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The long voyage of expelled Sephardic Jews back to Spain

The long voyage of expelled Sephardic Jews back to Spain
By Marta Rodriguez Martinez with AFP
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More than 130,000 descendants of Sephardic Jews from all over the world have applied for the Spanish nationality.


Ricardo Bello's grandfather's family name was once Toledo. In Venezuela, people knew his family had Jewish ancestors — though all of them are now practising Catholics.

Bello is one of more than 130,000 descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 that have asked for a Spanish passport after a 2015 law made it possible.

The Spanish Congress of Deputies passed the law to try and repair what Madrid called a "historical error" — the expulsion of approximately 200,00 Jews by order of then Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, in the name of the "purity" of blood. Back then, the majority of the Jewish community took refuge in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa.

Bids for citizenship accelerated drastically before the October 1 deadline, with more than 132,000 applications according to estimates by the Spanish Ministry of Justice.

Bello, a businessman and writer who was also an opposition candidate for Venezuela's National Assembly, told Euronews he began the application process when Venezuela's political situation worsened.

To apply, he had to study his ancestors' history, from their expulsion from Spain to their migration to Venezuela, and go through a Jewish centre to recognise his documents.

Expelled from Spain in the 15th century, Bello's family first travelled to Thessaloniki in Greece, where Bello found the name of the synagogue they attended. They continued their journey to Morocco but sometime between the 18th and 19th century they converted to Catholicism and decided to return to Spain, to the Canary Islands. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the family decided to settle in Venezuela.

Bello has now gone back to his ancestors' home. He's settled with his family in Andalucia while he awaits for the nationality procedure to be completed. The entire process has taken a year and a half.

"It was a debt to the Sephardic people," he said, indicating that his curiosity to connect with his roots led him to study Hebrew and write a novel, 'Sacrament of War'.

From Venezuela to Turkey

The vast majority of citizenship applicants live in Latin America, where the descendants of Sephardic Jews settled from the 16th century, beginning with Mexico (20,000), Venezuela (almost 15,000), and Colombia (almost 14,000). There were also a lot of applications from Argentina (more than 4,000) and Israel (more than 3,000).

In Turkey, some were very nervous about making the deadline since applicants had to prove they had a high level of Spanish in addition to all the other requirements.

Before the 2015 law, Spain would grant citizenship to Jews who could prove they had Sephardic roots — but only after they had lived at least two years in Spain through a naturalization permit. In most cases, they had to surrender all other nationalities.

Spain, historical centre for worldwide Judaism

During the Holocaust, many Jews who had a Spanish passport were able to save themselves, said Esther Bendahan, director of the Cultural Centre for Sefarad Israel in Spain.

However, she regretted that the new law has had a stronger impact on the outside than for the internal acknowledgement of Sephardic culture.

"It is important to remember that it is part of the history of Spain and also, in the world of Judaism, the history of Spain is essential," she said. "Part of the Yom Kippur prayers were written by Spanish Jews."

Bendahan also pointed out that the two most important branches of Judaism, rationalism and Kabbalah, originated in Spain. "It is not that it is important for Spain because it forms part of its culture, but Jews, in general, must also remember that Spain is essential because it has been the nucleus of a very important part of its own culture."

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