Repatriating Spain’s Jews

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A Jewish friend of mine who belongs to a Sephardic Jewish family whose roots predate the 15th-century expulsion from Spain tells me that his family keeps a mythical key. The key passes from generation to generation. “It apparently opens the door to the abandoned house left behind when my ancestors were forced to leave,” my friend said.

The Spanish government recently announced its decision to grant citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews, who, like my friend’s forebears, were thrown out by the Alhambra Decree of 1492. According to the country’s minister of justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, this new legislation is an attempt to correct “the biggest mistake in Spanish history.”

It is expected that there will be some 150,000 applications and that the criterion for approval won’t be “overly strict.” Applicants won’t be asked to relocate to Spain, nor will they need to renounce their existing citizenship.

The new law makes Spain one of the few nations in the world to offer automatic citizenship to Jews. On the surface, this looks like a conciliatory move — the result of deep national soul-searching. In reality, it is just another chapter in Spain’s ambivalent relationship with its Jewish past.

Modern Spain has made apologies to the Jews before. The Alhambra Decree was officially revoked in 1968. In 1992, as part of the festivities of the quincentennial, in which Spain publicly portrayed itself as a penitent nation paying for its sins, King Juan Carlos, wearing a yarmulke, prayed in a Madrid synagogue alongside Israel’s president, Chaim Herzog.

The country was ripe for reconciliation, the king proclaimed: Sephardic Jews had a place in Spain’s present. The idea of granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews circulated, but the country was in the middle of a financial bonanza: It did not “need” Jews, and the proposal came to nothing.

Until now. Spain finds itself still mired in the worst financial crisis in memory. Inviting Jews to settle in times of economic trouble is a strategy employed before, including in the Hispanic world. At the end of the 19th century, Jewish immigrants were courted as harbingers of modernity by Argentina and Mexico. And in the 20th century, the region of Sosúa on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic was allocated for Jewish refugees from the Holocaust — in hopes that they would push the underdeveloped region forward.

Spain’s latter-day conversion to philo-Semitism, however, is more apparent than real. The truth is that the Jews left in 1492 — but the anti-Semitism stayed behind. The country is a prime example of a nation that fosters “anti-Semitism without Jews,” a phenomenon often marked by dualist attitudes. Take the dictatorship of General Franco, from 1939 until 1975: Some Jewish refugees were saved by various consuls and other diplomatic administrators, with Franco taking credit, yet his fascist forces regularly used anti-Semitic motifs in their propaganda. Even in 1982, on my first visit to Spain, I recall seeing swastikas, copies of Mein Kampf in translation and Nazi paraphernalia for sale.

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The original post-1492 Sephardic communities flourished across the Mediterranean, eventually extending to the Middle East, the Americas, Turkey, the Netherlands, the Balkans, Northern Africa and Italy. Sephardic Jewry has a distinct liturgical tradition, a unique cuisine, music and literature that became a staple of the Ottoman Empire. Ladino, a hybrid tongue close to 15th-century Spanish and originally written in Hebrew characters, mutated into regional dialects. While it never had the unifying centrality that Yiddish did among Ashkenazi Jews, it fostered continuity.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century reconfigured these communities, as it did the societies in which they lived. Today’s Sephardic Jews are, for the most part, educated, entrepreneurial and deeply engaged in their own countries.

Ironically, Spain is not opening its doors to another element of its Ottoman-era heritage — and another expelled community: the Moors. Between 1609 and 1614, the Moriscos, as Muslims who had converted to Christianity were known, were thrown out from the kingdoms of Aragón and Valencia. That blow consolidated the project known as La Reconquista, Spain’s attempt to build a unified identity based on a single religion and ethnicity.

The continuity of Morisco culture is less defined, but there are concerted efforts to push the Spanish government to make a similar invitation to descendants of Spanish Moors. It is doubtful whether this will happen because, as in other parts of Europe, anti-Muslim sentiment in Spain is rampant. Behind the veil of Spain’s philo-Semitism thus lies an unmistakable tinge of Islamophobia.

Equally certain is that the new repatriation law is not about Spain’s rediscovery of its Sephardic heritage. That cultural inheritance is treated carelessly, judging by the country’s approach to Jewish sites.

Year after year, as I return to Spain, I’m consistently puzzled by the official disregard of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. Only a small number are identified in tourist guides; many are in disarray. Visitors to Toledo, once known as fertile ground for cross-cultural exchange, are invariably puzzled by the vague and often erroneous information provided in brochures. Even the Sinagoga de Tránsito, built by the king’s treasurer, Samuel Ha-Levi Abulafia — which is by far the most manicured Jewish building in Spain — feels uncomfortably quiet, as if inhabited by ghosts.

The early response by the Sephardic diaspora to the new legislation has, understandably, been enthusiastic in trouble spots like Istanbul and Caracas, where Jewish communities feel vulnerable. A free passport to the European Union doesn’t come every day. Other corners of the Sephardic community are also weighing its possible benefits.

Still, it would be foolish to think of Spain’s self-interested offer as the end of that diaspora. In fact, we are in the midst of a Sephardic cultural revival, largely in the United States and Israel: Academic programs, music festivals and literary events have multiplied in recent decades.

As my Sephardic friend whose family safeguards the ancestral key says: “As the door closed for us in Spain, we realized the key we brought opened another door: the door to tradition. And that we carry within ourselves.”

Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is the author of the forthcoming book “A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States.”

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