Repatriating Spain's Jews

Article excerpt

The new citizenship law seems to make amends for the 1492 expulsion. But is this really penitence?

A Jewish friend of mine who belongs to a Sephardic Jewish family whose roots predate the 15th-century expulsion from Spain tells me that his family keeps a mythical key. The key passes from generation to generation. "It apparently opens the door to the abandoned house left behind when my ancestors were forced to leave," my friend said.

The Spanish government recently announced its decision to grant citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews, who, like my friend's forebears, were thrown out by the Alhambra Decree of 1492. According to the country's minister of justice, Alberto Ruiz- Gallardon, this new legislation is an attempt to correct "the biggest mistake in Spanish history."

It is expected that there will be some 150,000 applications and that the criterion for approval won't be "overly strict." Applicants won't be asked to relocate to Spain, nor will they need to renounce their existing citizenship.

The new law makes Spain one of the few nations in the world to offer automatic citizenship to Jews. On the surface, this looks like a conciliatory move -- the result of deep national soul- searching. In reality, it is just another chapter in Spain's ambivalent relationship with its Jewish past.

Modern Spain has made apologies to the Jews before. The Alhambra Decree was officially revoked in 1968. In 1992, as part of the festivities of the quincentennial, in which Spain publicly portrayed itself as a penitent nation paying for its sins, King Juan Carlos, wearing a yarmulke, prayed in a Madrid synagogue alongside Israel's president, Chaim Herzog.

The country was ripe for reconciliation, the king proclaimed: Sephardic Jews had a place in Spain's present. The idea of granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews circulated, but the country was in the middle of a financial bonanza: It did not "need" Jews, and the proposal came to nothing.

Until now. Spain finds itself still mired in the worst financial crisis in memory. Inviting Jews to settle in times of economic trouble is a strategy employed before, including in the Hispanic world. At the end of the 19th century, Jewish immigrants were courted as harbingers of modernity by Argentina and Mexico. And in the 20th century, the region of Sosua on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic was allocated for Jewish refugees from the Holocaust -- in hopes that they would push the underdeveloped region forward.

Spain's latter-day conversion to philo-Semitism, however, is more apparent than real. The truth is that the Jews left in 1492 -- but the anti-Semitism stayed behind. The country is a prime example of a nation that fosters "anti-Semitism without Jews," a phenomenon often marked by dualist attitudes. Take the dictatorship of General Franco, from 1939 until 1975: Some Jewish refugees were saved by various consuls and other diplomatic administrators, with Franco taking credit, yet his fascist forces regularly used anti-Semitic motifs in their propaganda. Even in 1982, on my first visit to Spain, I recall seeing swastikas, copies of Mein Kampf in translation and Nazi paraphernalia for sale.

The original post-1492 Sephardic communities flourished across the Mediterranean, eventually extending to the Middle East, the Americas, Turkey, the Netherlands, the Balkans, Northern Africa and Italy. …

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