Spain Offers Citizenship to Descendents of Jews Who Fled Inquisition

Spanish jews
A man prays before the arrival of Israel's President Shimon Peres for a gathering with members of the Spanish Jewish community at Madrid's Bet Yaacov synagogue, on the first day of his official visit to Spain, February 21, 2011. Susana Vera/REUTERS

Descendants of Spanish Jews exiled from the country more than 500 years ago will soon be able to apply for Spanish citizenship.

The Spanish parliament's lower house approved a bill yesterday approving the conditional granting of citizenship to Sephardic Jews, who are descended from Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 under the Inquisition initiated by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella.

The Spanish news site, the Local reported that the bill will now go to the parliament's upper house for approval and is expected to come into force in May. The bill was originally put forward in 2012 but contained a clause requiring applicants to give up their original citizenship in order to take on Spanish nationality. This clause was dropped in June 2014.

Applicants must be certified by Spain's Federation of Jewish Communities and prove their Sephardic roots by speaking Ladino, a medieval Judaeo-Spanish language still used in parts of the Sephardic liturgy. They must also be able to speak Spanish and show affiliation to the country by having studied Spanish history or supported Spanish charities.

The Financial Times reported that around 90,000 Sephardic Jews are expected to apply for a Spanish passport, with the application process due to begin at the end of this year.

Rabbi Joseph Dweck is leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation in London, a 1,200-strong community which was established by Jews fleeing Iberia in 1656. He says that the bill is a long overdue recognition of the status of Sephardic Jews and their contribution to Spanish culture.

"The Jewish people have a long memory and the truth is some of our greatest scholars, poets and tradesmen lived in Spain and flourished there for many centuries," says Dweck. "For Spain to extend this invitation to the descendants of those Jews is meaningful."

Prior to the Inquisition, Spanish Jews were one of the wealthiest and populous Jewish communities in Europe, with around 300,000 Jews living in the country. Today, there are only around 40,000-50,000, mostly concentrated in major cities such as Madrid and Barcelona.

"There has been a very low Jewish population in Spain. There are some small communities but since the Jews left there wasn't a great deal of resurgence and return," says Dweck. "I think this would have a positive impact in terms of Jews moving there and living there."

Dweck, an American citizen, says that he and many other members of his congregation will consider applying for Spanish citizenship once the law takes effect.

A spokesperson for the European Jewish Congress, an umbrella organisation for Jewish congregations throughout Europe, says that the bill is welcome at a time of rising antisemitism across Europe.

He says: "It's a very positive move, particularly at a time when in many of our communities in Europe today there is a real emptying out of Jews because of antisemitism."

In 1492, the Alhambra Decree was passed in Spain, requiring Jews and Muslims to either convert to Catholicism, leave or face execution. Around 100,000 Jews left Spain during the 15th century, settling largely in the Ottoman Empire. Many continued to live in Spain and Portugal as conversos - Sephardic Jews who maintained an outward visage of Christianity in order to avoid persecution whilst preserving Jewish traditions and religion secretly. The 1492 edict was only formally revoked by the Spanish government in 1968.

Spain Offers Citizenship to Descendents of Jews Who Fled Inquisition | World