Due to considerable confusion and misinformation regarding Spain’s newly enacted Spanish Citizenship Law for Sephardim who can furnish proof of their ancestry and their ongoing connection to Spain, Fernando Carderera, Spain’s Ambassador to Israel held a press briefing at his embassy on Friday in which he outlined some of the background to the new legislation and what it will entail for applicants.
He was aided in this by Hansi Escobar, the Spanish Consul General in Jerusalem, Manuel Gonzales, the Consul and Cultural Attache at the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv and Carmen Alvarez the Director of the Cervantes Institute in Tel Aviv.
Carderera opened the meeting by quoting Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catala, who said with regard to this historic development in Spanish-Jewish relations: “Spain closed a door in 1492. This door fully reopens on October 1, 2015. Spain is today an open, inclusive, tolerant society.” Catala had also emphasized that the law was by way of recognition of the outstanding importance of the Sephardim in Spanish history and culture.
Noting that the law was unanimously passed by all political parties in the Spanish Parliament, and has the full support of the Spanish Jewish community, Carderera said that this was a unique case in that the Sephardim whose ancestors were expelled in 1492 have kept Spain in their hearts for five centuries. Though scattered throughout the world, often in small, non-connected communities, they have maintained their memories, their songs, their traditions, their prayers – and very significantly, said Carderera, “their nostalgia for Sepharad."
After outlining some key elements of the law, its strictures and its special case dispensations, Carderera was asked whether Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon – who is fluent in Spanish and who heads the National Authority for Ladino – would be exempt from some of the conditions should he care to apply for Spanish citizenship.
“If President Navon asks, we’ll be glad to grant him citizenship; he is a special case,” Carderera responded. “I consider Navon a Spaniard even without citizenship. He is my president.”
Applicants will have to prove, he continued, regardless of their current religion or place of residence, that they descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and that they have some kind of ongoing attachment to Spain.
In the latter case they have to be familiar with Spain's history and culture including the Spanish Constitution, and they have to have a basic knowledge of the Spanish language. Anyone with knowledge of Ladino or Haketia will find it easy to master Spanish, said Gonzales, though in some cases Ladino will suffice.
Applications must be in Spanish and must be accompanied by certification authorized by rabbis, Jewish community leaders or the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which must also approve individuals and institutions that are signing the certification. A Castillian Ketuba (marriage contract) would be a most helpful document.
Applicants who do not speak Spanish or Ladino will have to undergo an in-depth Spanish language course at the Cervantes Institute where they will also be given lessons in Spanish history and culture. The course will entail between six to seven months of study, said Alvarez and an effort is being made to reduce it from 60 hours to 45 hours. It will be conducted in conjunction with Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and possibly Ashdod College. It will also be available online. The total cost of the course, including the exams which must be taken by all applicants, will be somewhere between NIS 6,000 and NIS 7,000. The cost for citizenship applications will be 100 Euros and the only additional expense incurred will be that all applicants must come to Spain at least once.
Many Israelis who are addicted to telenovelas have learned Spanish from television, observed Gonzales, and will not find it difficult to brush up on their existing knowledge at the Cervantes Institute.
Carderera, Escobar and Gonzales each made it clear that there is no need for applicants to hire the services of lawyers if they can furnish the requirements themselves.
“Citizenship is a totally personal issue,” Carderera explained. He would not even begin to speculate on how many Israelis are eligible for Spanish citizenship, but said that Spain would love to have tens of thousands of people from whatever countries they live in to apply. “We are more than happy to welcome as many new Spanish citizens as possible,” he said.
According to Gonzales, the Embassy has already been flooded with inquiries.
Even though many callers believe themselves to be entitled to citizenship, it is not an instant addition to status, but a long process that can take up to twelve months, and even then, added Gonzales, if applicants have all the necessary proof, but fail in the language and culture exams, they have to start again from scratch.
Other than for exceptional cases, the new legislation will be valid for three years, with the possibility of the government adding a one year extension.
Cardarera said that it was very moving for him to hear Ladino spoken because it contains many antiquated Spanish words that are no longer in usage.
The roots of the citizenship legislation go back more than a hundred years. In the 19th century Jews living in Spain were permitted to have their own cemeteries, said Carderera. In 1900 Jews were allowed to once again open synagogues in Spain, and in 1924, Sephardim were for the first time since the Spanish Inquisition offered Spanish citizenship by law. During World War II, Spanish diplomats used this citizenship law to save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. Some of these diplomats have been recognized as 'Righteous among the Nations.'
In 1981, the former citizenship law was modified so that Sephardim applying for citizenship had to reside in Spain for only two years instead of ten as was previously the case. Under current legislation, they don’t have to reside in Spain at all. In 1990, the Sephardic communities were the recipients of the Prince of Asturius Award for Concord – Spain’s most prestigious award. The presentation was made by Crown Prince Felipe who is now King Felipe VI.
In 1992, five hundred years after the expulsion, King Juan Carlos, the father of the present monarch, accompanied by Israel’s then president Chaim Herzog visited the Synagogue of Madrid and declared, “Sepharad is no longer a nostalgia, but a house where Jews should not feel at home, but where they are at home.”
Juan Carlos, whose title included King of Jerusalem, came to Israel in 1993.
The briefing at the Spanish Embassy on Friday was also attended by a representative of the Portuguese Embassy who wanted to pick up a few tips from his Spanish colleagues. Similar legislation to that of Spain has also been drafted by Portuguese lawmakers who believe that the injustice done to Jews –who 500 years ago were told to convert to Christianity or leave the country – must be reversed.