For those frustrated by experiencing a long passport wait, your patience was a drop in the bucket compared to the descendants of the expelled Jews of Spain and Portugal who will soon be eligible to receive theirs — 500 years later. Talk about bureaucracy!
The governments of Spain and Portugal, in an attempt to turn back the clock a half-millennium, will endeavor to redress the heinous atrocities of their Inquisition by recognizing all verifiable descendants of the Inquisition as citizens of their respective countries. Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon of Spain said, “The law we’ve passed today has a deep historic meaning: not only because it concerns events in our past of which we should not be proud, like the decree to expel the Jews in 1492…”The law is still in its draft phase and may take several months before it is presented to the national legislature, but if the bill, and a similar bill in Portugal, passes, it would potentially grant citizenship to the descendants of the estimated 300,000 Jews who lived in Spain before the Inquisition.
Justice Minster Ruiz-Gallardón said that all Jews of Spanish heritage including descendants of so-called Marranos, the Jews who hid their identity and ostensibly accepted Christianity, an estimated 3.5 million Jews of Sephardi heritage, would be able to apply for dual citizenship under the new law.
A criterion in determining eligibility is a list of surnames indicating Spanish heritage. I am proud, and I might add “and confused,” to say that my family name, Solomon, appears on this list. Family lore had it that we escaped the snow and pogroms of a shtetl beyond the Pale and fled to America. Imagine my shock when I found out I was Sephardi and that six centuries ago my family sat in the Seville sun sipping citrus drinks. Calming myself, I continued reading and saw that several other criteria are needed such as family traditions, the Ladino language, and documentation, none of which confirm my Spanish roots.
On the surface, this is a remarkably generous offer by Spain, home to 50,000 Jews, amongst the lowest Jewish populations in all of Europe. Gaining citizenship to Spain or Portugal is entry to the European Union and numerous attendant benefits, such as free education at some of the world’s finest universities, and unrestricted travel throughout the EU nations. It seems too good to be true. Spain is in the throes of a depression so severe it almost drowned the European Union financially, and it is crippled by record-breaking unemployment in excess of 25%. Forgive my skepticism, but I suspect that there is another agenda here and that there is more to this than a mea culpa meant to redress the sins of the Inquisition.
The answers all relate directly and indirectly to the Torah blessing and injunction which promises blessings to those who bless Israel and curses those who curse Israel. While the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella may have thought they were purifying Spain by instituting the Inquisition, what they in fact were accomplishing was bringing the Golden Age of Spain to an end. Every culture that has expelled or cursed Jews has shortly thereafter collapsed.
In light of this, let’s consider Spain’s present economic condition. It may be looking to strengthen its ties with Israel that were severely weakened under the intensely anti-Israel previous government. Israel is currently enjoying its own financial “Golden Age,” with technology in a variety of sectors — agricultural, military, health, and hi-tech — making it an attractive business partner to the increasingly pro-Israel government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Another possibility is Spain’s desire to return to a position of relevance, if not as the world power it was until the 17th century, then at the least within Europe itself. Spain continues to languish in a decline that began with the Inquisition, and by restoring citizenship to the descendants of the Jews it expelled, perhaps Spain expects its prominence to be restored. If it were that easy, every nation that persecuted Jews, which is to say the entire world, would do it and return confiscated property.
Is It ‘Good for the Jews’?
Before we consider if it is in fact “good for the Jews,” we should consider if it is even “kosher.” Not surprisingly, there are different opinions. Halachically, according to Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, a well-known Sephardic rabbi, it seems problematic. He noted, “There is an ancient ban against returning to Spain,” which was instituted at the time of the Inquisition. Whether the cherem is still in effect is another thing. Perhaps five centuries between inhabitations is sufficient digestion time. Nonetheless, it would be appropriate to consult your local Sephardic chacham before grabbing that new passport.
The financial opportunities of this legislation, of becoming part of Spain and the EU, come at a cost. There are several dangers embedded in this legislation and its presentation. Statements from representatives of the Spanish government describing the need to redress the wrongs of the Inquisition and expulsion and recognizing “historic” connections by a nation in exile are similar to language currently promoting the Palestinian argument of entry to Israel. Though I do not suspect the Spanish intended this initiative to address the situation in the Middle East, nevertheless it may be used against Israel as a precedent for Palestinians “refugees” demanding “return.”
The other concern I have is the impact it will have on Jewish identity. Outside of a few areas, the Jewish communities of Europe are disappearing; the young move to Israel or the U.S. Will presenting Sephardi Jews with this opportunity create the danger of greater assimilation?
And what I perceive to be the greatest irony of all, faced with the undeniable growth of anti-Semitism throughout Europe: Will this legislation, meant to atone for persecuting Jews 500 years ago, lead to the persecution of more Jews today, forcing them to live in fear, again hiding their identity from their neighbors and living as Marranos?
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.