The Feb. 7 announcement by Spanish minister of justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon of the introduction of a bill to offer Sephardic Jews Spanish citizenship has caused quite a stir.
On one hand, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain has been bombarded with phone calls and email inquiries.
On the other hand is a healthy dose of skepticism. Some say this is an opportunistic plot to introduce Jews, stereotypically known for financial prowess, back into the tanked economy. Others make note of Spain’s support for a Palestinian state and see this as conciliation for Israel.
The Spanish government maintains this is a goodwill gesture, an apology for the Inquisition 522 years in the making.
“That’s an acknowledgment that’s very important,” said Simon Benzaquen, rabbi emeritus of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle. “Many times people go all the way to get that kind of apology and they never get it. They never got it from Russia.”
This is not the first time Spain has extended citizenship to the descendants of Jews persecuted and expelled in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The September 11, 1925 edition of the Jewish Transcript contains a copy of a Spanish royal decree allowing some Sephardic Jews, rendered stateless by the abolition of capitularies at the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, citizenship under the condition that they do not return to Spain. Despite the fear of a mass Jewish immigration, 1920s Spain saw an increase of “philosephardism” and a desire to “reclaim” Sephardic Jews for their perceived virtues.
A bill introduced in 2012 invited Sephardic Jews to become citizens after two years of residency and upon giving up citizenship in other countries. The justice ministry is processing approximately 3,000 applications.
The bill on the table would ease the citizenship process by allowing dual citizenship without a residency requirement. Complicated bureaucratic procedures — including deciding how to define and prove Sephardic identity — notwithstanding, the invitation extends to the world’s estimated 3.5 million Sephardic Jews. Portugal approved a similar bill last year, which is said to go into effect soon.
What does this mean for Seattle, which has one of the largest Sephardic populations in the United States? Will anyone be taking the Spanish up on their offer?
“Why not?” said Benzaquen. “That means you are European. You can go anywhere in Europe…. You should have a passport and do whatever you want with it.”
That is not to say that Benzaquen, who lived in Melilla, Spanish Morocco, until he was 14 thinks this is a clean slate.
“It’s very complex to define, but the truth is there is anti-Semitism,” he said. “It doesn’t go away with the extension of the passport. They are only making gestures. Good gestures. They are somehow extending their hand of friendship.”
Jews are also, for the first time in two millennia, political players.
“Israel is giving the Jew all over the world something they never had, whether you like it or not,” Benzaquen said. “It’s not afraid of the world.”
Rabbi Marc Angel, a Seattle native and rabbi emeritus of the country’s oldest synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, is not interested in the Spanish offer.
“I’m quite happy with my American passport,” he told JTNews. “If I ever need another one, it will be Israeli. The world has moved a long way since 1492. A political gesture by modern Spain has little to do with the Sephardic Jewish realities of today.”
Luis Fernando Esteban Bernaldez, honorary vice consul of Spain in Seattle, explained that the amended law falls under Spain’s Historical Memory Law, which has granted passports to tens of thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco Regime, and their descendants, all over Latin America. He insisted that inclusion of Sephardic Jews is not economically motivated, and if anything it should strengthen the friendship with Israel.
“To have a passport is the more important thing,” he said. “The older you get, the more attached you are to your roots. And the passport represents the identity of your roots.”
While the bill has generated much excitement, it still has to get approved by the Spanish government. Bernaldez said he has no idea what kinds of arguments will take place.
An obvious question regards the expulsion of Muslims along with Jews. That invitation will probably not come anytime soon.
“Jews pine over Spain,” said Benzaquen. “But the Christians and Muslims fought for Spain.”
According to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of the Sephardic Education Center in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, if Jews do take up the offer, there may be halachic implications, given that some rabbis placed a ban with the threat of excommunication on Jews who return to the “cursed” land of Spain. But in his view, the citizenship proposal is “nothing more than a symbolic act of reconciliation, ‘correcting a wrong’ from years ago.”
“What’s the point of refusing it?” asked Benzaquen. “We are not the kind of people that want to be vindictive for the sake of it.”
Like Israel, he said, “we extend friendship to the world.”