January 20, 2019

New law offers Sephardim right of return to Spain

On June 11, the government of Spain unanimously passed a law that attempts to right a historic wrong: It offers descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 a less arduous path toward Spanish citizenship. Under the new law, Sephardim seeking Spanish citizenship do not have to renounce their current citizenship, live in Spain or own property there, all of which were previously required for citizenship. 

To discuss this new law, Javier Vallaure, the Spanish consul general in Los Angeles, visited the Jewish Journal office. 

“It was a long process,” Vallaure said. “It started on the first day that we expelled the Jews in 1492. I think many people in Spain felt guilty for doing that. … The Jewish community in Spain was an important community, so important that many historians say that 150 to 200 years later, Spain was still suffering the consequences. Jews were important in philosophy, in the development of language, in banking, in finance, in the arts.” 

The expulsion of Sephardic Jews, Vallaure said, “was the beginning of [Spain’s] decline.”  

Vallaure — whose charm, tact and graying hair bespeak his long career representing the Spanish government in many parts of the world — said the current law makes it easier than ever for Sephardim to get Spanish citizenship. 

The new rules may still be daunting to some applicants. The law states that the process can be started online (beginning Oct. 1) and costs 100 euros ($112) to apply, whether the applicant ends up receiving citizenship or not. Each applicant will have to: present documents verifying Sephardic background; show some connection to Spain, having visited the country or having friends or family there; demonstrate basic knowledge of Spanish language, culture and history; and come to Spain to have the application and original documents notarized. (This last requirement can be waived if the applicant is disabled or under 18. In either of these cases, a legal representative will have to attend the interview.) This path to Spanish citizenship will be in place during a period of three years and could be extended for one additional year. 

The law itself does not spell out specific requirements for demonstrating Sephardic roots; each application will be evaluated in its totality (valorado en su conjunto). Applications can include supporting documents from a rabbi at a Sephardic synagogue or from leaders of Sephardic organizations. They also should include birth, marriage or death certificates, or any other official document that provides evidence of Sephardic origin, such as Sephardic names in the family. All documentation must be translated into Spanish and will first be assessed by the Madrid-based Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. 

The level of knowledge of Spanish language required for citizenship will be what’s known as A2: familiarity with commonly used words and expressions, both written and spoken (those who come from Spanish-speaking countries are exempt). However, no one is exempt from being tested on his or her knowledge of Spanish history and culture. The Cervantes Institute, a cultural division of the Spanish government that has branches all over the world, including in various cities in the United States, will administer these exams.

“These conditions look complicated,” Vallaure said, “but they are not. You don’t have to present all of these papers and all of these documents. Just some. Not just that your name is, for example, Toledano [a common Sephardic name], but that you have kept [up] some relationship with Spain throughout the years. The idea is to make the process easy for Sephardics, not to put obstacles in the way.”

Sara Elena Loaiza, founder and managing partner of Latino Consultants, an L.A.-based “social-cause marketing” firm, told the Journal that, whatever the obstacles, she’ll be applying for Spanish citizenship under the new law. She said she feels very much at home in Spain, a country she visits every year. “My ancestry is from Santander, so I would prefer to go there to apply for this, especially since I understand the culture and speak the language. It’ll be a beautiful memory, to apply for citizenship in Santander, where my family is from.”

Loaiza’s mother’s maiden name was Mortera. The Spanish government, as part of this offer, has issued a list of 5,000 last names which can be used as a factor in showing Sephardic roots. Mortera is on the list, spelled in its variant form, Morteira. 

Another name on that list is Nahom, a variant of Nahoum. Bonita Nahoum Jaros has carried on a double career as an academic administrative professional at Santa Ana College and as a singer. She  has traced her family roots back to “specific cities in Spain. … During a trip to Spain, we even found a ketubah [Jewish marriage contract] in Toledo with the name Nahoum on it — my maiden name.” 

Jaros grew up in New York in a “Ladino-speaking enclave” and said her most recent recording, “Kantigas de Mi Chikés” (“Songs of My Childhood”), is “a compilation of 34 [Ladino] songs, each dedicated to a different friend or relative, all of Sephardic background.”

She intends to apply for Spanish citizenship because of her “longing for the motherland,” while also trying to understand why “we Jews became aliens from the land we lived in for centuries and to which we contributed mightily.”

In the run-up to the law’s enactment, some opined that Spain is taking this step because of contributions Jews might make to the Spanish economy. Vallaure pointed out that the path toward citizenship does not require applicants to have a certain economic status: Sephardim can apply regardless of income or net worth. Moreover, he said, the application fee covers Spain’s administrative costs to process an expected 90,000 applications.  

Vallaure made clear that, from his country’s point of view, this is a “spiritual matter.” 

“[The] Spanish are … a very sentimental people,” Vallaure said. “So we ask ourselves: Why did we do that to the Jews? They were nice people who contributed to society. So, why? That’s why there was no debate in the Spanish Parliament or in the media.”

Even though there were no dissenting votes, there was, in fact, some debate. During discussions about the proposed act, one member of the Spanish Parliament asked why the Jews are being offered this option and not the Muslims (or Moors), who were expelled at the same time.

It has been pointed out that — unlike the Jews—Moors invaded Spain in the eighth century as conquerors. They were expelled 800 years later when Spain unified under Ferdinand and Isabella. Given the bloody battles between Catholics and Moors — Spanish leader El Cid is the symbol of that struggle — it’s likely that the Spanish people’s residual memory of Moors is different from how they remember the Jews who once lived among them. Even the Parliament member who raised this question did not vote against the law.

Moreover, it’s clear that Sephardic Jews, during their Diaspora, have maintained emotional ties to Spain. The preamble to the law expresses this in a poetic way. 

“Wherever they’ve lived,” the preamble states, “the children of Sepharad have remained nostalgic about Spain. … They’ve used the language of their ancestors [Ladino or Haketía, which are Spanish dialects] for their traditional prayers and recipes, for their games and poetry. They’ve carried on their Spanish customs, they’ve used last names that invoke their Spanish places of origin, and accepted without rancor the silence of a country that had all but forgotten about them.”

As Vallaure sums it up: “As King Juan Carlos has said many times, [Sephardim] are Spaniards. … It’s not that we want the Jews to feel nostalgic about Spain, or to feel [as if] they are at home in Spain. No! When Sephardic Jews are in Spain, they are home.”