Spanish attitudes on immigration may have hobbled return law

The new law, which allows for the repatriation of Sephardi Jews, has been touted by politicians in Madrid as a grand gesture aimed at reconciliation and the righting of a historic wrong.

By
June 15, 2015 05:39
4 minute read.
Madrid

A Spanish flag waves over the Spanish parliament in Madrid. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Spain’s new law allowing descendants of Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula half a millennium ago to obtain citizenship of their former homeland is a “missed opportunity,” David Hatchwell Altaras believes.

The president of the Jewish community of Madrid and vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, Hatchwell has called the new legislation, which was enacted on Thursday, “historic,” but he also believes that it is not as robust as it might have been.

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In 1492, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were presented with a choice: convert or accept exile. Those who left migrated to North Africa and the Middle East, while many of those who stayed became underground Jews, hiding their religion under the guise of devout Catholicism.

The new law, which allows for the repatriation of Sephardi Jews, has been touted by politicians in Madrid as a grand gesture aimed at reconciliation and the righting of a historic wrong, but some have asserted that it compares unfavorably with a similar bill passed by the Portuguese last year.

Speaking with Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv on Friday, Spain’s ambassador to the Jewish state laid out a series of requirements that must be fulfilled by prospective returnees, including a working knowledge of Spanish, or its Hebraic derivative Ladino, as well as familiarity with Spain’s culture and constitutional system.

The process, which could take up to a year to complete, could cost applicants thousands of shekels in fees for language courses, and the entire window of opportunity for applying will itself be open for only three years.

Portugal’s law, on the other hand, is open-ended and requires only that a prospective immigrant be able to prove Portuguese Jewish ancestry, be a legal adult and have no criminal record.

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Spain’s law is “definitely more restrictive,” said Hatchwell, explaining that Portugal is much more “forthcoming” in its immigration policies.

He cited a remark by one congressman who quipped on the day of the bill’s passage that if the requirements being imposed on the Jews were likewise imposed on his fellow legislators, many of them would not make the cut.

“So it was awkward that something like this would be demanded from people that actually have the right [to return] and that have a link and a set of traditions for 500 years,” Hatchwell said.

“I think it has to do with the Portuguese government and the Portuguese political parties being more forthcoming, in terms of this specific moment in time, to immigration – definitely not in terms of Spain having anti-Semitism conditioning these kinds of things. On the contrary, it’s a gesture,” he explained, adding that he considers the format of the Spanish law to constitute “a missed opportunity.”

“Spain’s law should have been as forthcoming as the Portuguese one...[and] I would have preferred the Portuguese way.”

Michael Freund is the founder of a Shavei Israel, an organization that works to connect the descendants of Conversos – Jews who pretended to convert to Catholicism to avoid expulsion – with their Hebraic heritage. He believes that “the Portuguese are far more open to conferring citizenship on descendants of Sephardi Jews in a user-friendly manner” than their Spanish counterparts.

While it is ironic that “Spain expelled its Jews in part because they wanted the Jews’ assets” and is now “ostensibly welcoming Jews back primarily for the same reason, such a move should be commended,” he said.

Despite the issues that some may have with the bill, he continued, “it is refreshing to see European states making an effort to welcome Jews so openly.

This will hopefully send a strong signal to other countries on the continent and underline how Europe’s historical connection with the Jewish people truly does stretch back over the centuries.”

The government of Portugal’s approach to immigration has differed sharply from that of Spain in recent years, with Lisbon recently coming in second in the Migrant Integration Policy Index, which charts countries’ success in integrating newcomers. Both countries have experienced blowback against rising immigration, but Madrid has taken a much harder line than its western neighbor.

While the Portuguese president was recently quoted by a local newspaper as stating that the continent’s migration crisis “should be at the top of the agenda for the European Union and for all of our nations,” Spain last month was one of several nations that pushed back against an EU plan to impose immigration quotas on its member states.

France, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the UK also opposed a quota system.

A study conducted last year by the University of Limerick indicated that Spanish attitudes toward immigrants had worsened significantly between since 2002, while earlier this year it was reported that illegal immigration to Spain had jumped 70 percent in 2014.

It appears that the Spanish backlash against illegal migration and the resentment toward immigrants in a worsening economic climate may have contributed to a more restrictive repatriation law, and Sephardi Jews are paying the price.

Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.

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