In 1492 Spain’s Catholic monarchs passed a law, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews, which forced Spanish Jews either to become Catholic or go into exile. The people who left Spain were called Sephardic Jews, from the Hebrew word Sepharad, meaning a place from which people are exiled.
Exiled Jews kept their house keys as a reminder of their lost homeland, and the diaspora spread from the Ottoman Empire to the New World.
Five hundred years later, Spain is considering a law which will grant Spanish citizenship to the descendants of those exiled. Sephardic Jews from all over the world could get double nationality, with all the associated benefits of having an EU passport.
Sephardic Jew Alejandra Abulafia said: “For me a Spanish passport represents the return to our lost homeland. It’s a key. I don’t think Sephardic people from all over the world will return to Spain. They will just apply for citizenship and then stay where they are. Most of them have no interest in moving to Spain. They kept the key as a nostalgic symbol. Now, they want to recover the door of their ancestors’ home, and Spain is that door.”
The new law has already been approved by Spain’s Council of Ministers and is expected to enter force early in 2015. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 500,000 Jews could apply for Spanish citizenship over the next five years, costing Spain around 30 million euros.
Spanish Justice Secretary Juan Bravo says there will be checks on applicants: “The applicants must be of Spanish Sephardic origin. The bill to be approved includes a long list of ways to prove Sephardic origin: knowledge of the Jewish-Spanish language, a birth certificate or wedding certificate that shows observance of the “Castilian Rite”, a certificate issued by the rabbinical authority of the applicant’s place of residence, or a certificate issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain.”
The law is designed to rectify a historic injustice, but some people have asked whether this is the right time for such an initiative.
Isaac Querub, the President of the association the Jewish Communities of Spain, thinks it is: “Well, it is always the right time to right a wrong and to see justice done. Sephardic Jewish people have longed for this rectification for a very long time. We are living in a time of crisis, both economic and political. Extreme right and neo-Nazi political parties are emerging in Greece, Hungary, Finland and France, so this Spanish law is a timely initiative which will see justice done.”
The exiled Sephardic Jewish people scattered all over the world, originally taking refuge in North Africa, southern Europe and the Balkans. Since 1950 many of them have moved to Israel. Their numbers are now estimated at around 3.5 million, representing about 18 percent of Jews worldwide.
Silka Erez is a Sephardic Jewish woman from Israel who now lives in Spain, where she practices alternative therapy using the Kabbalah. Part of her family is Slovenian and her mother is a Sephardic Jew from Jerusalem and she is enthusiastic about the new law: “I am determined to get Spanish citizenship. I have already made an application, but I’ve waited five or six years for a positive answer. The Israeli Jews are very respectful towards Spain. The Spanish Sephardic people are called the “Samj Tet” which means “pure Sephardic”. Ladino, the Sephardic language, is still spoken in Israel where it is called “Espanolit” in Hebrew.”
The Spanish city of Toledo was historically known as “Western Jerusalem”, and was occupied by Christians, Jews and Muslims who all lived peacefully together speaking Latin, Arabic and Hebrew.
Paco Vara is a translator who discovered his Jewish heritage online: “There is a full list of Jewish surnames on the website sefardim.com, and that’s where I found my name. Most of these surnames were made from the name of a profession or crafts added to the name of a city. This kind of surname was very common in places with big Jewish communities. Surnames linked to place names like Toledano, Cordobés, were used by Jews to conceal their own surnames of Hebrew origin.”
But not all Sephardic Jews went into exile in 1492. Some converted to Catholicism.
Paco Vara said: “The Jewish people that stayed behind tried to keep a low profile and be unnoticeable. They just hid themselves away and gradually abandoned their cultural heritage. We have been living for centuries ignoring our identity. And nowadays, we ask “who are we?” Are we Jewish or Spanish? We have Jewish roots, that is clear, but we have integrated in Spain.”
Isaac Querub added: “Sepharad, the ancient Hebrew name for Spain, also means many other things and feelings. It means nostalgia, Sepharad belongs to our history but is also a future project. Will it be a return? We hope so. For us, this law represents the abolition of the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews.”
The Alhambra in Granada is a symbol of the contribution of Islamic culture to Spanish culture. Most Islamic mosques from the period were destroyed between 1492 and 1571 and most of the Moors were expelled between 1609 and 1613. There are only a few traces left of the historic Jewish quarter in Granada. Most of it was destroyed during the Inquisition. But some Jews remained, and practiced their religion in secret.
The Centre of Historical Memory of the Sephardic Culture in Granada was founded by Beatriz Chevalier Sola to remember them: “For me this is a mission. I have wanted to do it for years but for personal reasons it was impossible. But three years ago when I went to Israel, I realized that it was necessary to preserve and remember the history of the Jews of Granada.”