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Is Sephardic Spanish Citizenship ‘Fever’ for Real?

(JTA) — News that Spain is proposing to offer citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled in the 15th and 16th centuries spread like wildfire in Israel.

Within hours of the Spanish government’s announcement last month, the Israeli website Ynet published a list of family names supposedly eligible for citizenship that contained some obviously Ashkenazi surnames. Another news site reprinted the list, falsely claiming it had come from the Spanish government.

Other Israeli outlets erroneously reported that the bill had already become law, prompting thousands of calls to the Israeli embassy in Madrid, as well as the Spanish embassies in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires and Caracas.

“It’s a frenzy,” Hamutal Fuchs, the spokesperson for Israel’s embassy in Spain, told JTA last month in Madrid. “The phone won’t stop ringing.”

The frenzy, which some Israeli media have taken to calling Israel’s “Spanish fever,” appears to be a result of the bill’s dramatic liberalization of standards for securing a passport. A similar but more restrictive measure passed last year in neighboring Portugal failed to generate any discernible hype.

Under current Spanish legislation from 1924, Jews may apply for citizenship if they reside in Spain for more than two years and can prove family ties to expelled Spaniards. Each request is evaluated individually and approved or rejected by a senior Interior Ministry official.

Under the newly proposed standards, Spain would naturalize any applicant, Jewish or not, who meets one of four criteria: proven links to Sephardic culture; certification testifying to Sephardic heritage from a recognized Spanish-Jewish community; other rabbinical certification of Sephardic ancestry; or knowledge of Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language.

“Spanish nationality is a right, not a privilege,” said Spain’s Justice Minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, in a speech last month in Madrid to a visiting delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The government will have no discretion in conferring citizenship once the law is passed.”

In both Spain and Portugal, officials have said that recent moves to grant citizenship to Sephardic Jews stem from regret for the murder, forced conversions and mass expulsions of Jews during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Last year, Portugal passed an amendment to its citizenship law recognizing the rights of some Sephardim to apply for citizenship. Under the amendment, applicants are limited to Jews with demonstrable ties to a Portuguese Jewish community. Portuguese authorities granted the local Portuguese Jewish community sole authority to certify the Jewishness of applicants and retained full governmental discretion over whether to approve individual applications.

“The government’s interlocutor needs to be as clear as possible,” said Jose Ribeiro e Castro, the Portuguese lawmaker who co-authored the law. “Here it is the Portuguese Jewish community. Period. If they certify, we certify. It’s a matter of trust. No reason for introducing other parties because it complicates matters.”

Sahar Arian, an Israeli lawyer who obtained Spanish citizenship under the 1924 law and now helps other Sephardic Jews seeking to do the same, said Spain’s existing procedures for Sephardic return have yielded few passports.

To obtain her citizenship, Arian had to prove she is related to Spanish citizens who are descended from Jews who converted to Christianity. Even though Arian had relatives in Spain and could firmly establish her lineage, her application took several years to process. Though the new legislation would simplify the process, Arian is doubtful proving such ties will be easy for most applicants.

“The language of the bill is impressive,” Arian said. “But from my experience, implementation is very long and complicated.”

Currently, neither Spain nor Portugal has procedures in place to handle applications. The Spanish bill still has to pass congress before it becomes law, while in Portugal officials are still working on regulations.

Still, the uncertainty that surrounds the bill and warnings by knowledgeable insiders such as Arian have done little to curb the enthusiasm of some aspirants.

“We have no documentation, but I think we have a strong case, so I believe we will receive the Spanish nationality,” said Liliana Benveniste, an Argentine performer of Ladino music who, along with her husband Marcelo, plans to apply for citizenship if the law passes.

Benveniste’s grandparents always considered themselves Spanish and spoke Ladino at home, which under the new law is sufficient to qualify.

“When someone asked them where the family was from originally,” she said of her grandparents, “they would say, ‘We are from Cordoba.’ ”

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