Spain set to offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews after ‘historic mistake’

Descendants of Jews to be welcomed back to land that drove out ancestors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 8:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 8:41pm


The Jews who flock to the two medieval synagogues in the walled city of Toledo are tourists, not worshippers. No one of their faith has practiced it in the temples' exquisitely decorated precincts since 1492.

That was the year King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed that the Jews of Spain either convert to Christianity or quit the country. Many fled, and were robbed, beaten or raped on the way out. Those who stayed faced possible torture and a gruesome death in the Spanish Inquisition.

More than half a millennium later, Spain says it is intent on rectifying its "historic mistake". Under a proposal still to be voted on, descendants of Spanish Jews would be offered citizenship and welcomed back to the land that drove out their ancestors.

Up to 3.5 million Jews worldwide trace their lineage to Spain, although it is not clear how or when their forebears made their way there in the first place.

Known as Sephardic Jews after the Hebrew word for Spain, they scattered across Europe, North Africa and farther afield. Nowadays, the highest concentration of Sephardim is in Israel.

Spanish embassies around the globe have fielded inquiries from Jews who view the proposal as a gesture of reconciliation and others who see it as an opportunity to receive a European Union passport.

For Amit Ben-Aroya, 40, it is both. "It is genuinely moving, a symbolic act of reconnecting with old and curious roots, and equally exciting in terms of the opportunities this might harbour, like access to the European market," the lawyer, who lives near Tel Aviv, said. "And generally speaking, being able to travel with a passport that is not Israeli is certainly an advantage."

His surname derives from the Spanish word arroyo and possibly a town of that name. A man called Abou Isaac Benarroyo is documented to have lived in Toledo in the 12th century, according to Beit Hatfutsot, a museum of the Jewish diaspora in Tel Aviv. His grandparents, father and aunt are fluent in Ladino, a version of Spanish that many exiled Jews passed down and is readily understandable to a modern-day Spanish speaker.

But exactly what the Spanish government would consider sufficient proof of Spanish heritage is not yet clear. Possible evidence includes fluency in Ladino or a surname that clearly originated in Spain, such as Toledano, meaning a person from Toledo.

"We have no physical evidence that survived 500 years, and I am not certain anyone else has," Ben-Aroya said.

For Spain, the move offers a chance to shine a light on a dark and dusty corner of its past.

"There was a veil of silence over this part of our history, and we want to pull back this veil and give voice to those Jews," said Santiago Palomero, director of the state-run Sephardic Museum in Toledo.

The push to offer Spanish citizenship is being led by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, whose great-grandfather is credited with saving dozens of Jews from being interned in concentration camps during the second world war while ambassador to Romania.

The Spanish government previously has allowed some Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship but required them to give up their current nationalities. The new proposal does not include that condition.

Although there has yet to be a vote on the bill in the parliament, the ruling Popular Party's majority is so large that it is almost certain to pass. Moreover, the proposal has drawn virtually no opposition.