And I pronounce you Spanish

Spain’s ‘Nationality Law’ granted citizenship to thousands of Jews expelled during the 15th century and continues to awaken the country’s rich Jewish history.

Former Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon is the man behind the measure to offer nationality to Sephardim (photo credit: Courtesy)
Former Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon is the man behind the measure to offer nationality to Sephardim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In one fell swoop, by royal decree, 4,302 Jews received Spanish citizenship on October 1. Hailing mainly from Turkey, Venezuela and Morocco, these Sephardim had already submitted their applications before the “Nationality Law,” an amendment to Article 23 of the Spanish Civil Code Law came into effect, unanimously approved by the nation’s senate on June 24. This was an unexpected twist in the tale, as it was thought that the process would take much longer. Nevertheless, even though these candidates have officially been accepted, in some cases there is still paperwork to be completed, as well as background checks to ensure they have no criminal record.
The reaction of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain to the final enactment of the nationality law was joy. In an official statement, the FCJE thanked the Spanish government and said “this royal decree is a response to the desire of many Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1492, and scattered across the world, to recover their connection with Spain.”
Black pages in history
At a press conference on the eve of the High Holy Days, Isaac Querub, president of the FJCE, after sharing apples dipped in honey, said that the federation was “happy” with the news.
“And we are even happier there were no votes against it,” he said, although “we would have preferred an easier access process, but nevertheless we would much rather have this law than none!” “The black pages cannot be ripped out of history,” he said, but the move was “an extremely important milestone in Spanish society. As a Spaniard, I feel enormously proud. This is good for everyone.”
Querub went over the conditions of eligibility: proof of Sephardi origin and proof of connection to Spain. For those who need to investigate their family background, he said, the federation offered recommendations of where to go for document searches. Querub admitted that the application and acceptance process will be easier “for Sephardim who have kept their traditions.” These will have direct paperwork such as ketubot (marriage contracts). Others may have old siddurim (prayer books) with generations of family names annotated on the blank pages inside; and/or a long oral tradition that includes names and places that can be backed up, such as with graves. All Jewish documents must be certified by the FJCE.
Certification of some knowledge of Ladino is one of the special requirements for Sephardim, but, additionally, as in the case of all immigrants to Spain, they must also take two further tests: Spanish language and general knowledge. These tests will be administered at Cervantes Institutes worldwide, including in Tel Aviv.
A matter of money?
One of the main skepticisms bandied about in the months leading up to the law coming into effect was that Spain had some sort of taxation or other plan up their sleeve to make money out of this event.
When asked by the Magazine whether there was a financial interest involved in the project, Querub responded with a rotund “no,” because, first of all, “Not all the Jews in the world are rich, in fact, most of them are poor,” so it didn’t make sense. Also, residence in Spain is not required, he said, nor is abandonment of one’s former nationality. Therefore taxes would not need to be paid in Spain.
Querub also explained that the application can be filled out online, via “a user-friendly digital platform that had been created for this purpose.”
He cautioned about the use of lawyers advertising to carry out the process for interested parties. “This would only increase costs,” when “you can do it from home.”
The only applicable fee, which falls under the category of “regular Spanish bureaucratic processing costs,” is €100 per person.
In the run-up to the final stages, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, former justice minister and the man behind the law, answered the same question for the Magazine, his assessment coinciding with Querub’s. “There is no relationship with the economy,” he said. “Proof of this is that all applicants can, and most will, preserve their own nationality, residence and way of life. We are not fishing for them to come. It is to reward their love of the motherland.”
Originally, Ruiz-Gallardon said, the government planned to charge a special fee of €75 per application, over and above the Civil Registry’s usual fee for such a procedure (in accordance with the rules of the Registrar’s College for Property and Mercantilism), but after local political dissension regarding making money from this matter, the proposal to impose a special fee was dropped.
The man behind the measure
Gallardon, a former Madrid mayor (2003-11), former justice minister (2011- 14), and the impetus behind the nationality law, said it was one of the achievements in his career of which he was proudest.
Nevertheless, he laid the credit for the law at the feet of those who had come before him and “the constant and continuous desire,” on the part of Spain, “to come close to its lost brethren.”
“When I got to the Justice Ministry I was able to correct the major wound, the greatest historical error ever committed by the Spanish nation,” he told the Magazine.
“We thought a lot about how Spain could become reconciled with itself over this matter,” he said. “The Jews were part of Spain.” Interestingly, Gallardon’s great grandfather, the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), said of himself, “I was named Isaac, in honor of the Jews.”
In Gallardon’s opinion, Spain “basically attacked itself” with the expulsion of an important part of its society.
