Economic boost? Sephardic Jews contemplate a return to Spain
Is citizenship about love? Money? Or both?
The topic has become a difficult one in the wake of President Obama’s announcement last week that he will take executive action to change the US immigration system, from deportation. Many of their parents may come to the US for its economic opportunities but for their children, born here, it is home. The just announced policy recognizes that this new generation have a different relationship to the country.
Now, at least one nation that forcibly expelled part of its own population is preparing to welcome back their descendants – more than 500 years later. But the plan raises the question as to whether the policy has more to do with love – or the struggling country’s search for investment.
For Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, Spain’s minister of justice, it’s about rectifying one of the country’s “”.
In 1492, the same month that they gave Christopher Columbus his mission to set off across the Atlantic, Spain’s joint monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, ordered all their Jewish citizens to either convert to Christianity or leave the country within four months.
Now the Spanish government plans to who didn’t convert. The plan, which has spent most of 2014 working its way through the Spanish legislative system, could be in force by early 2015, clearing the way for thousands – even millions – of Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship, should they choose.
But will they?
It’s one thing to bring tourist income to Spain for a week or so, but encouraging Sephardic Jews to think about developing permanent ties to a country their ancestors were forced to abandon half a millennium ago? At a time that country is struggling economically, with an that still hovers at 23.5%?
Odds are that those who qualify for Spanish citizenship – who are able to put together an application and prove their lines of descent or ties to the Sephardic community – will be those with resources and who are resourceful; who are entrepreneurial and willing to break new ground.
As Ilan Stavans noted in a new York Times editorial, Argentina and Mexico as a way to help boost their economies in the 19th centuries; Egypt’s 19th century rulers encouraged Dutch Jews to help after the building of the Suez canal.
So how much of Spain’s actions are motivated by economic opportunism – and how much a genuine interest in making amends half a millennium later?
Spain’s justice minister has said the new law doesn’t have .
Clearly some Americans, like Josh Nathan-Kazis, who wrote a thoughtful for the Forward, find few compelling economic reasons to abandon their birth country, and few attractions in Spain.
Many of Spain’s Jews – a diaspora variously estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000 – found a home in the Ottoman empire, whose sultan couldn’t understand just what the Spanish monarchs had done. “How can you can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king,” , “the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”
has been waking up to the economic potential of the Sephardic diaspora for some years, however.
The first stage in the process, says Ronnie Perelis, the Alcalay Assistant Professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, was connected with Spain’s economic decline following the loss of the last of its imperial possessions in 1898.
The economic crisis – and the identity crisis – that followed, prompted many to revisit Spain’s glory days, including the history of the , a period when Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted.
That led to outreach to the Sephardic diaspora – even during the second world war, Perelis says, when Spanish ambassadors in parts of eastern rescued Jews by claiming they were Sephardic and thus entitled to Spanish citizenship.
The Franco regime revoked the Alhambra Decree of 1492 in 1968. In 1992, King Juan Carlos prayed in a Madrid synagogue, a gesture that probably sent his ancestors, Ferdinand and Isabella, spinning in their ornate tombs in Seville.
More recently, Spanish cities have made a big push to attract Sephardic Jewish tourists interested in revisiting their past. Avila, better known for its hometown saint, Teresa, to build a memorial garden to mark the site of an ancient Jewish cemetery behind an old monastery, in spite of the country’s economic problems. Avila is one of almost two dozen cities that now have joined to form a Network of Jewish Quarters, promoting their ties to their Jewish history and attract tourist revenue.
Sephardic history is suddenly one of a handful of for Spain. “You can go to little Spanish towns and they will have whole Sephardic history tours,” Perelis says, adding wryly: “Including Jewish-themed restaurants decorated with legs of smoked ham.”
Maybe I’m unduly cynical. But, given that it has now been more than a century since Spain began re-evaluating its relationship with the descendants of its long-ago citizens, is it altogether a coincidence that this initiative occurs just when Spain could most benefit from immigrants who might have investment capital to deploy?
But the Sephardic community includes affluent communities in other nations, many of whom may be interested in acquiring Spanish citizenship. There are “Western-educated people living in , where it is becoming more difficult to be Jewish, or Venezuela, where you have a lot of Sephardic Jews”, some of whom came from Spanish enclaves in North Africa,” he says. “Venezuela isn’t a great place to be upper middle class these days.”
The new law will probably be a windfall for at least one group: the genealogists who specialize in Sephardic Jewish family trees. It may be up to them to help winnow through the candidates, and the documentation, to determine who is and who isn’t of Sephardic ancestry.
That may be tough, Perelis notes. “Sephardic” came to refer to a cultural and religious context, as much as it did a place of origin. Then, too, in places like Syria, exiles and local Jewish communities would worship together. “Who is Sephardic, anyway? How will they figure it out?”
But some Sephardim are already thinking past those big questions, and wondering about the potential for some new culinary initiatives in Madrid. What about ? Or even a bagel bocadillo de calamares?