Spain gives Jews the right of return
Sigal Samuel, 15 February 2014
It’s only been a week since Spain’s cabinet approved a law offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews, but Israelis are already tripping over each other in their race to apply. Between 700 and 800 have sent email inquiries to Maya Weiss-Tamir, an Israeli lawyer who deals with European citizenship applications, according to a report published Thursday in The New York Times. “It doesn’t stop; the response has been crazy,” Weiss-Tamir said. Apparently, Israelis just can’t wait to become Spanish.
As exciting as this news may be for individual Israelis, for Israel itself, it’s downright embarrassing. Because when you put Spain’s new law next to Israel’s current policy, the latter looks pretty bad by comparison. The Spanish law — which won’t become official until it makes it through the Parliament — is murky on a lot of points, but it clearly takes an inclusive approach to determining Jewish status. In fact, it specifies that you don’t even need to identify as Jewish to claim citizenship as a Sephardic Jew; the application in no way hinges on your “ideology, religion or beliefs.” Meanwhile, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — which accepts or rejects the Jewish status of those who have converted abroad, and so impacts many of the state’s potential immigrants — is notoriously exclusionary.
The timing of this Spain business is particularly awkward. Earlier this winter, controversy erupted over the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject determinations of Jewish status made by New York’s Rabbi Avi Weiss. That decision was overturned in January, thanks in part to pushback from an outraged American Jewish community. But that didn’t stop Weiss from penning a scathing critique of the Rabbinate for the Times opinion page. And it didn’t quell Jews’ mounting frustration with the Rabbinate’s strict, intrusive and coercive dictates.
Against this backdrop, the new Sephardic citizenship law presents Israel with some supremely bad optics: It makes it look like Spain is actually more inclusive and welcoming to world Jewry than the Jewish state.
The awkwardness isn’t lost on Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who this week reminded the Ashdod Conference on Immigration and Absorption that “Spain is making an effort to return the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.” He accused the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of “arrogance” in its handling of potential immigrants, then urged it to “ease the way” for the “millions of descendants of conversos” — Jews who converted under duress — “including hundreds of thousands who are exploring ways of returning to their Jewish roots.”
Sharansky’s remarks made their way into the last paragraph of the Times report, which noted mildly that his statement “appeared to be a reciprocal gesture” occasioned by the new Spanish law. But, of course, it’s much more than that. What Sharansky is showing here isn’t just a gesture of reciprocation, but a gesture of extreme embarrassment — at the national nightmare that is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
It’s not just Sharansky who’s fed up with the rabbinic body; ordinary Jewish Israelis are every bit as frustrated with it. Recent polling shows 30% believe it should be abolished entirely, 61% percent want to shatter its monopoly over conversions, and 62% want to put a stop to its insistence that only religious marriages should be recognized by Israel. More broadly, 61% are in favor of separating religion and state — and that number, it seems, is on the rise.
Though the Israeli rush for Spanish passports probably isn’t motivated solely or even primarily by antipathy toward the Chief Rabbinate, there’s a broader sense in which that body is pushing Israelis away. By applying ultra-strict Orthodox standards to all of their personal status issues from cradle to grave, it’s broadcasting an exclusionary message that has proved deeply alienating.
So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many Israelis are now excited about the possibility of heading to a different country — one that is clearly taking a much more inclusive approach to Jewish status, and is welcoming them with open arms. Faced with these two options, would it be so crazy for Israelis to make aliyah to Spain?
A depiction of the expulsion of the Moriscos from Vinaros by 17th-century artists Pere Oromig y Francisco Peralta. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Spain could have sent a powerful message to the Middle East had it apologized to and embraced the Muslims and Jews expelled by the Inquisition.
Khaled Diab | 18 February 2014
It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.
A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.
This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492.”
There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.
But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.
Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.
Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.
“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”
And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilization, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.
And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.
Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a courtly and tormented fashion.
Yet Spain has failed to recognize Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”
And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a U.K. opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologize for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”
But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.
In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.
If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilizations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.
Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.
Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.
One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilized remains in modern Spanish.
Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.
Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.
Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologize unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.
One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters,” not feuding “cousins.”
Khaled Diab is Jerusalem-based Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea.