Peru’s Jewish community mirrors many across the diaspora. It is urban, well-educated, middle-class and business-oriented. Most members are descendants of European Ashkenazim. But the South American nation is also home to a small number of devout so-called Inca Jews — native Indians from the Andean highlands who were converted by a disillusioned Catholic.
While there is no current consensus, an estimated 200 indigenous converts live in two cities that lie 400 miles north of Lima, Peru’s capital and home to its traditional community of around 3,000 Jews. The majority, however, have made aliyah, mostly to the West Bank where they number around 500.
The origins of the Inca Jews, known as the B’nai Moshe, are vague and mythical. Accounts trace their story to a man called Sigundo Villanueva, a religious Catholic from Cajamarca, the Andean city where Spanish colonialists famously defeated Atahualpa, an Inca ruler, in 1553. In the 1560s, Villanueva became unsatisfied with his faith and embraced Judaism. One version of the story says he moved to Spain, where he studied further and, on returning to Peru, imparted his knowledge to 500 native Indians. Another says he never travelled, but established a kibbutz outside Cajamarca.
One fact is uncontested. The Inca Jews — reflecting a discrimination of native Indians across South America — were rejected by the main group in Lima. “The community in Lima consists of a certain socio-economic class and did not want them because they are from a lower level,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, who travelled to Peru a decade ago to convert 90 native Indians.
Rabbi Birnbaum’s trip with an Israeli Chief Rabbinate delegation marked one of a number of official conversions of the Inca Jews, then encouraged to make aliyah. The latest group emigrated in 2006. The first mass conversions took place in the early 1990s and were preceded by a visit from Myron Zuber, a US rabbi who was struck by the Indians’ devoutness.
“These people were extremely self-sacrificing,” he wrote about his 1988 trip. “They constantly thought about being Jewish and were prepared to offer all their possessions in order to practise Judaism properly.” Rabbi Zuber gave the example of a man who travelled to neighbouring Ecuador to work in the mines so that he could afford to buy his son tefillin and a suit for his barmitzvah.
Most of the Inca Jews live in the West Bank, where they have taken Hebrew names and assimilated well. Some are reported to work on farms. Others, according to Rabbi Zuber, have joined the Israeli army. Their roots, however, remain important. “We are of Indian origin,” Nachshon Ben-Haim, formerly Pedro Mendoza, who lives in the Alon Shvut settlement, told Ha’aretz in 2002.