Should the Jews Return to Spain?        By Norma Libman In 1492, following hundreds of years of escalating anti-Jewish violence on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain formally expelled its Jews. Along with the Muslim population and anyone else who was not Christian (i.e. witches, gypsies),  Jews were given the choice of converting to Christianity, leaving the land they loved, or risking death if they stayed. In the year 1000 there had been approximately a million Jews, a million Muslims and a million Christians in the area. By 1492, seventy-five percent of the Jews were already gone, either by death, conversion or actually leaving for other places. Of the remaining quarter of a million or so, probably about half went to Portugal as a result of the Edict of Expulsion. They were invited to Portugal by King Manuel, but four years later all those who accepted that invitation were forcibly converted to Christianity by the king. He committed this act in exchange for the hand of the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. And so, ultimately, the Inquisition found its way to Portugal. Most of the rest of the Jews in Spain chose conversion, either sincerely or, more likely in many cases, professing a conversion to Christianity while clinging to Judaism in secret. For the Muslims it was considerably easier. Islam had spread quite widely in the world by then and they had many places, ranging from Northern Africa to Indonesia, where they could safely make new homes. But for the Crypto-Jews, those who converted but decided to remain Jewish in secret, choices were more limited. Still, within fifty years new possibilities were opening up in the New World and many found their way to North and South America. For those who wound up in Mexico and what later became the United States Southwest, they were merely travelling to New Spain, not even leaving the mother country officially, but getting far away from the headquarters of the Inquisition. Which is not to say that they found safety. By the seventeenth century the Inquisition had moved over to the New World and trials and autos-de-fe took place in Mexico City, pushing more people farther north to join their co-religionists who had already made their way up to what would eventually become New Mexico and other parts of the United States. Now, suddenly, Spain has offered citizenship to anyone who can prove they are a descendant of Jews expelled in the fifteenth century. (Portugal has made the same offer and Germany has made a similar overture to Jews and their descendants who left that country during World War II to escape the Holocaust.) Why would Spain do such a thing now? And why would any Jews take them up on the offer? First, why are they offering a short-cut to Spanish citizenship? Suddenly, in a time of growing anti-Semitism in Spain and the rest of the world, the Spanish government wants to bring more Jews into the country. In an article for the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews (Vol. 6, Summer 2014) Jonatas  D. Dasilva points out that there are only 12,000 Jews in Spain, which has a population of 42 million, and suggests that low number may reflect the fact that various recent surveys show Spain to be very anti- Semitic. For example, he says, “a report about European anti-Semitism published by the New York-based Anti-Defamation League says that 54 percent of Spaniards believe that ‘Jews have too much power in international markets.’”  Some believe that Spain’s offer of citizenship is more about economics than a desire to right a wrong or to enrich the culture of their nation. This would be a great irony since the expulsion, too, was more about money than religion. While Isabella’s concern for saving souls was apparently sincere, Ferdinand and the Spanish government were more interested in keeping the coffers filled in order to support Spain’s operations as a super power. When New Christians were discovered to be practicing Judaism in secret they were tried for heresy, generally convicted if they didn’t die in jail first, and their property confiscated. If they chose to leave Spain to escape forced conversion or death they had to sell their property or businesses for whatever they could get in a hurry, generally at a great loss. And when they left Spain if they were owed money, either privately or by the government, those debts were erased, leaving the Jewish lender impoverished and the borrower free of debt. Now Spain is suffering the same economic problems as the rest of Europe and much of the world. While they speak of the richness these new citizens will add to their culture, it is also true that offering an easy road to citizenship to some Jews will not only bring in cash, but will surely result in new start-up businesses of all sorts throughout the nation. The offer does not require that the individual give up citizenship in his or her native country. This is a departure from earlier Spanish law and indicates how important they must feel it is to acquire these new citizens. And what is the appeal of this offer to Sephardic Jews, descendants of the forced converts, the expelled, the murdered? Fernando Peinado writes in, July 18, 2014, that the Spanish government expects most of the applications for citizenship to come from Israel, “where crowds have lined up outside the Spanish Embassy and consulate to request information.” He also says that many Sephardic Jews in Miami and New York “have directed queries to organizations like the American Jewish Committee, which the Spanish government consulted during the drafting of the bill.” Clearly there is an interest and some of it is about a cultural attachment to Spain that exists for some people despite the horrible things that happened to their ancestors there. Author and lecturer, Daniel Diaz-Huerta says, “My interest in pursuing Spanish citizenship under the recent legislation that allows dual citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews is really quite simple: I wish to honor my faith and ancestors . . . my Spanish/Hebrew heritage.” Chip Espinoza, and educator and consultant, echoes this sentiment. “My grandfather always told us we came from Spain,” he says. “He instilled a love of Spain in us. Even my eight-year-old daughter, who never knew her great- grandfather, has an affinity for Spain.” Getting Spanish citizenship would be “a closing of the loop,” he says. But, again, some of it is economic. Spanish citizenship confers membership in the European Union and all the privileges that go with it, from the ability to live and work in any member country, to a passport that can sometimes get one through a European airport more quickly than can an American passport. It is not necessarily the case that those who acquire Spanish citizenship would actually live there. Israelis, however, are currently suffering from issues of extreme high cost of living and some might feel they would benefit from actually moving to Spain and enjoying a more financially comfortable life. It is also worth noting that there have been a number of reports of difficulties in applying for this supposed easy gift of citizenship. In a two-part article in the January 31 and February 21, 2014 issues of Forward Josh Nathan-Kazis detailed his attempts to get Spanish citizenship and the many roadblocks he encountered, possibly because the Spanish government is still working out the criteria for citizenship. Descendants of Conversos can trace their ancestry through Inquisition and Church records, which were meticulously kept. Nathan-Kazis went to Spain with a variety of documents proving his Spanish heritage and was told by Maria Royo of the Spanish Jewish Federation that “This is just a piece of paper.”  At that point he knew, says Nathan-Kazis, that “this was going to be harder than I thought.” Espinoza has also encountered difficulties. “There is a language proficiency test,” he says. “It is a little ambiguous as to what they want. It is still a discussion.” Clearly the dust has not entirely settled on this issue. Sephardic Rabbi Marc D. Angel, in a June 29, 2014 issue of The Times of Israel, calls his reaction to the new Spanish policy as mixed. “On the one hand,” he says, “reconciliation is a good thing, even after five or more centuries. On the other hand, is this particular policy a real act of reconciliation or is it rather only a gesture that will appeal to few Sephardim in an attempt to soothe the Spanish conscience?” His answer to this question is that if atonement is what Spain wants “it needs to correspond directly with the nature of the sin.” This, he says, is hatred of the Jews and Judaism. And the atonement must be a commitment to fight anti-Semitism and eliminate religious and ethnic fanaticism. “Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism wherever it manifests itself,” he says. “. . . how wonderful it would be if Spain would be a world leader in helping Sephardim – and all the Jewish people – to live in a world free of anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. That would be Spain’s great gift to humanity for our generation and the generations to come.” ©Norma Libman - All rights reserved - No portion of this article may be republished without the express written permission of the author TOP OF PAGE
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