Ancestry bill will allow Spain’s Jewish descendants to gain citizenship

Story by Freda Spencer

MADRID–Louis Fernando San Jose stood among the crisp white pillars and detailed tile in Santa María Blanca synagogue on the outskirts of Toledo, Spain. He recalled one of the most memorable experiences he has had as a tour guide of the small town just south of Madrid, which was once the Jewish capital of the country.

Opened in 1180, The Santa María Blanca museum was once a synagogue when Toledo was the Jewish capital of Spain. It closed in 1411 when Jews began to be persecuted. Today, it is a museum owned and preserved by the Catholic Church.  Photo by Joe Thomas

Opened in 1180, The Santa María Blanca museum was once a synagogue when Toledo was the Jewish capital of Spain. It closed in 1411 when Jews began to face persecution. Today, it is a museum owned and preserved by the Catholic Church.
Photo by Joe Thomas

When the Jewish people of Spain were forced to leave by King Ferdinand in 1492,  he explained, they were given only three months and brought few belongings with them as they fled to various parts of the world. They did, however, bring with them the keys to their homes, hoping they would one day return. Most never did.

“But now, nearly 600 years later, some people have returned with the keys [of their ancestors]… they have maps of the houses, and some have been able to actually open the doors to these homes with the old locks,” said San Jose, with a sense of bewilderment despite the amount of times he has repeated the story.

Today, the dream of returning to Sepharad – the name given to Spain by the hundreds of thousands of Jews who once lived there – is becoming more attainable for Jewish people with Sephardic roots around the globe. Introduced in November 2012, the Sephardic Ancestry Bill will allow Jews with ancestors from Spain to gain citizenship to the country through an expedited application process. It is meant to bring justice to the “historic mistake” of forcing all estimated 200,000 Jews from the country – or to convert – at the end of the 15th century.

Though it has been discussed among the Spanish government for nearly three years, the bill was just passed through the Senate the last week of May. Legislators, advocates and citizens alike are confident in the bill’s passage within the coming months.

“The process has not been finished. It went to the Senate, and now this law has to go to the Parliament and be approved. It will then take six months, more or less, to go into effect,” said Rosa Mendez, head of the Documentation Center of Centro Sefarad-Israel, a public institution founded by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Madrid City Council and the regional community of Madrid to promote understanding of the Sephardic culture in Spain.

She explains that El Centro Sefarad has been involved with the law nearly every step of the way, working with the government and specific lawmakers to draft parts of the bill and help the public understand how it will work. The final part – how and when the law will go into effect – is up to the government, however. Proving eligibility has been perhaps the most hotly debated issue surrounding the law.

“I think the main point, the most difficult point, has been deciding how to prove that you are a Sephardic Jew, or that you have ancestors that were Sephardic Jews,” said Mendez, adding, “There’s another problematic point: The applicants have to pass to a citizenship test that will prove knowledge of several elements and connection to Spanish roots… many people don’t agree with that.”

The question of including a test has been the main factor in delaying the bill from moving forward, but the exam is included in the latest version of the bill. It, along with the submission of online forms and providing as much documentation evidence as possible, will be integral in determining whether an applicant will gain citizenship under the law.

Rosa Mendez points out ancient Sephardic texts on display in Centro Sefarad Israel, located in the heart of Madrid, where she is the head of documentation. Photo by Freda Spencer

Rosa Mendez points out ancient Sephardic texts on display in Centro Sefarad Israel, located in the heart of Madrid, where she is the head of documentation.
Photo by Freda Spencer

According to legislators, the exam will evaluate the applicant’s knowledge of the current realities of Spain, including a language test and a portion on Spain’s Constitution. The exams will be administered at Cervantes Institutes, a worldwide non-profit created by the Spanish government. While applicants can take the tests at a Cervantes location near them, they must also travel to Spain once as part of the application process in order to meet with a notary and submit the necessary forms. The 75 euro (or $84) application fee was eliminated in the latest version of the bill, but other notary fees and a fee to take the exam will be attached.

Julia Lieberman, professor of Spanish and international studies at Saint Louis University, has focused her career on the historic and current Sephardic communities throughout the world. While she is wary of the process against which applicants will be screened, she understands why an exam may be necessary.

“With the creation of Israel, all non-Ashkenazi Jews were called Sephardic, but in reality they’re from different countries. Many trace their backgrounds from Spain, but most do not. The lawmakers are probably concerned that if they do not have that test, many others will be applying… I understand the concern of giving citizenship only to the right Sephardic Jews,” she said.

Analucía Lopezreveredo, 29, is among the many Sephardic American Jews who hopes she is eligible to take advantage of this law. Though she was born in Peru, she lived in Spain as a young child. When she was 4 years old, her family moved from Madrid to San Francisco after only two years of living in the Spanish capital. They decided to not pursue the permanent residency that was available to them if they stayed when her father finished the doctorate degree he had moved there for. Analucía has always felt an intimate connection to Spain, though. After all, her maternal ancestors called the city of Granada home and she was named after the southern coastal city of Andalusia.

“I have a lot of friends who I’ve discussed this with, but there are a lot of questions, like how do you prove that you’re a part of the community? And what does it mean for the people who aren’t approved, what does that do to their identity?” wondered Lopezreveredo, who is program director of JIMENA, an international organization based in California that advocates on behalf of Jews from the Middle East and north Africa.

She asserts that she is happy to take a test, but that due to the shuffle of life, she isn’t confident she has access to documents that would prove her familial connection to Spain.

“If I had access to or knowledge of all of the information necessary, I would say I would apply – I wouldn’t question it. I have always felt very proud, and I think it’d be really cool to have access and be able to say I’m from there,” said Lopezreveredo.

Analucía Lopezrevoredo as a young child, pictured with her brother and father in Segovia during the time the family lived in Madrid.

Analucía Lopezrevoredo as a young child, pictured with her brother and father in Segovia during the time the family lived in Madrid.
Courtesy of Analucía Lopezrevoredo

While some who gain citizenship may move to Spain, most agree that the bulk of citizenships will be symbolic in nature.

“Many would like to get Spanish citizenship for nostalgic reasons, not for economic reasons. In other words, they dream about Sepharad, the homeland. It’s a matter of justice, a matter of roots and identity… it’s not a matter of economics,” said Mendez.

Dr. Joe Halio, president of the New York-based Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, reinforced this sentiment that while the law may not be economically necessary, or particularly timely – after all, the Inquisition was more than 500 years ago – it is a significant step toward justice.

“On a human level it is more than symbolic. It’s the recognition of a right, of a persecution that was wrong and reconciliation of a situation that can’t be rectified, but at least is recognized,” said Halio, who is also a practicing family physician specializing in geriatrics. “It shows huge progress… progress in humanity. It even could be an example for the rest of the world.”

He explained that although many Sephardic Jews around the world have minimal physical ties to Spain, many communities maintain close ties through the culture. For some, the ability to reclaim citizenship in Spain is the final piece in fostering these ties.

Alejandra Abalufia moved to Spain from Uruguay seven years ago after what was supposed to be a short trip to discover the heritage of the land her grandmother had always dreamed of returning to. She now calls Madrid home, and works as director of Destino Sefarad, an organization that promotes Sephardic culture in Madrid. She recognizes the deep yearning many Jews have for a spiritual connection to the country.

She reminisced about the same story San Jose told in the Toledo synagogue. “People took their keys with them [500 years ago] because they thought they would come back… I think in a way this law is to show people the door,” she said. “You can come back home in a spiritual way.”

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