Coming home? 132,000 descendants of Spain’s exiled Jews seek nationality

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In this file photo taken on February 27, 2014 people stand near a gift shop in the old Jewish Quarters of Toledo. They descend from the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and five centuries later, they want to return to their ancestral homeland. (AFP / GERARD JULIEN)
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Colombian Andres Villegas — a Catholic who has a Sephardic Jewish ancestor — looks into documents during an interview in Bogota, on September 30, 2019. (AFP / Juan Barreto)
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In this file photo taken on February 27, 2014 people walk in a street of the old Jewish Quarters of Toledo. They descend from the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and five centuries later, they want to return to their ancestral homeland. (AFP / GERARD JULIEN)
Updated 04 October 2019

Coming home? 132,000 descendants of Spain’s exiled Jews seek nationality

  • 500 years ago, Jews faced a bleak choice in Spain: convert to Catholicism, be burned at the stake, or flee
  • Many of them fled to the Ottoman Empire or North Africa and later to Latin America

MADRID: More than 500 years ago, they faced a bleak choice: convert to Catholicism or be burned at the stake. The only other option was exile.
For Jews living in Spain at the time, 1492 was a year burned into historical memory when their community of at least 200,000 people were forced into exile.
Now, more than five centuries later, over 132,000 of their descendants have taken advantage of a limited-term offer of Spanish nationality that expired on Monday.
It is a long, complex and costly process involving a lot of paperwork. So far, only 6,000 people have been granted citizenship under the scheme.
The law, which was passed by parliament in October 2015, sought to address what the government has described as a “historic mistake” by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Known as Sephardim — the Hebrew term for Jews of Spanish origin — many of the exiles fled to the Ottoman Empire or North Africa and later to Latin America.
Under the legislation, those able to prove their Jewish heritage and their “special connection” to Spain were able to apply for citizenship, with the justice ministry saying it received 132,226 applications.
More than half of them were filed in the past month, when the ministry received some 72,000 applications.
“They said you didn’t need a lawyer but without one, it would have been impossible,” said Doreen Alhadeff, a resident of Seattle who obtained Spanish nationality for herself and two grandchildren.




Colombian Andres Villegas — a Catholic who has a Sephardic Jewish ancestor — looks into documents during an interview in Bogota, on September 30, 2019. (AFP / Juan Barreto)

Like all applicants, she had to provide proof of her Sephardic origin. This can be done through genealogical documents or through the local Jewish community.
Those documents then had to be taken personally to Spain to be approved by a local notary — a process Alhadeff says cost her around $5,000.
“I felt they had taken something important away from my family, and I wanted to get it back,” said the 69-year-old.
She remembers while growing up hearing Ladino, a 15th-century language fusing Hebrew and Spanish that is still spoken by Sephardim today.
Others are still waiting to see if their application will be accepted.
Among them is the French writer Pierre Assouline, who has written many books, including one about his Sephardic origins entitled: “Return to Sepharad” — Hebrew for Spain.
He filed his application nearly four years ago, along with a letter from Spain’s King Felipe VI — but the process is taking longer than expected.
“It’s surprising and disappointing,” he said.
Most applications came from Latin America, with around 20,000 from Mexico, 15,000 from Venezuela and 14,000 from Colombia, the justice ministry said. Another 4,000 came from Argentina and 3,000 from those in Israel.
“We knew since the start that it was going to be a law with some complications regarding the means of proof,” admitted Miguel de Lucas, head of Madrid’s Centro Sefarad, a meeting place for Jewish communities in the Spanish capital.
But, he added: “It’s better to have a law with some complications than no law at all.”
Maya Dori, an Israeli lawyer who has lived in Spain for 17 years, has been deeply involved in the process, helping about 500 people from countries as far apart as Uruguay, Panama, Costa Rica, England and Turkey.
In helping people track down their ancestry, she had seen many “going on a personal journey, reconnecting with their roots and discovering many things about their families.”
In her own case, it took seven years to get citizenship under a previous law dating back to 1924.
Unlike the recent legislation, applicants under that law had to relinquish any other citizenship and were required to live in Spain.
It is not only an attachment to historical ancestry that has provided a draw, says Gonzalo Manglano, head of the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul.
He points to the lure of a European passport for those from countries like Turkey.
“Both things carry a lot of weight,” he said.
Although those applying under the new law did not have to be practicing Jews, they needed to pass a Spanish language test as well as answering questions on Spain’s culture and society.
A similar scheme is running in Portugal which does not require a language exam.
Isaac Querub, president of Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities (FCJE), hailed the legislation as a success, saying the Sephardim could no longer be thought of as “stateless Spaniards.”
“Thousands of Sephardim have reclaimed their Spanish nationality and thousands more are in the process of doing so. Spain has closed a historical wound with an enduring act of justice,” he said in a statement.
“Spain, as the King (Felipe VI) said (in 2015), has missed them and the Sephardim will never forget that.”

