From expulsion to expediency: Spain, the Jews and Israel

From expulsion to expediency: Spain, the Jews and Israel

A man holds a Torah scroll during the festive procession returning it to Trancoso

A man holds a Torah scroll during the festive procession returning it to Trancoso

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of hell, Spanish King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Isabella are most assuredly burning with rage. Over five centuries after the wicked monarchs cruelly expelled the country’s Jews in 1492, Spain now finds itself clamoring for their return.

In an irony as sweet as it is long overdue, the government in Madrid approved a draft bill on February 7 offering citizenship to descendants of Sephardi Jews while also easing residency and other requirements.

Speaking to The New York Times less than a week later, a spokesman for the Spanish Justice Ministry said that they had already registered some 3,000 applications. Many more are expected to follow, although it still remains unclear precisely to whom the law will pertain or how liberally it will be applied.

Not to be outdone, neighboring Portugal, which forcibly converted and expelled its Jews in 1497, announced that it too is preparing a draft bill along the same lines.

Needless to say, this is hardly the first time in recorded history that a European nation has banished its Jews only to readmit them at a later date.

Under King Edward I, English Jewry was expelled on July 18, 1290, (Tisha Be’av on the Hebrew calendar), and they were officially allowed to return in 1656 under Oliver Cromwell.

In the early 14th century, over the course of less than two decades, France expelled its Jews, readmitted them and expelled them once again.

It took Spain somewhat longer to void the Edict of Expulsion, which was formally rescinded on December 16, 1968, or 476 years later. But despite this, Spain has in fact done little until now to come to terms with its Jewish past.

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, its contributions to Spanish art, civilization and culture, are all largely overlooked in the Spanish educational system, as is the 1492 expulsion and the Inquisition’s brutal efforts to hunt down crypto-Jews. And Jewish synagogues and structures, as well as religious artifacts that were confiscated after the Jews were forced out, have yet to be returned to Jewish ownership.

Instead, in recent years, Spain has focused its efforts primarily in the direction of tourism and commerce, such as encouraging the creation of a network of “Juderias,” or Jewish quarters, throughout the country to appeal to Jewish tourists.

And there is no doubt that an economic rationale also lies behind the new law on citizenship.

Spain has suffered enormously since the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Its current unemployment rate is 25 percent, a growing number of young people are emigrating and the country endured a double-dip recession from which it is only now beginning to emerge.

The prospect of forging anew a link with potentially millions of people of Sephardi ancestry, and the possible windfall that might ensue as a result of increased investment and tourism, was surely not lost on the decision-makers in Madrid when considering the citizenship bill.

And that, of course, is what makes this development so decidedly ironic: the Expulsion happened in part because Spain wanted the Jews’ assets, and now they are welcoming Jews back for the same reason.

Nonetheless, regardless of their motivations, the governments in Madrid and Lisbon are to be commended for the gesture. These are historic moves, signifying that tangible steps are at last being taken to address the injustices that were perpetrated on Iberian Jewry in the 15th century.

Coming at a time of rising anti-Semitism across Europe, it is refreshing to see European states making an effort to welcome Jews so openly.

This sends a strong signal to other countries on the continent, and underlines how Europe’s historical connection with the Jewish people truly does stretch back over the centuries.

It behooves Israel to take notice of this and to consider making its own historic gestures, particularly to the Bnei Anusim, the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewswho were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At great risk to themselves and their families, many of the Bnei Anusim continued to practice Judaism covertly despite the Inquisition, carefully passing down their hidden identity from one generation to the next. Their descendants can be found in every corner of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, and their numbers are estimated to be in the millions.

Here at Shavei Israel, we have seen a huge increase in recent years in the number of Bnei Anousim looking to reaffirm or reclaim their Jewish identity, in places as far afield as northern Portugal, Chile, El Salvador, Sicily and Colombia.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, in a recent speech in Ashdod, took note of this phenomenon, correctly arguing that it is time for the State of Israel to “ease the way for their return.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The Bnei Anusim are our brethren and, through no fault of their own, their ancestors were torn away from us under duress. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to strengthen the bonds between us and bring back to the Jewish people as many of them as possible.

Steps should be taken to address the myriad bureaucratic and religious issues that stand in their way so that the door of return for the Bnei Anousim can finally swing open.

After all, if Spain, which cast their ancestors out, is seeking ways to reconcile with the descendants of Iberian Jewry, then isn’t it time for Israel to do the same?

This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post.