that would end up changing his life forever.
Sitting in the car with his mother, they drove down Jafuda (Yehuda) Cresques Street, which was named after a well-known Jewish cartographer who lived in Palma centuries ago. Nicolau pointed to the street sign and giggled, telling his mother, "He was a Xueta!" (a derogatory word in Catalan, pronounced 'shweta', which is used to refer to the descendants of Mallorcan Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism over five centuries ago).
Nicolau's mother then turned to him and said, "Why are you laughing? You, too, are a Xueta."
The disclosure caught Nicolau completely by surprise. "I was stunned. I remember clearly that for several weeks, all I could think about was: 'Me? I am a Xueta?' You have to understand that this was considered a terrible word, a slur."
The more Nicolau thought about the fact that his family had Jewish roots, the more difficult it was for him to grapple with his entirely new sense of identity. "It was very hard for me. In the Mallorcan Christian mentality, Jews and Xuetas are considered such a terrible thing, so I suddenly had to confront the fact that I came from what was viewed as being the lowest and dirtiest of places in the universe."
Those negative attitudes towards Mallorca's Jews and Xuetas were a product of the centuries of anguish and torment that Nicolau's newly-discovered ancestors had been forced to endure from their unforgiving Catholic neighbors.
No one knows precisely when the first Jews arrived in Mallorca, but the Jewish presence on the island is said to date back possibly as far as the 5th century CE.
At the turn of the 14th century, the Jews' situation deteriorated 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. In 1311, Palma de Majorca's synagogue was confiscated and turned into a church, and Jewish property was seized.
The turning point, however, came in 1391, when violent anti-Jewish pogroms swept across Spain. On August 2, the riots reached Mallorca. Many Jews were massacred and entire communities wiped out, while others were forcibly converted, possibly including Nicolau's forefathers.
Subsequently, the Inquisition became particularly active in the area, and there were numerous cases involving converted Jews who had returned to Judaism being burnt alive at the stake. The Church's harsh tactics led additional Jews, who had arrived in Mallorca after the 1391 massacre, to adopt Christianity under compulsion.
Nonetheless, the native Mallorcans never accepted the Jewish converts, and began referring to them as Xuetas, which historians believe is related to the Catalan word for pig.
A particularly brutal incident occurred on the island in 1667, when a boatload of Jews on the way to Leghorn anchored off Mallorca on a brief stopover to purchase supplies. The Inquisitorial authorities seized a 16-year old boy from the ship named Jacobo Lopez after receiving information that his parents had been practicing Judaism in secret. After allowing the rest of the ship's passengers to set sail, they tortured Lopez until he confessed. But the young hero refused to renounce his Jewish beliefs, despite the great danger that he faced. Church authorities subsequently burned him alive in January 1675 in front of some 30,000 spectators and onlookers.
As late as 1691, some three hundred years after the forcible conversions, large numbers of Xuetas were tried and executed by the Inquisition for "relapsing" to Judaism. Despite the passage of so many years, many of them had continued to practice Judaism in secret, marrying only among themselves in an effort to keep alive the faith and heritage of their ancestors.
But discrimination against the Xuetas continued well into the 19th century, and legal restrictions against them were formally lifted only in 1931.
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, when cruelty and fanaticism in the Peninsula were engaged in active persecution of the Jewish race, the unhappy Jews of Majorca came in for a full share of ill-treatment and suffering. To the cry of "Death to the Jews," they were assaulted by the populace in their quarter of the town of Palma; they were made to kiss a cross of wood, with which they were afterwards beaten, and the death of a boy, killed in the affray, was the pretext for a general sack of their houses and homes. The Majorcan Jews were not, however, finally converted until the year 1435, when it was brought about in this wise. Don Vicente Mut relates that, during Passion Week, some of the Jews conceived the horrible and blasphemous idea of naming one of their slaves after our Lord, and making him suffer what our Saviour had suffered during the Holy Week. The wretched man did not die on the cross to which he was finally attached, but four of the principal Jews were condemned to be burned alive for their crime. The offer of being hanged instead was however made on the condition of their being converted and Christianised. These four criminals were ultimately declared to be converted, and their example was followed by the rest of the prisoners, and in two days more than two hundred were baptized. The result of this rapid conversion was, that the very people who had clamoured for the lives of the criminals now prayed for their pardon, which was finally granted, even to the four who had been condemned to be burned.
The descendants of these people, to whom the name of Chueta is now applied, form the fifth class of the inhabitants of these islands. Although professing to be Christians—for there are no Jews now in the islands—they live as much apart from the people as if they still professed the religion of their forefathers; they occupy a separate quarter of the town of Palma, and they intermarry, with very rare exceptions, only amongst themselves. They are chiefly engaged as silversmiths, but in whatever trade they are occupied they are reputed to do well and make money.
And more from a 19th century magazine:
[W]e must now cross to the island of Majorca, in the Mediterranean. Here, in the fifteenth century, we find mention of some persecuted Jewish refugees who had fled to Majorca for protection, and who had, at least to all appearance, embraced the Catholic faith. They were called Chuetas, a diminutive of the Majorcan word ' chuya'—bacon, in polite allusion to the faith they had abjured. They settled in the town of Palma, where they carried on various trades so successfully that the Holy Inquisition soon cast a covetous eye on their money-bags, which it thought were too plump for orthodoxy. It is difficult to read calmly of the doings of the priests, who between 1435 and 1780 burned and tortured hundreds of these unfortunate wretches, always under the pretence of unsoundness of faith, confiscating, of course, all their goods to Holy Mother Church. In 1687 the Chuetas attempted to escape in an English vessel, hoping to find a safer refuge in another island, but an unrelenting fate cast them back in a tempest to their old dwelling-place, where they were seized and severely punished for this additional crime. To commemorate the event, the Inquisition ordered a series of paintings to be executed in the cloister of the Dominicans at Palma. Each picture represented one of the martyrs who had perished in the flames, his name, age, and the date of his punishment being written at the bottom. Several of these pictures were decorated with cross-bones, to distinguish the portraits of those whose ashes had been exhumed and cast to the winds. These works of art were to be seen at the beginning of this century. In 1782 there were more than three hundred families of Chuetas in Majorca, who still lived under a ban, and who, although they had to pay taxes, were excluded from all the privileges and rights of the other citizens.There are other horror stories of how these crypto-Jews were treated.