A Spanish odyssey: Digging up Sephardi roots

Almost two years on, it’s time to examine a much-talked-about law meant to right a historical wrong for exiled Sephardim and offer them Spanish citizenship.

Tourists pay a visit to Toledo’s 12th-century synagogue, Santa Maria La Blanca, in central Spain. (photo credit: VICTOR FRAILE/REUTERS)
Tourists pay a visit to Toledo’s 12th-century synagogue, Santa Maria La Blanca, in central Spain.
It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Spain before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced them to convert or leave the country in 1492. Today, the number of their descendants, including those known as Sephardim, is believed to be millions worldwide.
In February 2014, the international press began to report that Spain was to amend Article 23 of its Civil Code, thus making it possible for Sephardi Jews and their descendants to apply for Spanish citizenship without the need for residency, or to give up any other passports they might hold. The announcement of this change in the law was accompanied by much speculation and expectation.
The law, however, was not passed until June, 2015, and was not activated until October of that year. Whereas at first there was excitement about the prospect, over time possible candidates lost momentum, and many considered the law too complicated and costly to deal with. Although costs were supposed to be low, with candidates applying via an online platform for a fee of €100, and told they did not need a lawyer to assist in the process, the reality is not that simple.
Maya Weiss-Tamir is an Israeli lawyer who currently assists those wishing to apply for Spanish nationality. Her clients include people who originally “thought the process would be easy, and then were unable to communicate with the notaries assigned to them [in Spain] and now they need help.”
She says that there was “great commotion” before the law was implemented, but reassures that despite the seemingly difficult and sometimes complicated process, “it is doable.”
The costs depend on the person’s needs, as Weiss-Tamir explains. “A genealogical report costs money; an old family ketuba [marriage contract] doesn’t,” she says, estimating around €3,500 to €4,500, “including the translations, but not including travel, accommodation and the notary.” The process also requires learning the Spanish language, which should be taken into account as well.
EARLIER THIS summer, in the Spanish Senate, Senator Jon Iñarritu, a member of the Basque EH Bildu party, asked whether Law 12/2015 had fulfilled its aim.
“Before it was approved,” he said, it seemed that “hundreds of thousands” would apply, and yet, “due to the way it is being carried out,” it has become “a complicated path,” and “an obstacle course.”
Sworn translator Myriam Nahon (the only person in Israel whose Hebrew-to-Spanish translations are recognized by the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry) said expectations with regard to the number of applicants “were out of sync with reality.”
“At first they spoke about millions, then hundreds of thousands, then tens of thousands. And yet by July they hadn’t reached 7,000 applicants,” she says.
“When they started talking about it, they got worried that millions would come running, so they decided that the applications would not be made through the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but via an Internet platform, under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry,” Nahon says.
Carmen Alvarez, director of the Spanish cultural Instituto Cervantes in Tel Aviv, also says she thought that “everyone expected more people... I didn’t, so much, because the law is complex, and it is difficult to simplify it.
“The [Hebrew] press in Israel was quite negative [about the law] and this convinced many people not to apply,” adds Nahon.
“It is clear that something has gone wrong to account for such a gigantic discrepancy,” Santiago Trancon, co-founder of España-dCIDE, Spain’s newest political party, told The Jerusalem Post. “The procedures it requires are confusing, and the conditions are difficult,” he says.
For Salomon Buzaglo, manager of the Institute for Sephardi and Anusim Studies at Netanya Academic College, “the spirit of the law is not reflected in its reality.”
The law “was presented as a way of doing justice with the Sephardim, but in the end it is not really, as some people can fall between the cracks. The requirements are not easy, including the necessity of learning the language,” Buzaglo said.
NAHON, A former member of the Madrid Jewish community, who considers herself “an interpreter by trade and an intermediary between cultures by vocation,” has created a page in Hebrew on her website with the aim of explaining the entire process.
The documents required by the Spanish Justice Ministry fall into four categories: a set of proofs of Sephardi origin; proof of knowledge of Spanish and of Spanish culture; a set of proofs that the applicant has a link to present-day Spain; and documents that the applicant identifies with, which are passport, birth certificate and background check.
Nahon’s advice is that applicants start by registering for the Spanish language and culture exams – which can be taken at the Instituto Cervantes in Tel Aviv, and then go on to gather the rest of the required proofs. A set of proofs, she said, means at least “two pieces of evidence.”
The applicant also needs to prove he or she has a link to present-day Spain. But the basic requirement is of course, proof of the Sephardi origin.
A certificate from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain can complete a “set of proofs” when combined with an applicant’s knowledge of Ladino, for example, ownership of a family ketuba written according to the tradition of Castile and Leon etc..
Ladino speakers must provide proof of their claim by means of a certificate from a recognized institution. Those whose parents or grandparents speak Ladino, even if they themselves do not, can have a relative take the test instead.
