How are we to view Spanish and Portuguese legislative initiatives that would, at some unknown future date, offer citizenship to Sephardi Jews throughout the world? On one level, these initiatives, which have been in the works for over a year now, appear to be gestures of reconciliation for the sorrowful treatment of the Jews during the Middle Ages. In 1390, anti-Jewish riots in Spain sparked a wave of exile and conversion that culminated in 1492, when King Ferdinand expelled all the Jews who were left. Some Spanish Jews fled to Portugal. But within a few years King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children. Jews had arrived in Spain and Portugal under Roman rule and lived there under Muslim and Catholic kings for a millennium.
Against the backdrop of campaigns in several European countries to outlaw circumcision and ritual slaughter, the move by Spain and Portugal to redress its history of oppression by extending citizenship to Sephardi Jews might be interpreted as a refreshingly positive trend. And it appears to be connected to another phenomenon sweeping across Spain – the reclamation of an alternative Spanish identity.
In the past decade or so, thousands of Spaniards have embarked on personal journeys to discover their Jewish ancestry. Untold numbers of Spaniards might be descendants of so-called Marranos or crypto-Jews, Jews who hid their identity and ostensibly accepted Christianity so that they could remain in Spain after the expulsion. Jewish quarters in towns such as Leon, Toledo, Gerona, Seville, Cordoba and Palma have been renovated.
As Zionists who believe in the value of aliya or Jewish immigration to Israel, however, we cannot view mass Jewish immigration to Spain as a positive development. Lawyers dealing with citizenship applications to Spain have been inundated with inquiries from Israelis since February 7, when the Spanish government approved a draft citizenship bill.
Throughout the ages, Jews dreamed of Jerusalem.
Yehuda Halevi, one of the leading philosophers and poets of Spain when it was under Muslim rule, wrote: “My heart is in the east, while I am in the uttermost west.... A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain.” Halevi died attempting to come to the land of Israel.
Finally, after nearly two millennia, his dream and the dream of generations of Jews can be realized. A return to Spain is an affront to this legacy.
Perhaps we in Israel can learn from the Spaniards. As Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky pointed out, while Spain is preparing to woo Jews, Israel is doing precious little to attract millions of descendants of Marranos worldwide.
“The State of Israel must ease the way for their return,” Sharansky said.
Admittedly, many who are interested in obtaining Spanish citizenship do not necessary want to move to Spain. Indeed, according to the legislation being considered by Spain and Portugal, residence will not be a precondition for citizenship. And applicants will be allowed to maintain dual citizenship. For many Israelis, adding Spanish citizenship simply provides additional emigration options “just in case.”
Still, it is difficult to escape the impression that financially strapped Spain and Portugal – two countries in the throes of major economic downturns – are attempting to exploit their histories of torture and forced conversion for economic benefits by interesting “rich Jews” in their countries.
And the feasibility of the legislation is highly suspect as well. Spanish government officials working on the draft legislation have acknowledged that defining “Sephardi” for the purposes of the laws is a complicated matter. The drafted law states that the official Jewish federation will be charged with giving certificates that accredit applicants as Sephardi. But it does not say precisely how. It also does not venture into the stickier question of bloodline. No mention is made of how many Sephardi grandparents you need or what sorts of documents can be used or how far back one must trace one’s roots.
It is difficult to know what to make of these Spanish and Portuguese initiatives, if or when they become law. Perhaps the best approach is to hold off judgment in the meantime.