King Tells Sephardic Jews Spain Has Missed Them

King Felipe VI of Spain delivers a speech at the Royal Palace in Madrid on November 30, during a ceremony to pay tribute to the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 by Catholic kings, after a law came into effect that facilitates the naturalization of their descendants.  (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
King Felipe VI of Spain delivers a speech at the Royal Palace in Madrid on November 30, during a ceremony to pay tribute to the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 by Catholic kings, after a law came into effect that facilitates the naturalization of their descendants. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
The Jewish Quarter of Palma de Mallorca, Spain.  (JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images File)
The Jewish Quarter of Palma de Mallorca, Spain. (JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images File)

Spanish King Felipe VI has presided over a ceremony welcoming a new citizenship law for descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled five centuries ago, saying Spain has missed them.

Addressing representatives of Spanish Jewish associations and political leaders at a formal ceremony Monday in Madrid’s Royal Palace, Felipe said that Sephardic Jews — as those who once lived in the Iberian Peninsula are known — were now back “at home” in Spain.

“I want to say it again, [to you] who are already in your house, you have already returned to your home forever,” he said.

The king acknowledged the rich contributions that Jews had made to Spain prior to the expulsion and hoped that new immigration would help the country to reach new heights. He thanked Sephardic Jewry as a whole for preserving their “language and customs” saying that they had saved a “precious treasure,” which is equally part of Spain’s culture.

Isaac Cherub, president of the Federation of Sephardic Communities, spoke on behalf of the various Jewish groups represented in the audience, stressing the community’s loyalty to Spain and saying that throughout history they could never stop viewing themselves as “ambassadors” of their former home.

Justice Minister Rafael Catala said that since the law was passed Oct. 1 there have been nearly 600 citizenship applications and 10,000 information requests. “Back to Sefarad is no longer an illusion,” he added.

In October, Spain also granted citizenship to 4,302 people whose Jewish ancestors fled after being told in 1492 to convert to Catholicism or go into exile ahead of the Spanish Inquisition that saw many Jews burned at the stake.

Modern-day Spain is home to an estimated 40,000 Jews, mostly in Madrid and Barcelona, according to the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities.

The law, which allowed Sephardic Jews to start applying for Spanish citizenship in October, grants them a three-year window to seek a Spanish passport complete with the right to work and live anywhere in the 28-nation European Union.

Rabbi Gad Bouskila of Congregation Netivot Yisrael on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway has initiated the process together with several other members of his largely Moroccan congregation.

“These days you never know what could happen and it could be very useful to have an EU passport,” said the Rabbi, who has resided in America for several years, but still only holds a Moroccan passport. “The requirements are not so hard, but the embassy here wants us to work through the offices in Spain. I’m not sure why, but in the end, I think that we will have to go there.”

Rabbi Bouskila said he and most applicants that he knew had established their Spanish roots through family names. He said that in Morocco, the community of “megurashim,” exiles, remained largely separate from the Jews who were in the country from before 1492, maintaining their own customs and language.

Doreen Alhadeff is one of several hundred Sephardim throughout the world who has applied for Spanish citizenship. A native of Seattle, in Washington state, she has spent time living in Spain, most recently working with the Central Sefard office in Madrid. She is a co-founder of the Seattle Sephardic Network, which has been especially active in the new citizenship initiative.

“I always had an affinity and a feeling that Sephardim and Spain shared a history and a culture,” she told Hamodia. Mrs. Alhadeff said that while there has been “a lot of interest” in the offer, technical requirements have been a significant impediment.

“The language requirement is very difficult for many people. It’s a little unfair that people who were expelled from the country and have not been there for 500 years have to take a test in Spanish.”

Another complicating factor for many, said Mrs. Alhadeff, is the fact that exams are only administered in four locations throughout the United States.

“It’s very symbolic for me; this is something that was taken from my ancestors and I would like to take it back. I don’t see myself necessarily living in Spain, but do like the idea of having an EU passport.”

While the new law has garnered wide media attention, Spain has been slowly moving to embrace its once-rich Jewish heritage. In 1992, then-King Juan Carlos mentioned the idea of Jews “coming home to Spain.” Since then, the country has funded several organizations to promote and preserve Sephardic culture both in Spain and abroad.

“It’s not just this law, it’s a big process,” said Mrs. Alhadeff. “Without taking away from the historical wrong that was done, the Spanish people and government are making strides to correct what happened.”

Don Luis Fernando Esteban Bernáldez, Spain’s honorary consul to the states of Oregon and Washington, has acted as a liaison between many West Coast applicants, including Mrs. Alhadeff’s group, and the Spanish government.

He told Hamodia that while most older applicants are motivated by feelings of “nostalgia,” many younger ones have hopes of working or living within the EU. Mr. Bernaldez stressed that the concept of offering citizenship to people of Sephardic descent is rooted in a 1924 law that covered many different groups with historic connections to Spain. The two unique aspects of the new legislation are the ability of applicants to remain in their home country and their right to maintain dual citizenship.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for Sephardic youth to realize how beautiful their ancestors made Spain. Spanish aristocrats did very little actual work, it was largely Jews who actually administered the country,” he said. “The King was very sincere about what he said; this is an opportunity to recognize the Sephardic community.”

Mr. Bernaldez said that the Academy of the Spanish Language’s recent official recognition of Ladino and efforts to preserve and study the language are another sign of the country’s embrace of its Sephardic heritage.

With reporting by Associated Press