Exodus to Spain? 2.2M Sephardi Jews Offered Citizenship

On March 31, 1492, The Edict of Expulsion, issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, went into effect in Spain, forcing an estimated 800,000 Jews to either convert or leave the country. 50,000 chose to convert. In 1910, Jews were finally legally emancipated and permitted to be full citizens of Spain, but no moves were made to rectify the historical wrong that had been done. To put it in perspective, today, the Jewish population in Spain stands at around 45,000.

Most people will be shocked to learn that Spain did not begin granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews until 1988, when the government of Felipe González modified the Spanish Civil Code. The concessions were halted in 2009 by the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Last June, in a move to correct what the government calls a “historic mistake”, a bill was passed in Spain’s cabinet that approved a bill allowing descendants of Jews forced into exile centuries ago, the right to dual citizenship. The reform will allow dual nationality, enabling those who benefit from it to retain their previous citizenship. Spain currently grants that privilege only to Latin Americans. It is expected to affect 3.5 million Jews around the world. This would also grant them a passport allowing free access to live, work and travel throughout the European Union, as Spanish citizens.

Under existing Spanish law, Sephardic Jews already benefit from a preferential naturalization procedure that allows them to claim Spanish citizenship after having lived in Spain for only two years, a privilege that is also available to citizens of Spain’s former colonies in Latin America and elsewhere.

The new law does not apply to Sephardic Anousim (anousim in Hebrew means “coerced”), the descendants of Jews who were compelled by the Spanish Inquisition to convert to Roman Catholicism (they are sometimes also called crypto-Jews or Marranos). Secular anousim must seek religious training from the FCJE and undergo formal conversion to Judaism before they can obtain Spanish citizenship.

On Wednesday evening, the Spanish parliament approved the law and it will go for a second vote in the Spanish senate, the parliament’s upper chamber, according to a report by the Financial Times. If passed, the law would come into effect in May and the application process would begin at the end of 2015.

Applicants will first need to prove their Spanish Jewish background through a certificate from the federation of the Jewish community in Spain or from the head of the Jewish community in which they reside, through their language or ancestry. It is not required for applicants to be Jewish currently.

If a direct family link cannot be found, then authorities may accept applicants who speak Ladino (the traditional Jewish language of Jews in Spain which mixes Spanish and Hebrew), a Spanish Sephardic last name or an observance of Jewish customs.

Next, they will have to show that they still have a special connection to Spain, as well as a basic handling of the Spanish (or Ladino) language, as well as a test of basic knowledge about the country. The test will be developed by the Cervantes Institute, which promotes Spanish language and culture abroad.

Gabriel Elorriaga, a senior official in Spain’s ruling Popular party, called the bill “…a way to close the circle of reconciliation between Spain and the Jewish community.”

“The idea is very clear: We want to reach out to those who were expelled from Spain and who have kept some form of connection with the country through all these years.”

The bill may not generate much support in Israel, the home of 3 million Sephardic Jews.

“Israel sees the bill as a piece of internal legislation in Spain; as Spain dealing with its dark past in terms of the tragedy of what happened when it kicked out the Jewish people, just because they were Jews,” says Hamutal Rogel Fuchs, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Madrid. “But today, the Jewish people have a home — Israel. So we congratulate Spain for acting, but it is not a question of whether we are comfortable or uncomfortable. Israel sees the bill as a symbolic gesture that reinforces our relationship.”

Many Spanish citizens are reluctant to see the bill take effect. Unemployment in Spain is nearing 25% and there are many who resent immigration, though it is unlikely that Jews will trade Israel for Spain considering that the Israeli Gross Domestic Product is ahead of that in Spain.

It has been speculated that the Spanish government’s motives are less than pure. They may be trying to attract Jews as a way help the country’s severe economic problems. The government announced on November 19 that it would offer residency permits (the equivalent of a US green card) to foreigners who buy houses priced at more than 160,000 euros ($200,000). This comes in an attempt to revive a seriously ailing real estate market, bringing new buyers into a market flooded with hundreds of thousands of unsold homes.

Muslims are now demanding the same reparation, that the Spanish government grant automatic citizenship to millions of descendants of Muslims who were expelled from Spain in the seventeenth century. For some reason, that legislation seems less popular at this time.

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