Can Sephardic Jews Go Home Again — 500 Years After the Inquisition?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Part 12: ‘Even If You Don’t Speak Ladino’

I flew back to Madrid from Lisbon on an afternoon flight. The garbage was worse. Even in nicer neighborhoods, piles of junk hugged the sides of buildings. A windblown plastic bag wrapped itself around my leg.

Kurt Hoffman

A week and a half into my trip, I was worried I had failed. I had flown over to figure out if I could become a citizen. I had spoken to dozens of people, filled a tall stack of notebooks with my sloppy notes, typed on my laptop for hours, spent nights in hostels and hotels all over the Iberian Peninsula, rode on buses and in taxis, arrived unnecessarily early at airline terminals, and still just had a few rumors and secondhand accounts of the passport law.

I had one more chance: I had an interview scheduled for the next morning deep in the corridors of Spanish power, in the offices of Spain’s foreign ministry on the outskirts of Madrid.

I rode the subway out to the interview. No matter how dirty the city grew, the subway stayed pristine. The disembarkation ritual on the Madrid metro involves politely asking whether the person standing between you and the door plans to get off at the next station, then smiling as the train slows and you do-si-do your way around them. It’s inefficient and wonderful.

The offices of the foreign ministry are in a set of grey glass towers out in the northern part of Madrid. I had a meeting with one of the men actually writing the new citizenship law, a diplomat named Álvaro Albacete Perea.

Foreign Ministry: Alvaro Albacete Perea is the Spanish foreign ministry’s ambassador to the Jewish community.
Josh Nathan-Kazis
Foreign Ministry: Alvaro Albacete Perea is the Spanish foreign ministry’s ambassador to the Jewish community.

Albacete has an unusual job in the foreign ministry. He is, essentially, an ambassador to the Jews. That means he spends part of his time helping Sephardic communities abroad, and part of his time liaising with Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee. “It’s important to be coordinated with them,” he said of the Jewish groups.

The latter part of the job had Albacete attending a meeting the day before I landed between the Spanish king and the leaders of Keren Hayesod - United Israel Appeal, a massive fundraising group that had its biennial meeting in Madrid. Before I flew to Spain, I had requested an interview with the king and had been told that he doesn’t do interviews. He apparently does do meetings, though, particularly when Sheldon Adelson is involved. Adelson, the billionaire Republican casino magnate, was in negotiations at the time to open a massive casino complex in Madrid, and came to the Keren Hayesod meeting as a delegate. The king, though he was about to undergo hip surgery, attended a reception with the delegates. Adelson also got a private tour of Toledo and a meeting with the mayor of that city. (The casino plans have since been scrapped. Maybe Adelson didn’t like Toledo.)

Albacete is tall, his hair slightly graying around the temples. Aside from the map of the world behind his desk and the bookshelf filled with Jewish history books, his small office is relatively sparse. When I asked if he was Jewish, he was taken aback — it’s not polite to ask that so directly, he told me. “That’s very sensitive for us,” he said. “It’s not part of our culture.” (He’s Catholic.)

Though the changes to the Sephardic citizenship law proposed in the November 2012 press conference are being worked through in the justice ministry, Albacete has been participating in the drafting. He more or less denied that the proposal had been made to directly counterbalance the Palestinian statehood vote.

“The announcement was made by the minister of justice and the minister of foreign affairs, and to be honest I’m not in their mind,” he said. “But my personal feeling is there is not any connection with that.”


I had arrived in Madrid to claim my birthright. I left unsure that it was mine.


As for what’s been holding up the change, Albacete admits to two reasons. The first is that the change is technically complicated — it requires a law making its way through parliament that would change Spain’s civil code. The other problem is that they seem to have realized that drawing the line between Sephardic and non-Sephardic Jews is next to impossible.

“Probably that’s the reason why the production of that new piece of legislation is taking so much time, because it’s not so easy,” Albacete said. “I have read and I have written different draft proposals for that, we are still working on the wording of the law.”

Albacete’s ideas about how it would work seemed vague. “We would take into consideration the name” — as in whether you have a typically Sephardic surname — “the knowledge of the language” — as in whether you speak Ladino. “We would take into consideration many, many things and we’ll ask the Jewish communities where the person or the people live to tell us something about him or her, [and] we will ask the Federation here in Spain to help us.” He said there would likely be a limited time window for applications.

He knew the plan didn’t sound convincing. “If you have any suggestion to do that in a different way, please tell me,” he said.

I didn’t, and I didn’t envy him for needing to come up with one. It seemed like Albacete couldn’t win. If his government’s goal really had been to placate Israel and the American Zionists, the vast interest the proposal has generated among Moroccan Jews in Israel seeking passports to allow them to move to the EU would likely erase any goodwill. If their goal had been to generate warm feelings among American Sephardim, the idea that they wouldn’t qualify because they don’t speak Ladino would be infuriating.

I asked if I should apply if the law actually does pass. “Please,” Albacete said. He laughed: “Even if you don’t speak Ladino.”


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