Another proof of Sephardi origin is the “expert report.”
This can be obtained from the Institute for Anusim in Netanya; from Prof. Dov Cohen (who has dealt with several Turkish families); and Prof. Eliezer Papo of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, former chief rabbi of the Sarajevo community.
A “letter of recommendation” is also an option, but it must be certified by the federation in order to qualify as a piece of evidence. Letters of recommendation are provided, in Israel, by former chief rabbi of the Madrid community, Benito Garzon; the Organization of Jewish Communities of North Africa; and the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem.
Prof. Abraham Haim, president of the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities, bases his recommendations “on the submission of documents and a personal interview,” he explains.
“The letter we provide states that the person is of Spanish origin, and that his or her ancestors lived there.” The cost is NIS 1,000 per adult.
Once candidates have all of the relevant documents, they must sign up on the online platform, upload copies and close the application. They will then each have a notary assigned to them after they indicate which part of Spain they are able to travel to.
If the requested documentation is complete, the notary will summon the applicant to a meeting in Spain, to which they must bring the originals and notarized translations. The notary will then draft a protocol.
“The protocol goes to the Justice Ministry for approval. The final step is to swear an oath of allegiance to Spain in the presence of a consul, and fill out a form to be included in the Spanish Civil Registry,” Nahon said.
DAVID COHEN (not his real name) is waiting, any moment now, for a phone call to tell him to go to his local Spanish embassy, for the swearing in “and sign a final document to become a Spanish citizen.”
His journey began in December 2015. For Cohen, who prefers to use an alias (until his status becomes official), the process “took a long time, because I had to gather family documents and prepare to move to Spain. Once there, I had to learn Spanish. I registered online for the Spanish and the citizenship exams.”
Although residence is not a requirement, Cohen, who did not speak Spanish, chose to attend a 10-week language course in Madrid. Subsequently, he “listened to Spanish podcasts, read an e-book that taught Spanish, attended language exchanges in Madrid and used mobile apps [to learn the language].”
Both his maternal grandparents were born in North Africa, but he only had his mother’s and her father’s birth certificates. “At first my grandfather’s birth certificate was rejected by the federation because, when he immigrated to Israel, he registered with a different first name than appeared on his North African birth certificate.”
Eventually, Cohen “found enough supporting documents” connecting his grandfather “to his other kids,” in order to prove “that he was my grandfather.”
Then he needed proof that he was Sephardi.
At this point, Alberto de Lara-Bendahan and Rosa Martinez, “my lawyers and translators, of Nacionalidad Para Sefardies, connected me with the Institute for Sephardi and Anusim Studies at Netanya Academic College, to request an ‘expert report.’ I could not have completed the process without their help,” Cohen says.
At the Institute, genealogist Abraham Garcia “produced a long report of my family tree with historical records for our surnames, and connected that to the Jews from a particular town in Spain.”
EXPERT GENEALOGIST Garcia explained how the reports work. “We provide proof of a Jewish community in the applicant’s place of origin. Take, for example, someone whose family is from Istanbul. We prove that the surname is Sephardi and was used by Jews before the expulsion in Spain.”
This includes registries of births, deaths and marriages, property sales, Inquisition records and historical studies of the area.
“I write a report that includes a family tree of grandparents and great-grandparents with a connection to the Mediterranean basin,” he explains.
In some cases, such as when a family hails from Iraq, “we need to provide historic-scientific proof that a Sephardi community was established there in medieval times, as a result of the expulsion,” he adds.
Reports for applicants from Latvia and Poland are much more difficult. “But if the story is true, there is always a way to prove it, even circumstantially.
“Cases of Anusim are also complicated, but we follow a branch of the family tree until we find proof that someone was persecuted for judaizing. It can be on the maternal or the paternal line, but it must go back some 15 generations.”
Presently, Garcia is working on a report for someone “from Izmir, descended from those who converted with Shabtai Zvi. He is lucky because he has a ketuba from his fifth grandmother on the maternal line.”
According to Cohen, “The entire process [of applying for Spanish nationality] took many months of back and forth.” Asked to define his experience, he says some parts “took a few repeated attempts,” and that he was sometimes “surprised or let down along the way.”
How it all began and where we are heading Gabriel Elorriaga, who represented the Partido Popular at the proposal of Law 12/2015, and is a former president of the “Spain-Israel Friendship” parliamentary group explained that “there is a renaissance of interest in Sepharad,” with the law particularly aimed at those “who have preserved the songs and gastronomy and love of medieval Spain.”
“On our side, our historic Spanish reality had been lost,” Elorriaga says. “Nobody studied the [Jewish] philosophers, doctors, etc., who contributed to our country, our history. But what is still here is the deep cultural influence.”
