Spanish Passports for Sephardic Jews? a Blog by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Submitted by mdangel1 on

The Spanish government has indicated that it will offer Spanish passports to individuals of Spanish Jewish/Sephardic heritage. The ostensible motive for this gesture is the desire to redress a historic sin: Spain’s expulsion of Jews in 1492. Now, more than five centuries after this nefarious expulsion, Spain wishes to reach out to descendants of those Jewish victims and welcome them back “home” in Spain.

Some have praised Spain’s gesture of atonement. Others, though, have seen this new policy as a pragmatic move by Spain to attract Jewish business, investment and tourism.

Among Jews, some have been genuinely pleased with this show of Spanish friendship and reconciliation. Others have seen this as an opportunity to gain access to European markets and business.

Yet others have viewed this new Spanish policy as being too little too late. While there may be some poetic justice for a Sephardic Jew to obtain a Spanish passport based on the injustices committed against Sephardic ancestors, how can this gesture possibly undo the past tragedy? Why would any self-respecting Sephardic Jew want to participate in this charade of atonement?

There are obviously many thoughts and emotions and opinions on this matter. Let everyone decide for him/herself what is most appropriate.

My own reaction to this policy of Spain is mixed. On the one hand, reconciliation is a good thing, even after five and more centuries. On the other hand, is this particular policy a real act of reconciliation…or is it rather only a gesture that will appeal to few Sephardim in an attempt to soothe the Spanish conscience?

My reactions are complicated by the fact that many Sephardim--including me--have so much of Spain within us. Our parents and grandparents spoke Judeo-Spanish. We have what Professor Mair Jose Benardete described as a "hispanic culture and character." Our personal identity is intertwined with our Spanish past. Although our ancestors were expelled from Spain, they brought something of Spain with them that has been passed down through the generations and that is a vital part of who we are.

So let us reflect on the current Spanish proposal in light of history.

Let us remember the reasons for the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. That expulsion did not occur suddenly and in a vacuum. It was the result of generations of anti-Jewish persecutions. It was fueled by ugly religious fanaticism. Catholic Spain grew increasingly hostile to Jews and Judaism. Spanish Jews were terrorized, murdered and forcibly baptized. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella concluded that Spain had to be purged of Jews, they issued their infamous decree of expulsion causing many thousands of Jews to leave Spain in short order.

While so many Spanish Jews left Spain under duress, many others chose baptism rather than leave their homes and businesses. Jews had been living in Spain for many centuries, and it was simply too heart-wrenching for many Jews to pick up and leave. Yet, even after converting to Christianity, these “conversos” were still subject to the cruelties and persecutions of the Inquisition. People were punished—and murdered—for the crime of “Judaizing.” The “old Christians” discriminated against the “new Christians”—still referring to them and treating them as Jews. This was not merely hatred of Judaism, but a hatred of those of Jewish blood.

How can giving a few passports to descendants of Spanish Jews undo the untold sufferings of Sephardic ancestors? How can even giving every living Sephardic Jew today a Spanish passport serve as atonement for the humiliations, persecutions and expulsion of our ancestors?

Yet, how can we shut the door to genuine contrition and reconciliation? How can we allow past injustices to fester eternally, without finding ways to overcome those horrors?

I think the atonement needs to correspond directly with the nature of the sin.

The sin was hatred of Jews and Judaism. The sin was a fanatical religious outlook that delegitimized Judaism and infected the public with hatred of Jews.

The atonement must be a clear commitment to fight anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. It must be an unflinching commitment to eliminate religious and ethnic fanaticism and hatred lodged against the Jews.

It is fine for Spain to offer Spanish passports to Sephardim; but this does not in any way address the root problem or atone for the injustices committed against Spanish Jews of the middle ages.

Spain needs to be at the forefront of civilization’s struggle against anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism. Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism where ever it manifests itself. Spain must become a moral voice for strengthening the lives of contemporary Sephardic Jews, most of whom live in the State of Israel or strongly identify with the Jewish State.

A few kind words and a modest number of Spanish passports cannot erase centuries of hatred and injustice. Yet, Spain could achieve much by serving as a moral agent that stands squarely against the kind of anti-Judaism and anti-Jewishness that led to the expulsion of Jews in 1492.

Our world today still suffers from the same spiritual diseases which infected medieval Spain in its maltreatment of its Jewish population.

The great Spanish Senator Angel Pulido, in his 1905 book, described Sephardim as “espanoles sin patria,” Spaniards without a country. Sephardim today, thank the Lord, are not “without a country.” We are equal citizens in the countries in which we reside. We have a Jewish State which is truly “our country” with roots going back to biblical antiquity.

So how wonderful it would be if Spain would be a world leader in helping Sephardim—and all the Jewish people—to live in a world free of anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. That would be Spain’s great gift to humanity for our generation and the generations to come.