“Therefore, I believe that the best way to recognize this error is to attract the Sephardic community: an admirable example of love for Spain. The best way to get that reconciliation is to give Spanish nationality to their descendants.
“Any other nation would have turned against Spain, lost its language, become its enemy, and yet the Sephardic community still loves Spain, its emotions, its language. Many still refer to their original families by saying such words as ‘we are from Toledo.’ This is a magnificent example of loving Spain even more than those who stayed behind.”
In explaining why the offer of nationality was not also extended to the descendants of the Arabs who were also expelled, Gallardon said there was an important difference.
“Often when one compares the two, the Spanish reality is not historically accurate,” he explained. The Arabs were the adversary. Spain expelled the Arabs and the Visigoths.
But the Jewish community was part of the nation; it never conquered nor was it re-conquered. Those acts of war must not be confused with the segregation of one part of the citizenry by another. The Jews were our very own reality.”
The Muslim world was not “permeable” to Spanish influence, he said.
“When the Arabs were expelled from Spain during the Reconquista, they left the Iberian Peninsula and they forgot about any kind of connection to Spain.
They integrated immediately [with their host lands]. The Jews, on the other hand, who were a presence in everyday life as far back as Roman Hispania, have retained their emotional link with the country.”
Anti-Semitism, ignorance and education
As well as the Nationality Law, Querub addressed anti-Semitism and other issues. When asked how many Jews there were in Spain, he estimated that there are around 100,000, but said that only 45,000 were registered with communities.
At the start of the 20th century, he said, they came from Europe to Madrid and Malaga, and then in the 1950s from Morocco; as well as to Barcelona from Turkey.
The subject of the attempted boycott of Jewish-American reggae rapper Matisyahu’s performance at the Rototom Sunsplash Festival at Benicassim Music was raised, and the discussion led to how it was the newspaper El Pais, generally anti-Israel in its presentations of the facts regarding Israelis and Palestinians, that was nevertheless the first publication to express consternation at the singling out of someone based on their background as a Jew.
There is strong anti-Israel feeling on the part of many on the Left of the political scale, who identify with what they believe to be the underdog, and who are fed misinformation and bias.
Querub insisted, and the journalists present agreed, that Spain is not an anti-Semitic country, even though it still contains anti-Semites.
He attributed this to “Disinformation, ignorance, and the weight of history. Even popular speech,” he said, referring to the several Spanish expressions still in use that are denigrating to Jews, such as “Le dije perro judio” (“I called him Jewish dog,” meaning: I insulted him badly); “una judiada” (“a Jewish move,” meaning: something underhanded). Spaniards are notoriously politically incorrect, the concept taking longer to catch on than in other places. Even people who are not anti-Semitic may use the two expressions quoted, even if they generally no longer repeat the many proverbs insulting to Jews that were part of the fabric of Spanish society until not that long ago.
Regarding “the dangerous issue of ignorance,” Querub referred to a 2008 poll in which 36% of youth aged 15-18 said they would be averse to sharing a desk at school with a Jew. “We were able to deduce from such a response that these young people clearly didn’t know any Jews,” he said.
Certainly, in Spain, many people have no knowledge or awareness of ever having met a Jew, and the legend that these had horns and a tail persisted well into the 1970s, if not beyond. Querub, born in 1957, said that as a French-speaking Moroccan Jew in Spain, (years before he was to take on Spanish nationality) who attended Christian schools and university, he was very well cared for and protected by the clergy. Once, while at university, he was asked to give a talk on the Inquisition. He began by standing on a table with his back to the audience, and he asked them whether they could see a tail. Then he turned around and told them that he didn’t have horns either.
“I prefer to think of it as ignorance. Today, if 15-18 year olds say something like that, it means that those who need to intervene are not doing so. This is pure ignorance, and needs to be fought.”
The Spanish Constitution, Querub said, speaks of coexistence and of respect for minorities, as well as of “encouraging the identity of the minority.”
“It seems many governments don’t take this seriously,” he said. “We do.” Referring to the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, he said that when violent anti-Semitism surfaces, “it is a sign of a splintered or failed society.”
The 2015 school year in Spain has, for the first time, seen the introduction of high-school history textbooks that include Holocaust Studies, “and more institutions and some universities are also working on this subject,” Querub said. Private schools, such as the Lycee Francais in Madrid, have been working on this for years and organize annual visits to extermination camps by volunteer teachers trained at Yad Vashem.
“But primary school books still only teach that all the Jews were expelled in 1492, and completely ignore the rich and intense relationship that Spain has maintained with the Jews over the past many years,” he added.
Querub also spoke of the “partnership” that has developed between the FJCE and the Church in Spain. “We are colleagues,” he said, “working together to improve Spanish society.” He added that they would be open to cooperation with Muslim institutions towards this aim.