Latest research shows that large numbers of non-Jews are declaring Jewish identity and joining Jewish communities around the world without undergoing a conversion process of any kind.
The shocking statistics were presented by demographic experts at the Van Leer Center in Yerushalayim this week.
Hebrew University demographer Prof. Della-Pergola said that in addition to the roughly 15 million Jews in the world today (figures vary widely depending on demographic critetia), there are also “hundreds of thousands around the world joining the Jewish people without conversion.”
British historian Tudor Parfitt suggested that the phenomenon is even more extensive. Parfitt described a global “shadow community” of “Jews” numbering between 13.5 million and 14 million. Millions of these would be eligible to emigrate to Israel as Jewish citizens under the Law of Return.
According to Della-Pergola, in the U.S. alone there are over 100,00 recent “converts.”
The people surveyed come from a wide variety of geographical regions and ethnic backgrounds. They include the descendants of Marranos, millions in Asia claiming to trace their lineage to the Lost Tribes, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union whose Jewish identity remains in question.
In addition, self-declared Jewish communities can be found in places as diverse as northeastern India, Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua, the jungles of South America and southern and central Africa, Parfitt said.
“Certainly globalization plays a very important role in this phenomenon,” explained Parfitt, “but I think one of the interesting, paradoxical things is the effect of the Holocaust and the way that people want to identify as Jews. You’d think that it would be the opposite, but in the case of both the Igbo and the Tutsi tribes in Africa, for example, they both had their own genocides, and they increasingly perceive themselves as Jews as a result of that.”
Parfitt, an emeritus professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, is currently a distinguished professor at Florida International University, where he is director of its Center of Global Jewish Communities.
Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University, who studies the lost tribes, said the growing phenomenon of “wannabe Jews,” as she called them, was motivated partly by a desire for economic improvement, since many of those claiming this status were from very poor countries. But she agreed that globalization was a more important factor.
While some of these communities, like the Bnei Menashe of Israel, have undergone formal conversion so they could emigrate to Israel, not all are interested in moving to Israel.
“In Africa, among groups I work with, there doesn’t seem to be a large number that want to come to Israel,” said Parfitt. “They love Israel, they support Israel, they want to study, but they’re not dying to come.”
On the other hand, he said, tens of thousands of newly identified Jews in Papua New Guinea say they do want to come.