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Spain on the Mend

Binyamin Rose, Madrid

For more than 500 years, Jews were officially barred from living in Spain. Now, the descendants of the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 have been invited to reapply for citizenship

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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NEVER TOO LATE King Felipe VI says Spain has a duty in the name of justice to restore citizenship to Sephardic Jews (Photos: Official Royal Photographer)

K ing Felipe VI of Spain cannot singlehandedly rectify the wrongs committed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the royal couple who expelled hundreds of thousands of Jews from Spain in 1492. Nobody can.

Yet the 48-year-old monarch has shown special grace to Spain’s Jewish community since assuming the throne in June 2014 after his father, King Juan Carlos I, abdicated following a 39-year reign. King Felipe demonstrated that grace last week, mingling freely and conversing for nearly an hour with a visiting Jewish contingent at Madrid’s royal palace. The unusual meeting took place alongside a formal ceremony in which the king accepted the fourth annual Lord Jakobovits Prize from the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in recognition of a new Spanish law enabling descendants of expelled Jews to reclaim Spanish citizenship.

Guests nibbled on hors d’oeuvre and sipped red and white wine in the ornate Palacio Real de El Pardo, built in the 16th century when Madrid became Spain’s capital. Surrounding us on the walls — which were punctuated with windowed balconies adorned with cream-colored shutters and railings of black brass and gold — hung tapestries created by world-renowned Spanish artists Bayeu and de Goya. As King Felipe circulated, the invited guests pressed forward. Plainclothes security men kept a close watch, at a respectful distance.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the CER’s president, stood at the king’s side, making formal introductions. When introduced to Rabbi Dovid Libersohn, the Chabad shaliach from Barcelona, King Felipe asked him about the origins of the Lubavitch movement. When introduced to Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag of Manchester, the king asked him for details of the state of relations between the British rabbinate and the Queen of England.

During his formal remarks at the award ceremony, King Felipe — speaking in lightly accented English — said granting Sephardic Jews a chance at regaining lost citizenship was “Spain’s duty in the name of justice.”

When I asked King Felipe if he felt that Spain’s legislation can serve as a lesson to other European countries who want to make amends to their Jewish communities, he replied, “It’s not a matter of a lesson. Not all European countries had the experience we had, or had what to mend like we did.” In an era in which most EU countries are grappling with an unending wave of immigrants, Spain’s new law is far from an open invitation to every Sephardic Jew. The World Jewish Congress estimates that just 4,500 Sephardim of a potential pool of 3 million have received citizenship since the law took effect 14 months ago. Some Spanish lawmakers have expressed concern that the final version of the law contains too many high bureaucratic hurdles for the average person to leap.

Asked if Spain could do more to help Jews overcome those difficulties, King Felipe replied: “I hope so. I don’t know all the technicalities involved, but there is someone coordinating among all the different communities who prescribes who has the actual [Jewish] identity. But that is something the Jewish community has to decide amongst itself. It’s not a question of government.”

Rabbi Goldschmidt says that one goal of the visit, aside from honoring the king and country, was to strengthen his organization’s links to the Spanish rabbinate and Jewish community and facilitate contact between them and those eligible for citizenship. “Whatever the process is, we are going to try to make it easier and more accessible,” he said.

And it’s not just the Jewish community he’s looking after. He cited a 2008 genetic study conducted by a team of biologists in England and Barcelona showing that some 20 percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) has some Jewish blood. “In Mallorca and Ceuta, there are whole communities trying to come back to Judaism, so I think there is tremendous amount of potential here,” Rabbi Goldschmidt added.

Not Just Sentimental

In addition to fulfilling a sense of justice, there are practical reasons why many Jews would find Spanish citizenship advantageous. There are still some 2,500 Jews in Morocco, a country that has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Moroccan Jews who want to travel to Israel generally go to France first to obtain a visa. Spanish citizenship, and the passport that comes with it, would ease their passage. Spanish citizenship would also be attractive to British Sephardim anxious to keep an EU passport once Britain formally severs its ties with the EU after Brexit.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt: “The doors of governments all over Europe are open to us”

But Spain has set some tough conditions for prospective citizens. A Sephardic last name is not enough. One must prove Sephardic background, by showing proficiency in Spanish, or evidence of knowledge of ancient tongues such as Ladino or Haketia — a Jewish-Moroccan Romance language. There are also reams of paperwork to fill out and documents to gather, translate, and notarize for validation by the coordinator King Felipe made mention of — the Madrid-based Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain (FCJE). The Jewish Museum of Rhodes, which has special expertise in genealogy, and the Instituto Cervantes both offer online information and assistance to maneuver through the bureaucracy. In some cases, applicants must travel at their own expense to Spain, or the nearest Spanish embassy or consulate. Total expenses could reach $4,000 to $6,000.

This burden prompted Jon Iñárritu García, a congressman representing the Basque country, to quip: “It’s easier to win the Nobel Prize than to obtain Spanish nationality.”

Nevertheless, for some, the time and effort are worth it because they feel that Spanish citizenship has more than just symbolic value.

“It’s not just sentimental. It’s a recognition of the pain and suffering caused to descendants of the families expelled from here, by allowing them to be part of the country as rightful citizens,” says Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Sephardic community in the UK, who also attended the ceremony in Madrid. Rabbi Dweck hails from a family expelled from Spain who found refuge in Amsterdam. Born in Los Angeles, he served as rabbi of Shaare Shalom in Flatbush from 1999 to 2014 and was principal of the Barkai Yeshivah in Brooklyn.

The new law also provides much-needed moral support to Spain’s existing Jewish community. “What we saw an hour ago, with the king of Spain, is proof that we have more allies than enemies in the fight against anti-Semitism,” said David Hatchwell Altaras, president of the Jewish Community of Madrid and vice president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain.

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