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
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