Madrid, Spain – Marcelo Benveniste lives in Buenos Aires, but he can trace his family roots, via the Greek Island of Rhodes, back several centuries to Spain.
One of thousands of Jews around the world whose ancestors were expelled from that country in 1492, the 56-year-old told Al Jazeera: “For many of us there is a very strong identification with Spain because, despite the fact the expulsion was over 500 years ago, we have maintained a lot of that culture.”
Now, Spain wants to correct the injustice of the historic mass expulsion by granting Spanish nationality to the descendants of exiled Jews, under a new law that the government has prepared.
“I’m very excited to be able to request this Spanish nationality,” says Benveniste, who edits eSefarad.com, a website dedicated to Spain’s Jewish culture and descendants . “It’s like a bridge that unites me with my distant ancestors.”
The conservative government of Mariano Rajoy first announced the initiative in 2012, but formalised the plan in June this year – presenting a bill expected to be approved by parliament in the coming months.
This proposed law would give descendants of expelled Jews fast-track status in gaining a Spanish passport, while allowing them to maintain their other nationality.
Those applying for nationality will have to submit proof of their historic ties to Spain: the language spoken by their family, for instance, their surname, or a certificate from Jewish authorities in Spain. The government expects up to 150,000 people around the world to seek Spanish nationality through the scheme.
With this initiative a circle has been closed.
The expulsion of 1492 was an attempt by Spain’s monarchs, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, to create a homogeneous Catholic country. Vicente Alvarez, a medieval historian at Madrid’s Autonoma University, said that conversion, rather than expulsion, was the initial aim.
“All Jews were given the option of having to convert to Christianity or to leave the country within four months,” he said. “The penalty for remaining in Spain without being baptised was death.” Rather than convert, the majority of Jews left Spain – despite being stripped of most of their belongings.
Alvarez estimates that around 80,000 went into exile, although other historians put the figure substantially higher. Known as Sephardic Jews – from “Sfarad”, the Hebrew for Spain – their main destinations were Portugal, the Netherlands, North Africa, and other territories of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, many of these Sephardic Jews reside, like Benveniste, in South America, with other large communities in Turkey and Israel.
The ancestors of Isaac Querub, president of the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, took refuge in North Africa and he was born in Morocco.
“With this initiative a circle has been closed which began with the mistake, the injustice of historic proportions that was the issuance of the decree for the expulsion of Jews on March 31, 1492,” he said, speaking at his home in Madrid.
Querub credits Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon as the driving force behind the move. The minister’s great-grandfather, Jose Rojas, was a diplomat who helped a number of Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, despite the fact that Spain was sympathetic to Hitler.
Spain’s present-day Jewish community is about 100,000-strong, among a population of 45 million. Spain does not have a powerful far-right political party, but has seen occasional outbursts of anti-Semitic sentiment.
In May, after Real Madrid basketball team lost a close European championship final to Maccabi Electra of Tel Aviv, some Spanish fans posted a flurry of threatening anti-Semitic comments on twitter and in newspaper comment sections. The Jewish community protested and Spanish authorities opened a legal investigation.
“It’s true that there are anti-Semitic traces, remnants and expressions, which can be seen above all on the internet,” said Querub. “But under no circumstances could you describe Spain as an anti-Semitic country.”
There has been speculation that the nationalisation initiative is at least partly aimed at appeasing Israel after Spain’s vote in the UN in favour of awarding Palestine non-member observer state status in 2012.
But Madrid insists it is simply a long-overdue gesture of historical reparation. Ruiz-Gallardon, who explained the project to Jewish representatives during a visit to New York in March, has said that it would benefit “those who have been unjustly deprived of their nationality and who have recreated in their hearts a Spain which they never resigned themselves to losing”.
That attachment can be heard in the form of Ladino, the language of Spain’s exiled Jews, which is a mixture of Medieval Castilian, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, and other tongues and is spoken by communities around the world. It is also in the Spanish customs that Sephardic Jews often still observe in their homes.
But while popular among those who could benefit from it, the plan to bring exiled Jews back into the fold has also drawn criticism. Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, has suggested that it is an empty gesture.
“If the offer would have come in 1938, for example, I believe that many Jews of Europe would have gladly taken on the Spanish offer,” he wrote in an op-ed published in the Israeli news website, Ynet.
“But as they say: Banks usually are ready to give you money when you need it the least.” He also called on Spain to issue an official apology for the 1492 expulsion.
The Spanish have to decide whether they see the Muslim descendants of the Andalusians as their mortal enemies or as part of a shared history.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan historian M’hammad Benaboud says that the nationalisation law reflects a “double standard” by Spain, which has not offered the same treatment for descendants of expelled “moriscos” – Muslims who had been forced to convert or leave the country shortly after the Jewish population had suffered the same fate.
In the early 17th century, Spain issued a decree forcing the moriscos to leave the country and historians estimate that several hundred thousand went into exile, most of them in North Africa. The episode ended several centuries during which Muslims had inhabited Spain, particularly the southern region of Andalusia. The Spanish historian Jose Enrique Ruiz-Domenec has described it as: “The tragic destruction of the Spanish Islamic community via a cruel ethnic cleansing.”
“The Spanish have to decide whether they see the Muslim descendants of the Andalusians as their mortal enemies or as part of a shared history,” said Benaboud, who is president of the Moroccan Association for Andalusian Studies. He can trace his own family back to the Spanish city of Cordoba, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims once lived side-by-side in harmony.