A Spanish right of return for Sephardic Jews?

More than 500 years later, Spain offers citizenship to descendants of expelled Jews.

From August 1, 1492 the presence of a Jew in Spain was considered illegal. Calcographic coloured print, Spain approx. 1792 [Getty]
From August 1, 1492, the presence of a Jew in Spain was considered illegal. Chalcographic coloured print, Spain approx. 1792 [Getty]

For many of Lebanon’s estimated half-a-million Palestinian refugees, life consists of confinement to squalid camps, where they are barred from performing most jobs, owning property, and accessing basic civil liberties. 

The Lebanese government’s excuse for condemning the Palestinians to such inhumane limbo is that any integration into society would jeopardise their right of return to Palestine.

This right has, of course, been categorically denied by the Israelis since the forcible establishment of the state of Israel on Palestinian land in 1948.

Interestingly, a new twist on the “right of return” concept is now being pursued by the Kingdom of Spain, which has decided to award Spanish nationality to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, provided they meet certain criteria.

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The Associated Press reports that “no one knows how many people might be eligible [for the citizenship], though some estimates run into the millions”.

Never too many homelands

A recent article in the English-language version of Spain’s El Pais newspaper describes a ceremony held at the residence of the Spanish ambassador to Israel on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

In attendance were a “dozen or so Jews of Spanish origin”, up-and-coming citizens who swore allegiance to Spain’s king as part of the naturalisation process.

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One of these was Tangiers-born Avner Azulay, who, the article specifies, was “a former colonel in the Israeli army and a senior official in Mossad”, the notorious Israeli intelligence outfit.

Why make a fuss about Spain's ostensible effort to atone for bad behaviour, even if it's about 524 years too late?


El Pais quotes the Spanish ambassador as congratulating his guests: “You now return to being Spaniards with a homeland.”

Never mind the homeland already in said guests’ possession – the one seized from the Palestinians – or the substantial role played by the Israeli army and the Mossad in that whole project of permanent dispossession.

Apparently, one can never have too many homelands to one’s name – especially when Spain isn’t requiring its new citizens to renounce other citizenships, or even to live in the country.

At this point, one may still be asking: Why make a fuss about Spain’s ostensible effort to atone for bad behaviour, even if it’s about 524 years too late?

To be sure, atonement in itself is far from fuss-worthy. Goodness knows this world could use more apologies, reparations, and truth-telling – and in fact, 1492 is not a bad place to start.

That year happens to be rather synonymous with the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas in the aftermath of a certain nautical expedition, authorised by the very same Ferdinand and Isabella who expelled the Jews from Spain.

This is not to say, then, that the repercussions of centuries-old injustice aren’t alive and well; it’s merely to point out the ironies of an international panorama in which Mossad officials are granted additional homelands in Spain while Palestinians languish in refugee camps for nearly seven decades.

Painting of Christopher Columbus in the Barcelona court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1493 after returning from his first voyage to the New World [Getty]
Painting of Christopher Columbus in the Barcelona court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1493 after returning from his first voyage to the New World [Getty]

More wrongs than rights

Beyond the discrepancies highlighted by the Palestinian predicament, the Sephardic naturalisation operation raises some other questions, as well.

For one thing, the Spanish government has in recent years proven itself decidedly uncommitted to taking proper care of its existing citizens – as was particularly clear during the home eviction rampage in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which prompted a spike in suicides among the Spanish population.

The current pursuit of an unknown quantity of new citizens who already have homes becomes even more curious in light of Spain’s less-than-receptive approach to refugees, who are often beaten back from the border by Spanish police.

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For the Sephardic recipients of Spanish nationality, the perks are varied: recognition of long-held grievances, affirmation of communal identity, a handy Spanish passport, physical and financial access to Europe.


Meanwhile, a 2014 article on BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish website, noted that some observers in Israeli and Spanish media had suggested that Spain’s “historical debt” to the Sephardic Jews was not the only factor motivating the Spanish government to consider extending citizenship to the descendants of the expelled.

According to these other interpretations, the article explained, the move was simultaneously an attempt “to revive the Spanish economy [with help from] a community with a strong reputation in business and banking”.

Some analysts, the BBC added, also saw the effort as a means of appeasing Israel following Spain’s support for the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

Whatever the case, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that the Jews weren’t the only ones expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. As the Washington Post put it: “Like Sephardic Jews, Muslims were an integral part of Spain’s society before being painfully uprooted by Christian rulers.”

In an ideal world, at least, selective justice would be an oxymoron. And while two wrongs don’t make a right, as they say, multiple rights of return definitely don’t make a wrong.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.