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Spain moves to right a 522-year wrong, but still overlooks some

Historical records will be vital in deciding who has a Sephardic Jewish heritage and is therefore potentially eligible for Spanish citizenship. Flickr/michalska1, CC BY-NC-SA

The Spanish government has approved a draft law that grants citizenship to Jews whose ancestors were expelled over 500 years ago. This follows the approval of a similar law in Portugal last year.

In 1492, Sephardic Jews (Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain) were ordered to convert to Catholicism or given four months to pack up and leave Spain. Many fled to Portugal, only to be expelled from there in 1536 as the Inquisition-led fever for “purity of blood” took over the Iberian Peninsula.

The Jews settled primarily in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Today, their descendants live mainly in north-west Africa, Turkey, the Balkan Peninsula and the Americas, as well as Israel.

Who is a ‘real’ descendant?

How will today’s Jews prove their ancestors, who lived 20 generations ago, hailed from Spain? Genetic testing is not being considered. Few descendants still possess original documentation from hundreds of years ago.

In an interesting parallel to the plight of Palestinians today, some Jewish families retained keys to their original houses or synagogues in Spain, which have since been destroyed. Proof of identity and the right to citizenship will come from an accreditation issued by a local rabbi. It will then require final approval by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities.

While the exact process and criteria have not yet been announced, applicants will need to prove they belong to a Sephardic community with ties to Spain. The term Sepharad refers to the Iberian Peninsula, in Europe’s far south-west, but not all Sephardic Jews [originate from](]( today’s Spain or Portugal. Proving ties to Spain will be crucial.

A number of surnames are commonly identifiable as Sephardic. Both the church and the Jewish communities of Spain kept lists of those expelled or prosecuted by the Inquisition. However, lists of surnames circulating on the internet have drawn criticism from linguists and historians for being unreliable.

There is a more trustworthy marker of Iberian Sephardic identity and origin: a Judeo-Spanish language spoken by about 250,000 people around the globe. Ladino is a medieval version of the Spanish language, which the exiles took with them and cultivated. Until recently Ladino provided a clear link to the Iberian, Sepharad-based past of its speakers.

Ladino was the home language of Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, a name derived from his family’s ancestral home in Spain, Cañete. Israel Coins & Medals Corp, CC BY

Although it is in decline, the language did survive and thrive for hundreds of years. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) classifies Ladino as a severely endangered language, meaning it is primarily spoken by older generations. But the language is experiencing a sort of a cultural revival through performances of traditional songs, including by Australian band Soleluna.

This is not the only time in history when a frozen-in-time version of a language pointed to the origin of a diaspora. The Boers who left South Africa for Patagonia might not be very fluent in Afrikaans today, but the language remains a very powerful marker of their identity.

The politics of Spanish history

The proposal to reconnect with its Jewish legacy and welcome back Sephardic Jews comes at an interesting time in Spanish politics. The ruling centre-right Popular Party has distanced itself from the previous government, the centre-left Socialist Party, and its attempts to rectify the wrongs of the past. Those attempts focused on the legacy and memory of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of General Franco.

The Popular Party heavily criticised the 2007 Law of Historical Memory for unnecessarily reopening old wounds. It not only brought into light dark aspects of Spanish history, but also recognised the place and contribution of Civil War soldiers on the Republican side, and of those oppressed by the dictatorship. The law gave exiles and their descendants the right to become eligible for Spanish citizenship.

After ousting the Socialist Party in the November 2011 election, the Popular Party has not yet officially repealed the Historical Memory Law. But it has cut funding and closed offices and websites. These moves are effectively suppressing again the country’s memory of the past.

Some temporary measures that the law introduced, such as a right to citizenship for grandchildren of Spaniards, expired in December 2011 and were not renewed. It is therefore puzzling to see this government’s interest in reopening another dark chapter in Spanish history, in an apparent desire to repair a historical injustice, and to do it by granting citizenship.

Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón believes the country has an opportunity to fix a historical injustice. Flickr/La Moncloa - Gobierno de España, CC BY-NC-ND

Are the laws really a bid to fix an unjust past?

Why have Spain and Portugal proposed these laws now, a time of economic crisis when more pressing matters have pushed aside discussions of the countries’ controversial past?

By allowing applicants to retain their original citizenship, and lifting the requirement to reside in Spain, the government has prompted speculation that the laws have more to do with attracting foreign capital. After all, not long ago the government, in an apparent attempt to attract foreign investors to the real estate market, controversially proposed to grant a residence visa to anybody who buys half-a-million euros worth of property.

Sure enough, the announcement of the new law was bigger news in Israel than anywhere else. Telephone lines to the Spanish consulate were swamped with callers. Israeli lawyers specialising in migration received hundreds of enquiries.

With hazy details of how exactly the Spanish Sephardic connection is to be proved, estimates of those who might be eligible for citizenship vary from 3.5 million worldwide to 3.5 million in Israel alone.

However, the idea to welcome Jews back to Spain is not completely new; the current process dates back to the 1990s. A 1924 law of return provides a legal precedent. This allowed some Jews to claim Spanish citizenship and find a haven during the World War Two.

But the biggest challenge will come from the Morisco community – descendants of the Moors who were also expelled from Spain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. If Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain, Al-Andalus is the Arabic name for a kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula where Jews, Arabs and Christians once lived and prospered in harmony.

Spain is treading in dangerous territory with its proposal to grant the right of return to only one of two of the ethno-religious communities expelled half a millennium ago in the name of “purity of blood”.

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