Referring to the Jewish tourism route, “Red de Juderias” or Network of Jewish Quarters, an association of municipalities that has spread over the past 20 years, he says “it creates a proximity that allows Spaniards to understand that these people, these Sephardim, ‘are us, but we threw them out.’”
When Isaac Querub became president of the Federation in 2011, he met with then-justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon to discuss legal reforming of the Penal Code, “in order to penalize incitement to hate and antisemitism in all its forms, including on the Internet,” and “to penalize Holocaust denial.” The reform was accepted and realized through some legal changes.
At that same meeting, Gallardon and Querub spoke of removing two conditions from the law of nationality for Sephardim: that they should no longer have to relinquish their other nationalities [a condition nonexistent for any other group] and the abolition of the two-year residency requirement.
“Concerned about the situation of Jews in Turkey and Venezuela,” Gallardon asked Querub to collaborate on the elaboration of a new law.
According to Elorriaga, “The problem with the [new] law is that at this point, conditions [for immigration in general] are especially rigorous, due to massive immigration over the years, especially from North Africa... therefore the exams in language and citizenship are general requirements.”
Translator Nahon says she is “bothered” by the condition that require all applicants for “a specific link to present Spain.”
She said that by speaking Ladino, “these people have kept a link to medieval Spain, with their language and customs,” and that this should be sufficient.
She added that “if they speak Ladino, they shouldn’t be expected to speak Spanish,” she said.
In fact, a slight alteration was made in recent months regarding taking the Spanish exam for those who speak Ladino: In addition to knowledge of Ladino being a proof of Sephardi origin, those over 70 who speak Ladino are also exempt from the Spanish Language exam (as are all candidates under the age of 18).
The Spanish language exam and the culture exam are available at Cervantes, where Alvarez said some 15 to 20 people sit for the exams weekly.
She has encountered “many very touching stories,” she says, such as “a lady from Smyrna, over 80, who is applying for nationality for the sake of her parents, who always talked a lot about Spain.”
Another woman, who lost her entire family in Salonika, except for her parents, saved by the Spanish consul in Athens, is doing it because she was the last one in her family who had still not ‘returned,’ Alvarez says.
The Institute for Anusim Studies at Netanya Academic College provides the informe motivado (expert report) written in Spanish and stamped by a Spanish-speaking notary in Israel, necessary when applicants find that they, alone, cannot prove they are Sephardi.
“So far,” Buzaglo says, “although we have had some 150 inquiries about expert reports, only 20 people have requested them and these have been completed. Four of the reports were requested by Anusim; these were difficult, but we were able to provide them, and today they have Spanish nationality... This is very little compared to expectations.”
MEANWHILE, BACK in the Madrid Senate, Iñarritu continued, “Perhaps for the [Spanish] government the aim has been fulfilled, if what they wanted was to restrict the number of applicants requesting nationality?”
He called for “modification” of the law by simplifying the requirements and removing the deadline, and asked whether the Spanish government plans to take stock of the problems that have arisen, and examine what can be improved.
Secretary of State of Justice Carmen Sanchez-Cortes answered that the government was “completely open and available to consider any improvements necessary” and to hear about “any special difficulties detected” in carrying out the law, “or if the process turns out to be particularly heavy for those it is meant to benefit.”
“If that were the case, the government, with the political parties, of course, would be the first to proceed to a modification of the law,” she said.
Under the current law, applications for Spanish citizenships can be filed only until October 2018. However, the deadline, Sanchez-Cortes said in the Senate, “could be extended by an agreement of a council of ministers; there is an important margin of flexibility.”
The federation is currently working on having the deadline extended for a further year, until October 2019, Querub told the Post.
Elorriaga said that “despite the deadline, at this period when antisemitism is growing in Europe, it must be pointed out that the law can be reactivated at any time, on humanitarian grounds and this is a historical attitude,” referring to several cases of Spanish diplomats providing documentation to Jews in danger, in 1924, during World War II, in 1967 and in 1994.
Trancon, a writer, scholar and expert on the Jewish influence in Spanish literature, told the Post that “the procedure must be simplified and the desire to return of the descendants – not only of those expelled, but also of the condemned, the converts, the crypto Jews and the Anusim – must be taken into account.”
He said there was a “need to look beyond this law and open up dialogue about a larger issue: the relationship of Spaniards with their Jewish past,” and for education to reflect “real knowledge about this past and the enormous influence of the Jewish culture and tradition on Spanish culture and the Spanish nation. “It is impossible to understand our past, and even our present, without knowledge of that decisive influence.”
Miriam Nahon's explanatory website El Abanico
Official online platform for applying for Spanish nationality
Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain
Nacionalidad para Sefardies
(Cohen's lawyers in Spain)
The Institute for Sephardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College
Expert genealogist Abraham Garcia 
Cervantes Institute, Tel Aviv