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Making Amends for the Past: Spain Offers Citizenship to Sephardic Jews Expelled in 1492

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First Posted: Feb 21, 2014 11:00 AM EST
Spain's flag
The flag of Spain. (Photo : Flickr/fdecomite)

It's never too late to right your wrongs -- even if it's something that occurred five centuries ago. And in Spain's case it was in 1492 during one of it's "darkest chapters in Spanish history." 

Spain is trying to make things right from the past, and while for most countries, that's a colossal task with a lot of ground to cover -- you have to start somewhere.

The country has launched an initiative that would offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews as a gesture of conciliation for Spain's expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition, which has in turn sparked a lot of interest from Israel, according an earlier report from The New York Times.

On Feb. 7, Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced a bill that would allow Sephardic Jews dual citizenships, calling it one laden with "deep historic meaning" that would compensate for shameful events in the country's past, according to The Washington Post.

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"Spanish Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by an edict of the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, during the height of the Spanish Inquisition, an effort intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in the kingdom.

"Some of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Jews living in Spain at the time - historians disagree on the true number -- converted to Catholicism and stayed but the majority migrated to North Africa, the Balkans and what was then the Ottoman Empire, bringing the Spanish language and culture with them."

Reportedly Sephardic organizations, who have been inundated with phone calls and emails, estimate that as many as 3.5 million Jews could potentially apply for a Spanish passport (out of 14 million Jews in the world).

What has the reaction been like from Sephardic community?

There has been a huge surge in interest from the Sephardic community, despite the tough economic times and unemployment that Spain is currently facing. In part, the uptick in interest was set off by an unofficial list of ponentially qualifying last names of Spanish origin published by Spanish newspapers. 

One of the many positive responses was from Amit Winder of Tel Aviv, a 36-year-old Israeli who runs his own video company. Winder told The Washington Post that "the outrageously high cost of living in Israel, and the seemingly never-ending conflict with Palestinians, have given him second thoughts."

"I could take all my money to Spain, buy a house and start my business (there)," he said. "That would cost me the same amount as buying a one-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv."

How do Spaniards feel about the initiative that will be open for a two-year span?

At first there was some speculation as to why the measure was happening, but Spain has actually been trying to make up for the expulsion for around 100 years now. Leglislation on this initiative also kicked of in Novemeber 2012.

Considering it's not that easy to trace Sephardic Jewish roots, given a complicated and tumultuous history with Spain (in addition to other expulsions, wars and The Holocaust) how can one really tell who qualifies?

A few qualifications will be considered, such as your last name, evidence of a connection to the Sephardic community, and if you speak "Lindo," a form of medieval Spanish.

"The measure is an act of historical justice," said Sebastian de la Obra, director of Casa de Sefarad, a Cordoba museum and cultural center devoted to Spanish Jewry in the south of the country.

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