Spain and Portugal Say They Have Given 10,000 Passports to Sephardic Jews

The Jewish quarter of Palma de Mallorca, Spain. (Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty Images)

Three years after Spain and Portugal created a path for Sephardic Jews to claim citizenship, the two countries say that between the two they have issued some 10,000 passports so far to individuals who were able to trace their ancestry to the hundreds of thousands who were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition.

The number of people who have achieved citizenship is lower than what some estimates had expected, a fact that some attribute to red tape and bureaucratic difficulties in fulfilling the law’s requirements.

When the law was originally passed in 2015, there were many in the Jewish community and beyond who balked at the idea that Sephardim would have an interest in returning to a country from which their ancestors were chased more than 500 years ago. Yet, a combination of unstable situations in several nations and the fact that achievement of Spanish citizenship comes with a European Union passport has generated significant interest in pursuing the unique offer. The program was originally set to expire this past October, but it has been extended for an additional year.

Doreen Alhadeff, a real estate broker from Seattle, was the first American to be granted citizenship under the law and has been steadily involved in helping other applicants from around the United States. She told Hamodia that interest in the program has been relatively steady over the past three years and motivations had varied.

“For me it was a matter of pride, a lot of people are moved by the idea of reclaiming something that was taken from them,” she said. “In countries like Venezuela and probably Turkey, applications are purely a matter of survival, but even in more stable places, the political situation around the world in general has definitely awakened something in a lot of people. In Spain, I met someone from France at a conference who said that its seems that a Jew should always have another place to go.”

According to a report by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, applicants from the United States have totaled only 221, and 860 were from Israel. Among Latin Americans, 3,374 have sought to gain citizenship under the law. The largest number of applicants from a single country is from Turkey, where 2,693 people have started the process.

While several thousand of those who have been officially naturalized did so through the original law, many more received their passports through various fast tracks that were amended to the law shortly after its passage.

Applicants must first prove their ancestral links to Spain, something that is usually accomplished by a letter signed by a local Rabbi or other individual authorized by the Spanish government.

The most demanding aspect is a requirement to pass an exam on Spanish language and culture. While not given at a high level, many speculate that it has been a significant factor in discouraging potential applicants. Minors and people over 70 years of age are exempt from the test, and Portugal has not made language a requirement.

Most who have been successful have employed the help of an attorney in Spain to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles.

Others found the process too time-consuming and difficult to complete.

Rabbi Gad Bouskila of Congregation Netivot Yisrael on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway had initiated the process together with several other members of his largely Moroccan congregation, but said that he and many others never saw it through to completion.

“I don’t know where they got this 10,000 number from — every time I meet someone who started, they did not make it through,” he said. “I speak Spanish, so that part is not a problem for me, but I met with problems every step of the way and gave up. I was working with someone in Morocco who really needed to get an EU passport, but he couldn’t get it done either.”

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 acknowledged that the bureaucratic process has taken many people longer than expected, but said that those who have sought the proper guidance and been patient have largely been successful.

“Most of the complaints are about having to wait and travel to Spain to complete the process, and here in Seattle we have worked to speed things up for people,” he said. “Some things have taken a long time, but I don’t think it is any more complicated than becoming an American citizen.”

Largely through the efforts of Mrs. Alhadeff and Mr. Bernaldez, Seattle has become a hub of American applicants working their way through the process. One additional advantage is that the city’s Cervantes Institute offers classes in Spanish to prepare for the language exam, which can also be taken there.

When Spain and Portugal passed their laws in 2015, it was billed as an attempt to right the historical wrong of expelling hundreds of thousands of Jews and others during the Inquisition, and for the many others who were tortured and killed during the years it was in effect.

Even prior to the move, the country had 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.

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

Mrs. Alhadeff is America’s ambassador to Spain’s national council that oversees Jewish heritage in the county. She said that while theories abound as to why the county initiated its offer to Sephardim, the government has invested large sums in the restoration of cemeteries and other heritage sites, and that their motives were good.

“Spain is on the right track and kudos to them,” she said. “They are putting in a lot of effort, and I think that they sincerely want to do what they can to right a 500-year-old wrong.”

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