Prospect of Spanish Citizenship Appeals to Descendants of Jews Expelled in 1492
A Spanish initiative that would offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews as a gesture of conciliation for Spain’s expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition has set off a flurry of interest in Israel.
Maya Weiss-Tamir, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in applications for citizenship in European countries, said she had received about 1,000 inquiries by phone and email since Feb. 7, when the Spanish government approved a draft citizenship bill.
“It doesn’t stop,” she said in a telephone interview. “The response has been crazy.”
Under the draft bill, Spain would offer citizenship to anyone, Jewish or not, whose Sephardic origins can be certified. The bill would also remove some existing requirements that include the need for applicants to renounce their current citizenship.
The bill requires final approval from the Spanish Parliament, which could make changes, but approval is expected to be a formality as the conservative government has a majority.
The legislation was first presented in November 2012 by Spain’s foreign and justice ministers as a conciliatory gesture toward Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors were expelled in 1492 in one of the darkest chapters in Spanish history.
Leon Amiras, chairman of an association for immigrants to Israel from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, said that he planned to apply for Spanish citizenship and that some families had books or documents tracing and proving their ancestry. When his own grandmother and great-grandmother left Izmir, Turkey, for Argentina, they were issued an identity document signed by Jewish community leaders and certified by the Spanish consul there at the time.
Mordechai Ben-Abir, 88, Mr. Amiras’s uncle, said he hoped to be the first to obtain Spanish citizenship if the law was passed. Mr. Ben-Abir, who lives in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, began researching his family roots when he was in his 70s, went on to obtain a doctorate in philology at the University of Barcelona in Spain and has traced his Catalan ancestry back to the expulsion of 1492. To return to Spain more than 500 years later with a Spanish passport, he said, would be “a victory” for his family and the Jewish people.
The Justice Ministry of Spain said that it had no estimate of how many Sephardic Jews might be eligible for Spanish citizenship. So far, the ministry has registered 3,000 applications, but a spokeswoman said that number was expected to increase.
Rachel Delia Benaim, an American student living in New York who has Sephardic ancestry, said by email that being allowed to keep her United States citizenship made the Spanish offer “a lot more appealing.” But she remained wary about how certification would ultimately be granted by Spain and said, “Any excitement about the legislation is premature.”
Jacob Levy, an American retiree, said he had lost interest in getting a Spanish passport after his attempts last year to find out more about Spain’s preliminary offer were frustrated by Spanish diplomats. “I’m not in any rush to apply again,” he said in an email., “as I’m too angry at the behavior of the Spanish Consulate in New York.”
In response to queries, the Spanish foreign ministry is now distributing via its embassies and consulates a statement explaining that it might take several months for Parliament to approve the bill, and that once it became law, the time for submitting applications would be limited. Through the reform, it added, Spain “wishes to acknowledge the relevance of the Sephardic legacy in its history and culture.”
Although many applicants are interested in Spanish citizenship for sentimental and family reasons, some Israelis are eager to open businesses in Spain, despite the country’s economic problems and record unemployment, said Ms. Weiss-Tamir, the lawyer. Spanish nationality would also grant holders the right to work in any European Union nation.
“The Israeli spirit is always looking for opportunities,” Ms. Weiss-Tamir said. “People want to move around Europe more easily, or to be able to work.”
A delegation of top American Jewish leaders was visiting Spain last week for high-level meetings, including with King Juan Carlos. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement that Spain’s citizenship bill would “help assure that the history of the violence and exile will never be forgotten.”
In what appeared to be a reciprocal gesture, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, estimated that there were millions of descendants worldwide of “conversos,” Jews who converted to Catholicism under duress in medieval Spain, including hundreds of thousands who were exploring ways of returning to their Jewish roots.
“The state of Israel must ease the way for their return,” Mr. Sharansky said.