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Inquisition were reversed with the 1869 constitution, proclaiming religious tolerance, and the Alhambra Decree itself was revoked in 1968.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.
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.
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