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Spain’s offer of citizenship to Sephardim raises questions

Analysis: Many are examining political motives behind Madrid’s offer to grant citizenship to expelled Jews’ descendants

The official rationale for last week’s extraordinary announcement by the Spanish government that it would offer citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled from 15th century Spain is simple: to right a historical wrong. But so many ethnic, national and religious groups have suffered grave injustices over the last 500 years — with few perpetrators ever accepting responsibility, let alone attempting restitution — that Madrid’s announcement has become something of a curiosity.

If the motivation was simply to reverse the Alhambra Decree of 1493, many have asked why the citizenship offer was not extended to the descendants of Muslims expelled under the same edict. One answer might be the vast disparity in numbers. The global Jewish population today stands at about 13 million — a bit less than the current population of metropolitan Cairo — of whom Sephardim, the descendants of the Jews of Muslim Spain are a small proportion.

While Sephardim are vastly outnumbered by Ashkenazim (Jews who trace their roots to other parts of Europe) and Mizrahi Jews (those who are ethnically Arab), many today are prominent business executives in Brazil and other parts of Latin America. Spain’s ongoing economic crisis certainly provides an incentive to seek foreign investment from wealthy Sephardim who might welcome the opportunity to acquire a European passport and restore a connection to their ancestry.

Israeli Jews of European descent — mostly the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors — have over the past decade applied in large numbers for European citizenship, using the second passport as a means to study and work abroad. That option even enabled some Israeli journalists to cover Arab countries from which they would be barred with an Israeli passport alone.

But EU citizenship is not just a convenience; it is also an insurance plan. The number of Israelis with European citizenship grew significantly after 2004, when new EU legislation allowed the foreign-born descendants of European Jews to apply for citizenship in 22 countries. Since then, about 150,000 Israelis have received their second passports, according to a 2011 study carried out by Bar Ilan University. Prominent commentators like Haaretz’s Gideon Levy have bluntly identified the acquisition of a foreign passport as an exit plan amid doubts about the country’s long-term future. As such, it mirrors the option of automatic Israeli citizenship for diaspora Jews who fear anti-Semitism or political instability in their native countries. 

Many Mizrahi Jews in Israel see European citizenship, which is not available to them, as further evidence of the relative privilege of Ashkenazi Jews in Israeli society. So when Spain announced its intention to offer citizenship to Sephardim, Israelis of both Sephardic and Mizrahi backgrounds eagerly circulated the application criteria on social media.

But the criteria for attaining Spanish citizenship as a Sephardic Jew are vague, even arbitrary. The Spanish Foreign Ministry document posted online has a long preamble that uses a very broad definition of Sephardim as well as two mentions of a fee that must be paid to cover the cost of applying for citizenship before arriving at the criteria, which border on the absurd. In addition to birth and marriage certificates or a letter from a rabbi, the list includes “proof of studies of Spanish history and culture as well as charitable activities on behalf of people or Spanish institutions.” There is nothing specific about the nature of the charitable activities, the types of people or what qualifies as a Spanish institution.

Josh Nathan-Kazis, a Jewish journalist who possesses definitive proof that he is descended from Sephardim, tried to apply for Spanish citizenship and wrote about the attempt for the New York–based Jewish newspaper Forward. He flew to Spain to present the documents attesting to his Sephardic ancestry but encountered indifference and bureaucratic obfuscation that he describes in hilarious detail. He did not manage to convince the Spanish authorities that he merited citizenship.

His experience suggests that Spain’s Foreign Ministry made the dramatic announcement that Jews of Spanish descent could apply for citizenship without first putting a bureaucratic procedure into place. That raises further questions over the motivations behind the announcement.

Some commentators on the left have speculated in private Facebook threads that the Spanish government is making a political statement, implicitly criticizing Israel’s stance on the right of return of Palestinians exiled in 1948 and their descendants. But why would Spain stick its finger into the Israeli-Palestinian morass? A country that just received an enormous financial bailout and is still reeling from the recession that began in 2008 has many problems more pressing than that conflict.

Last year, shortly after Spain announced that it was opening its arms to the descendants of 1492, someone anonymously circulated a long list of surnames online, claiming that these identified Sephardic Jewish families and made them eligible for citizenship. It was a long list. But it went viral with Israelis of Mizrahi descent on Facebook, until news came that the list did not come from the Spanish government. Ultimately a blogger, Ben Suissa, exposed it as a fake. No wonder, then, that the official announcement of the legislation’s passage elicited almost no response from Israelis on social media or in the public square. Many ordinary Israelis share Nathan-Kazis’ skepticism over whether Spain’s offer is a serious one. They’re more inclined to speculate about why it was made in the first place.

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