Half a millennium after expelling its Jews, Spain passed a law granting the right of citizenship to their descendants, known collectively as Sephardim, on Thursday afternoon.
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.
Thursday’s legislation, an attempt to rectify the events of the 15th century, was deemed a “historic rehabilitation” by Spanish Foreign Minister Manuel Garcia Margallo and Justice Minister Rafael Catala, who were both present in the legislature when the bill – which has been in the works for three years – finally passed.
“This says a lot about what we were in the past and what we are today and [that] the Spaniards want to be in the future an open, diverse and tolerant Spain,” Catala was quoted as saying by Telam, an Argentinian news agency.
The bill is set to be officially enacted in October, when the Jewish community will be able to begin vetting the lineage of applicants for the government.
“We are happy to live this historic moment,” David Hatchwell Altaras, the president of the Jewish community of Madrid and vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain (FCJE), told The Jerusalem Post
. “While the law is not perfect, it is a great gesture and it is a step in the right direction for a better and deeper relationship between Spain and its Jews. It shows what the new Spain is all about.”
In an official statement, the FCJE said that Thursday began a “new stage in the history of the relationship between Spain and the Jewish world; a new period of encounter, dialogue and harmony.”
“Contrary to what one might think,” the statement continued, “the descendants of those expelled have not harbored feelings of hatred or resentment but rather the contrary, they cultivated a deep love for the land they were from and intense loyalty to the tradition and language received from their elders.”
Prospective citizens would have to prove their ancestry and prove they have a basic knowledge of Spain and its culture.
They will also be required to visit the country at least once and, according to reports, will be required to pay an application fee of 100 euros.
In an interview with the Post earlier this week, Hatchwell said he believed the law would be a boon for Sephardi Jews facing rising anti-Semitism in Turkey and Venezuela.
Turkish Jews have expressed concerns over anti-Semitic sentiments expressed both in their country’s media and by national politicians, while Venezuela’s government has come under criticism by Jewish groups for not only failing to combat anti-Semitism but actually promoting it in some cases.
Spanish, and therefore European, citizenship could provide a measure of safety for Jews in both communities, Hatchwell said.
Last month, The New York Times
reported that “thousands of Sephardi Jews in Turkey who trace their ancestry to Spain...are now applying for Spanish citizenship.”
The Spanish Embassy in Ankara replied with a statement that “no applications have yet been processed,” according to the Daily Sabah
, a Turkish newspaper.
The new law is a “positive act which may provide a very small measure, perhaps symbolic, of comfort to the descendants of those viciously kicked out of Spain or brutally and forcibly disconnected from the Jewish people,” commented Ashley Perry, a Sephardi Jew and a former adviser to ex-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman.
Perry – together with Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov – is currently working to establish a Knesset lobby for the rights of the descendants of the so-called conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were coerced into converting.
“The Spanish law should provide the impetus for Israel and the Jewish world to do our part in repairing the historic injustice of the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion and reconnect with the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities which were forcibly and cruelly ripped from us,” said Ilatov.
“This will be one of the main goals of our Knesset lobby.”
Asked about the lobby, Hatchwell said that “anything that can help Spanish people wanting to reconnect with their origins is something positive to me.”
According to Perry, the purpose of the lobby will be to examine all of the issues surrounding such people, who he estimates may number in the tens of millions worldwide.
“There are a few hundred who are converting and making aliya every year but there are still many issues,” he explained.
While not one of the goals of the nascent lobby, Perry said that he personally would like to push for an Israeli law along the lines of that passed by Spain.
“We should take the Spanish and Portuguese laws and create a law in Israel modeled on them where people who can demonstrate ancestry and commitment to the Jewish people... should be welcomed back to Israel and the Jewish people.”
There are many such people who are interested in reconnecting with their past, he said, citing the example of the Falash Mura, the descendants of Ethiopian Jews forcibly converted to Christianity. In their case, they were brought to Israel and allowed to study in conversion courses.
Michael Freund, the founder of Shavei Israel, an organization that works with the descendants of conversos in several countries, likewise called for Israel to learn from Spain.
“I think that the decision by Spain should be a wake up call for the Israeli government to embark on a new strategic approach and to reach out to bnei anusim
,” he said, using the Hebrew word for conversos.
“A growing number of [them] are looking to strengthen their Jewish identity and reclaim their Jewish roots and return to our people,” he said. “It is vital that Israel take steps to strengthen their connection.”