The Spanish parliament still has to pass the new citizenship law, but the cabinet has already approved it and Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, the justice minister, is sure there won’t be a problem. “In Spain, a clear majority realize we have committed a historical error and have an opportunity to repair it, so I am sure that law will pass with an immense majority in parliament,” he said. Historical apologies are in fashion — the former South African president, F.W. De Klerk, apologized for apartheid, ex-British prime minister Tony Blair apologized for the slave trade and the Irish potato famine, and Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Church’s historical oppression of women — but Spain isn’t just saying sorry for expelling its Jews 522 years ago. It’s offering to give their descendants back their citizenship.
Spain’s Jews were given only four months in 1492 to choose between becoming Christian or leaving their homes forever. Most left, settling in Muslim-ruled North Africa and the Ottoman Empire or in other parts of Christian Europe. They kept their Spanish language in the form of Ladino — Castilian written in the Hebrew script — and became know as Sephardic Jews.
Ladino is now a dying language, but the Sephardim have retained their distinctive identity and are estimated to number up to a third of the world’s 13 million Jews today. Spain’s planned new law potentially covers almost all of them, for it is written very broadly. Applicants for Spanish citizenship need not speak Ladino or even be religious. They need only be able to show a link to Sephardic culture (it could be as little as a Sephardic family name). In most cases, however, the simplest route to Spanish citizenship would be to have a local rabbi certify their Sephardic ancestry, or to get certification of their Sephardic heritage from a recognized Spanish-Jewish community.
Spain’s justice minister reckons that only about 1,50,000 Sephardic Jews will take up the offer (which will remain open for two years), and he doesn’t think that many of them will actually want to move to Spain. But he promises that the government will not be strict in deciding who qualifies as Sephardic. What Gallardón has not taken into account is the fact that Spanish citizenship is, for practical purposes, citizenship in all 28 member countries of the European Union. A Spanish passport-holder can enter Britain, France, Germany, Sweden or any other EU country without a visa, take up residence, get a job or start a business there. What’s not to like about this offer?
Almost half of Israel’s Jews are Sephardim, and Israel is a country where second passports are in great demand. The big Sephardic communities in the United States of America and Mexico will probably not be tempted, but the remaining Sephardic Jews in Muslim countries, including Turkey, certainly will be. Gallardón is thinking mostly about symbolism, which is important, but his offer will also have a real impact on many people’s lives.
Portugal, which expelled its Jews shortly after Spain did, is also trying to make amends, though on a less grand scale. Last year it changed the law, and now grants citizenship to Sephardim who can demonstrate a connection to the Portuguese Jewish community.
Most of the great expulsions of history have occurred in the context of war, like the compulsory “population exchange” of the Greek minority in Turkey and the Turkish minority in Greece after the First World War. It’s because the Jews of Spain and Portugal were entirely blameless and ruthlessly victimized that there is popular support for this act of apology and belated recompense. All credit to Spain and Portugal for doing it — but it probably wouldn’t be happening even there if it seriously inconvenienced the majority.