New York Jewish Week
Dina Siegel Vann
March 25, 2014
A member of New York’s Sephardic community approached Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute, after a luncheon at the AJC headquarters in Manhattan last week.
Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, the Spanish minister of justice, had just described a bill before Spain’s Parliament that will offer Spanish citizenship to Jews who can prove they are descended from Jewish families who fled Spain more than five centuries ago.
The New Yorker, who grew up in a Cuban family that had preserved its Sephardic heritage, said he was “interested in learning more” about the Spanish offer, Vann said. “Because of his Sephardic heritage … he’s very interested in reconnecting” with his Spanish roots.
In addition, she said, Spanish citizenship — and an accompanying European Union passport — “opens all kind of [business and travel] opportunities.”
It is likely that the Cuban New Yorker will be part of a growing group of Jews who have — or believe they have — centuries-old roots in Spain and will take up the country’s offer for citizenship.
Some 3,000 Jews around the world applied for Spanish citizenship when Spain made it available last year, on condition that the applicants give up their current citizenship, a spokesperson for Spain’s Justice Ministry said. And Ruiz-Gallardon, told the AJC luncheon that he expects another 150,000 to apply if, as expected, the Spanish Parliament passes the bill that would allow applicants to remain citizens of their present country.
The bill, which expands on a more-restrictive 1924 law, is expected to receive unanimous approval by Parliament; if so, applicants will have a two-year window of opportunity in which to obtain their Spanish citizenship.
The new legislation, which will ease the application process, will “reverse more than 500 years of injustice,” Ruiz-Gallardon said at the AJC event. “It is tempting to wonder what Spain would look like today had it not forced its Jews to decide in four months whether to convert to Christianity or leave the country. We have to right the wrong, and educate the next generation so as not to repeat it.”
The minister, who earlier served as mayor of Madrid, is a grandson of Spain’s wartime ambassador to Romania, who helped save Jews from the Nazis. Ruiz-Gallardon said he has been working on the legislation for several years.
Some 200,000 Spanish Jews left the country, at the command of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, selling their homes and businesses for nearly nothing and resettling in other parts of Europe and North Africa, and elsewhere in the late 15th century
The Inquisition officially ended in 1834.
According to the proposed legislation, applicants will be able to establish their Spanish heritage through surnames or other proof of ancestry, or through a certificate from a recognized Sephardic Jewish organization or rabbinic authority.
Within hours of the Spanish government’s announcement last month of the pending legislation, the Israeli website Ynet, which published a list of family names likely to fulfill the Spanish criteria, “spread like wildfire,” JTA reported. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain told Religious News Service that it had received more than 600 emails and “untold phone calls” expressing interest in receiving “Sephardic certificates.”
Sarina Roffe, a Brooklyn resident who is an expert on Sephardic genealogy (Sephardicgenjourneys.com), said she started receiving calls a year ago from people interested in the initial Spanish offer; most, she said, lost interest when they learned they would have to give up their current citizenship. Proving one’s claims to Spanish citizenship when family members have lived in other countries for several centuries is often difficult, she said. “There’s lots of lore,” many family stories, but little documented proof.
After the recent Spanish announcement, Spanish Muslims urged the government to similarly grant citizenship to descendants of Muslims who were expelled from Spain.
The proposed legislation “is one more step in order to learn about the history, a history of the past misunderstood and a re-encountering future,” the Justice Ministry spokesperson told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “This is a historical repair … not [an] economic matter.”
Vann said the proposed legislation is the latest step that “the Spanish state” — not just a single political party — has taken in recent years to reach out to the international Jewish community and combat a widespread “stigma that Spain is the most anti-Semitic country in Europe.”
Spain has already established an “ambassador” who coordinates relations with Jews, and fostered a “cultural exchange” with Jewish institutions, to show “Jewish elements as an integral part of Spanish identity,” she told The Jewish Week.
“It’s not a momentary thing,” and is not inspired by economic motives – such as increased Jewish tourism – Vann said. “It’s not out of expediency. It’s a matter of principle.”
She said she has heard “a lot of interest” in the Spanish offer in Sephardic circles – some, from people in lands like Venezuela or Turkey where Jews reportedly live under tenuous conditions; some, interested in their “Spanish roots”; some, from people who seek the advantages of holding an European Union passport.
Portugal last year passed an amendment to its citizenship law, recognizing the right of some Sephardim — with demonstrable ties to a Portuguese Jewish community — to apply for citizenship.