Reconnecting descendants with their Jewish roots


PERHAPS it was inevitable, given Ashley Perry's family history, that his career would lead him down the Sephardi heritage road.

The 41-year-old, who now lives in Efrat, eight miles south of Jerusalem, is president of Reconectar, which facilitates the reconnection of descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the Jewish people.

Ashley's original family surname is Perez and he comes from one of the oldest Sephardi families in England.

Zionism was imbued in him from a young age by his late father Wolf, a former head of the Zionist Federation and European Jewish Congress and world chairman of Keren Hayesod.

He was also an adviser to Israeli president Zalman Shahar and prime minister Moshe Sharrett and worked with prime ministers Golda Meir and Menachem Begin.

"For my father, Zionism was so powerful - it was central to everything," Ashley said. "It was a case of putting Israel first and we would holiday there two or three times a year."

It was no surprise, then, that Ashley is passionate about connecting descendants of Sephardim expelled from Iberia with their Jewish identity.

They are known in Ivrit as Anusim, a legal category of Jews in halacha who were forced to abandon Judaism against their will during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.

Ashley, who emigrated to Israel when he was 26 in 2001, said: "We estimate that there are 100-150 million descendants of those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism.

"The majority live in Latin America and, although most of them are Catholics, they have kept what we know as Jewish traditions for centuries. Many of Spain and Portugal's population today are of Jewish descent.

"With Latin America, many of those expelled during the inquisitions would have been on the first boats to the New World. The first synagogue in South America was in Recife, northern Brazil, which is still in use today."

Ashley added: "Today's technology, with DNA testing, genealogy and the internet, means these people can research their Jewish roots.

"I have received hundreds of emails from Bnei Anusim who tell me that their family did not eat milk and meat together, did not eat pork or that they lit candles on a Friday night. They also did not eat bread around Easter time. Every case is different.

"At the moment, we are concentrating on those who self-identify as Jewish, but conversion is not our goal - reconnection is."

Ashley is also director-general of the Knesset Caucus for Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities, of which Uzbekistan-born MK Robert Ilatov is chairman.

"We had our first event in October attended by 350 people from all over the world," Ashley said.

"It is about the Knesset discussing their issues and creating a formal Jewish response, as much of the Jewish world is unaware of these people.

"One gentleman travelled from New Zealand because it was important for him to be there.

"These are people who have kept their Jewish flame alive."

Ashley was raised in London, part of a family which has been in the UK for more than three centuries after arriving from Holland via Spain and Portugal.

He attended Carmel College before reading history at University College London. Part of his course involved a year at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

There was never any question that Ashley would eventually end up in Israel.

He explained: "During the Second World War, my father was stationed in Egypt. One day, he decided to see the yishuv in Palestine, getting on a train from Cairo to Herzilya.

"After visiting, he became a passionate Zionist - something changed in him."

Wolf, who died nine years ago, met his first wife in the Palestine Jewish Brigade. They had four children together.

After their divorce, Wolf moved back to the UK and married Janet - Ashley's mother.

She died when Ashley was one, so he was raised by Wolf and his third wife.

After doing his ulpan in Jerusalem, Ashley took on a number of different roles.

They included public relations adviser at the Prime Minister's Office, as an independent consultant to various Israeli and international organisations and as co-ordinator and consultant at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.

The father-of-five, who is married to Ariella, also spent three years working as senior adviser and communications director to Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

"It was a chance to go behind the curtain, as I call it, and see what goes on behind the scenes with Israel's foreign relations," he said.

Ashley was behind Ayalon's Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands project, which led to the implementation of a remembrance day marking the deportation of Jews from Arab countries.

"The pro-Palestinians talk about refugees, but little is said about the near-million Jews who had to leave the Arab countries when Israel was created," he said.

"It is an issue of moral injustice. They were chucked out overnight, and had their businesses, property and bank accounts taken from them.

"These Jews had lived there for thousands of years - long before the advent of Islam or even Christianity. There were Jews in Saudi Arabia and North Africa before the Arab occupation.

"Many of them were forcibly converted. It is an important part of our history. We Jews are certainly indigenous to the Middle East."

Despite the majority of Israel's Jewish population being of Sephardi and Mizrahi descent, the Ashkenazim have been the ruling elite. And many of the former have claimed their social needs have not been met.

Ashley explained: "There is still a lack of equality. Occasionally, the Sephardim have had to 'Ashkenaz' themselves.

"It is the dominant narrative - the Ashkenazim control the portals of power in Israel.

"If you ask an Ashkenazi is there a problem with racism in Israel, they will say 'no', but that is like asking a white person if there is a problem with racism towards black people.

"There was a television programme a few years ago where an Israeli with an Ashkenazi surname and one with a Sephardi surname submitted their CVs as part of an experiment.

"I think you can guess which one of them had the more positive response. I believe that every glass ceiling should be shattered."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph