Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
"If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” – Hillel
Over the past year, human rights advocates and policy experts alike have warned of the growing plight of refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis triggered in the Middle East. And over the past few weeks, headlines finally began to reflect this desperate reality.
Stories on the human toll of the refugee crisis abound. Laith Majid in tears clutching his two children just off the Greek Island of Kos. Drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the shores of Turkey. A truckload of more than 70 refugees die of heatstroke in Austria.
The number of displaced people in the world today is the highest number since World War II at 60 million people. Currently there are four million Syrian refugees who have escaped war and dire living conditions and an additional seven million Syrian citizens currently displaced within their country’s borders. The European Union’s (EU) border agency has said more than half a million migrants have arrived at the EU's borders this year, a massive influx nearly double the number from 2014, with origins ranging throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Iran—which publicly and proudly declares its intent to wipe Israel off the map—has been a major contributor to building the financial and military capacity of Hezbollah. It is directly responsible for developing the infrastructure of terror in Central and South America in order to, among other goals, have a base from which to attack the United States.
Iran has been clearly implicated in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the AMIA bombing two years later of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor charged with investigating the AMIA bombing, was found dead in his home earlier this year after presenting an avalanche of evidence about Iran's terrorist activities throughout the region. Most recently, he accused Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, her foreign minister and other members and allies of the government of having obstructed the investigation of Iranian involvement in the attack in order to secure an oil deal with Iran.
In fact, just a few months ago, an Iranian diplomat based in Uruguay hurriedly left the country after rumors that he was involved in suspicious activities, purportedly involving a plan to bomb the Embassy of Israel in Montevideo.
Venezuela has proven the linchpin of this Iranian activity, with the country providing passports to members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and with ties including a direct air link, Iranian investments in “auto, bicycle, and cement” factories, and joint petroleum and mining ventures. Reports of military cooperation abound. Iran has steadily infiltrated Latin America in this manner, creating strong and dangerous ties with countries in the Chavez-Castro alliance (the Bolivarian Alternative for our Americas, or ALBA) including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, where Iran has signed dozens of economic agreements.
These avenues of influence are described by security analyst Joseph Humire as Iran’s pattern of penetration, evolving through its cultural, diplomatic, economic and military influence. It is clear that Iran maintains Latin America as a strategic priority for its global positioning.
It is in the context of all this manipulation that the United States, as a member of the P5+1, held negotiations and signed a deal with Iran with the intention of curbing its nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief. The Iran nuclear deal has been evaluated at length, and has been heavily criticized from broad reaches of the political spectrum.
It is odd, then, that through all the debate and discussion, there still remains the question that everyone has seemingly failed to ask: what will be the impact of the Iran nuclear deal in our own backyard? One has to ask what effect sanctions relief will have on Iranian financial and material assistance to Hezbollah and other regional proxies throughout the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere.
The economic sanctions that at least strained Iranian endeavors over the past three decades will be lifted. There is no doubt that the half-trillion dollar jackpot Iran is slated to receive will be directly funneled into those activities we dread most: the exportation of Iranian aggression and anti-Semitism. These funds, returned to the coffers of a known state sponsor of terrorism, will surely make their way toward financial and material assistance to Hezbollah and other regional proxies. As it concerns U.S. national security, one can’t help but flatly reject the far-reaching concessions of the P5+1 as a direct threat to our interests regionally, let alone globally.
The reaction in Latin America has, thus far, been as one might expect. Kirchner has praised the agreement, while questioning local critics of the AMIA memorandum pact, surely a failed attempted to bless her own deal with Iran in the face of mounting pressure. The president of Colombia also congratulated President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for their “courage” in securing the deal, perhaps related to Colombia’s close relationship with the United States.
But with history as our guide, this agreement will do more harm than good. The expanded presence of Iran in Latin American should have, at the outset, given the United States pause, given a known regime in Tehran that supports terrorism as an officially sanctioned tool of national power. That Iran remains heavily invested in the region’s shift to the left and the anti-U.S. sentiment it provokes is hardly surprising. The fact that regional powers do not recognize the danger within their own borders is naïve at best, ignorant at worst.
While a nuclear Iran would trigger proliferation and instability throughout the Middle East and beyond, the easing of sanctions will be found to provide an umbrella for Iran’s terror proxies around the globe. There has been no accountability for Iran’s decades-long history of deception and denial over their nuclear ambitions and past links to terrorism, and there is no reason to give Iran the benefit of the doubt now.
Every few months, the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy hosts a Washington-area diplomat to speak about the pressing domestic and foreign policy issues of the day. The Diplomatic Encounter Series gives members, supporters and area professionals a chance to meet with high-ranking foreign and domestic officials and engage them in a conversation on topics of interest to B’nai B’rith.
Since 2002, ambassadors have shared their perspectives pertaining to bilateral relations with the State of Israel, the status of their respective Jewish communities, regional affairs and their role in international bodies such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union.
Beginning with Moorish rule in the 8th century, the Iberian Peninsula became a magnet for world Jewry. The arrival of Jews to modern-day Spain and Portugal ushered in one of the most flourishing periods in Jewish history known as The Golden Age of Spain. The Jews of the region excelled, playing major roles in cultural and political life, and peacefully co-existing with Muslims and Christians for centuries.
That bright and prosperous history took a sharp turn with persecution and riots against the Jews taking hold in the 13th century. The forced conversions and public contempt for the Jews of Spain culminated with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella called for the expulsion of all Jewish people. Thus began the dispersal of Jews to nearby North Africa, Italy, the Ottoman Empire and beyond, to the frontier edges of the New World. The exact number of Jews who left Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century is debated by scholars, but estimates suggest several hundred thousand.
Fast forward to the year 2015, where Spanish Jews number in the low tens of thousands—a fraction of the Jewish population in France, Germany or the United Kingdom. Today, Spain is attempting to rectify “the biggest mistake in Spanish history,” according to Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, with new draft legislation which would grant Spanish citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled in 1492.
The measure was presented to a visiting delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations a little over a year ago in Madrid, attended by B’nai B’rith President Allan J. Jacobs and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin. “Spanish nationality is a right, not a privilege,” said Ruiz-Gallardón, “The government will have no discretion in conferring citizenship once the law is passed.”
Modern Spain has made other attempts at making amends for a rocky past with its Jewish citizenry. The laws of the Inquisition were reversed with the 1869 constitution, proclaiming religious tolerance, and the Alhambra Decree itself was revoked in 1968. In 1992, in honor of the country’s quincentennial, King Juan Carlos proclaimed Sephardic Jews had a place in Spain, establishing the idea of granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews. But with no framework for implementation, a weak economy, and little political will, the proposal laid dormant.
The path to citizenship currently being debated would allow Jews outside of the country with ancestral roots in Spain to keep their current citizenship—a progressive move by repatriation standards—but places a burden of proof on a people whose lineage must be traced back over 500 years and often with a trajectory across multiple territories. The measure, which passed Spain’s lower house of Parliament at the end of March, awaits approval by the upper house, and is expected to become law this spring.
The early response by the Sephardic Diaspora has been enthusiastic, especially in places like the Balkans and in Latin America, and for vulnerable or otherwise isolated communities like those in Cuba. Others have responded more critically, wary that this may be somewhat self serving and an impractical conciliatory move.
In the traditional sense, Sephardic Jews draw their origins to the Iberian Peninsula—Sefarad is a Hebrew word meaning Spain. Today however the word Sephardim has taken a much wider meaning to include most all Jews who are not Ashkenazim.
Under the current language, applicants must be certified as Sephardic by Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities, and thus traceable to Jews who resided in Spain before the mass expulsions. Then they must be tested, in Spain, by a government-approved notary on their knowledge of Spanish and Sephardic culture. If they pass, applicants would need to return to Spain at a later date, and at their own expense, for another procedure. The logistical standards to repatriation as established by the process alone could deter some candidates.
Estimates of expected applications range widely from 75,000 to over 150,000, though all may not qualify. The question remains whether or not Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities has the capacity to manage their newfound qualifying authority.
There are many practical challenges to unrolling and implementing this new legislation. Still, the uncertainty that surrounds the bill has done little to tamper expectations among the Sephardic Diaspora. For B’nai B’rith’s part, we remain cautiously optimistic that this important and sincere gesture of goodwill by the Spanish government creates an opportunity for Spain to compel the return of the Ladino language and its unique heritage, as well as the Sephardic culture to the land of its origin.
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