By Gwynne Dyer
“In Spain, a clear majority realize we have committed a historical error and have an opportunity to repair it,” said Spain’s justice minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, “so I am sure the (new citizenship) law will pass with an immense majority in parliament.”. And the law doesn’t just say that Spain is sorry for expelling its Jews 522 years ago. It lets their descendants get their citizenship back.
Spain’s Jews were given only four months in 1492 to choose between becoming Christian or leaving their homes forever. Most left, settling in Muslim-ruled North Africa and the Ottoman Empire or in other parts of Christian Europe. They kept their Spanish language in the form of Ladino, and became know as Sephardic (i.e. Spanish) Jews.
The Sephardim have retained their distinctive identity, and are estimated to number up to a third of the world’s 13 million Jews today. Spain’s planned new law potentially covers almost all of them.
Applicants for Spanish citizenship need not speak Ladino or even be religious. They need only be able to show a link to Sephardic culture (it could be as little as a Sephardic family name). In most cases, the simplest route to Spanish citizenship would be to have a local rabbi certify their Sephardic ancestry, or to get certification of their Sephardic heritage from a recognized Spanish-Jewish community.
Spain’s justice minister reckons that only about 150,000 Sephardic Jews will take him up on the offer (which will remain open for two years), and he doesn’t think that many of them will actually want to move to Spain. But he promises that the government will not be strict in deciding who qualifies as Sephardic – “We are opening the door,” he said – and he may be surprised by how many actually apply.
What Gallardón has not taken into account is the fact that Spanish citizenship is, for practical purposes, citizenship in all 28 member countries of the European Union. A Spanish passport-holder can enter Britain, France, Germany, Sweden or any other EU country without a visa, take up residence there, get a job or start a business there.
Almost half of Israel’s Jews are Sephardim, and Israel is a country where second passports are in great demand. The big Sephardic communities in the United States and Mexico will probably not be tempted, but the remaining Sephardic Jews in Muslim countries, including Turkey, certainly will be. Symbolism is important, but Gallardón’s offer will also have a real impact on many people’s lives.
Portugal, which expelled its Jews shortly after Spain did, is also trying to make amends: it now grants citizenship to Sephardim who can demonstrate a connection to the Portuguese Jewish community. How much further might this example spread? Not very far, alas.
Most of the great expulsions of history have occurred in the context of war, like the compulsory “population exchange” of the Greek minority in Turkey and the Turkish minority in Greece after the First World War, or the expulsion of ten million Germans from their ancestral homes in eastern Europe at the end of the Second.
It’s because the Jews of Spain and Portugal were entirely blameless and ruthlessly victimised that there is broad popular support in both these countries for this act of apology and belated recompense. All credit to Spain and Portugal for doing it – but it probably wouldn’t be happening even there if it seriously inconvenienced the majority.