MADRID (AP) - Israel’s citizens of Sephardic descent may soon be able to claim citizenship in Spain, if a new law seeking to right an historical wrong is passed in the Spanish Parliament.
Five hundred years after the Jews of Spain were burned at the stake, forced to convert or ordered into exile, Spain is moving to make amends: the EU country is on the verge of offering citizenship to descendants of victims estimated to number in the millions.
The Spanish conservative government plans to pass a law within weeks or months that offers citizenship to descendants of legions of Jews forced to flee in 1492. Asked whether the new law is an apology, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon replied: “Without a doubt.”
“What the law will do, five centuries later, is make amends for a terrible historic mistake, one of the worst that Spaniards ever made,” Ruiz-Gallardon told The Associated Press in an interview.
Descendants of Sephardic Jews, he said, will be considered “children of Spain.”
Hundreds of Israelis claiming Spanish ancestry have already contacted the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv and begun researching their family histories to confirm their historical links. While the term Sephardic is used to describe Jews not only from Spain but more generally from North African and Middle Eastern countries, as well, the law in question would affect only descendants of Jews from Spain.
Israel’s per capita GDP of nearly $40,000 year is significantly higher than that of Spain — which has been wracked by economic crisis in recent years — and on a par with rich nations like France and Britain. But a European passport represents a kind of insurance amid the political uncertainties in Israel.
Leon Amiras, who heads an association of immigrants to Israel from Latin countries, said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the news emerged. “People from every corner are interested, from professors to doctors, engineers to plumbers and bus drivers,” he said. “Everyone is talking about this.”
The reform will allow dual nationality, enabling the newly minted Spaniards to retain their previous citizenship. Such an arrangement would give Sephardic Jews the same dual nationality privilege Spain currently grants only to Latin Americans. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany offers citizenship to descendants of Jews forced to flee the Nazis.
The nuts and bolts of the new law, the government says, will be relatively simple: Applicants need only have their ancestry certified by a rabbi in any country and the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities.
Applicants will have to provide details of their birth and family name or prove knowledge of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language considered to be the “Yiddish” of Sephardic Jews.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, doubted that Spain will receive a flood of applications for citizenship. But he said key questions remain on how people will prove eligibility.
“I’m sure it could be a bureaucratic nightmare to determine who is eligible and who is not,” he said during a visit this week to Madrid in which he met with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and King Juan Carlos.
Hoenlein said the government’s Feb. 7 decision followed key steps by Spain in recent decades to address its painful Jewish past.
One was the 2011 statement by the then-leader of Spain’s Balearic Islands condemning the slaughter of 37 Jews from Mallorca in 1691 during the Inquisition. Juan Carlos’ visit to a Madrid synagogue in 1992 to recognize “injustices of the past” was another.
Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon has his own personal link to the issue. His great-grandfather Jose Rojas Moreno was the Spanish ambassador to Romania during World War II and is credited with helping to prevent deportations of Jews to concentration camps.