Decoder

What is Sephardim?

It is the Hebrew term for Jews of Spanish origin. More than 500 years ago, the Sephardim faced a bleak choice when Spain told them convert to Catholicism or be burned at the stake. The only other option was exile. many of the exiles fled to the Ottoman Empire or North Africa and later to Latin America. In a bid to correct the injustice, Spain's Parliament in 2015 passed a legislation that allowed those able to prove their Jewish heritage and their “special connection” to Spain to apply for citizenship.


Britons rush home from France to beat new quarantine rules

Updated 43 min 16 sec ago

Britons rush home from France to beat new quarantine rules

  • Britain’s government announced late on Thursday that it would impose a quarantine on Saturday
  • Many British tourists headed toward the French port of Calais hoping to catch a ferry or a shuttle train home in time

LONDON/CALAIS, France: Britons rushed home from summer holidays in France on Friday after their government said it would soon impose a 14-day quarantine on travelers from across the Channel due to rising coronavirus infections there.
Britain’s government announced late on Thursday that it would impose a quarantine from 0300 GMT on Saturday on arrivals from France, giving an estimated 160,000 UK holidaymakers there just over 24 hours to get home to avoid having to self-isolate once back.
The sudden rule change dealt a fresh blow to tourists, airlines and tour operators all hoping for holidays after the pandemic, which has left many travel groups cash-strapped and facing an uncertain future.
Many British tourists headed toward the French port of Calais hoping to catch a ferry or a shuttle train home in time.
“We’ve changed our plans when we heard the news last night. We decided to head back home a day early to miss the quarantine,” one British woman at a service station on the motorway to Calais said after her week in southern France.
In Calais, queues of cars were expected to build on Friday afternoon. Ferry companies were adding extra crossings to help more people get home before the deadline, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, head of the Port of Calais, told Reuters.
The new quarantine rules apply to France, the second-most popular holiday destination for Britons, the Netherlands and the Mediterranean island of Malta, transport minister Grant Shapps said.
Spain, the favorite holiday destination for Britons, came under British government quarantine rules on July 26.
France warned it would reciprocate, causing further headaches for airlines which might have to cancel yet more flights, meaning fresh financial pain and denying them the August recovery for which they’d hoped.
Airline and travel shares tumbled. British Airways-owner IAG was down 6 percent and easyJet, which said it would operate its full schedule for the coming days, fell 7 percent.

Tightening quarantine
When Europe first went into lockdown in March, Britain was criticized for not restricting arrivals from abroad. But since June, it has introduced strict quarantine rules for arrivals from countries with infection rates above a certain level.
The tightening quarantine for foreign travel, however, contrasts with the easing of rules at home, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered the gradual reopening of the economy to resume, weeks after pausing it.
Shapps denied that the policies were contradictory, saying that the aim was to keep the reproduction rate of infection below one.
“Being able to open up some of those things but having to close down travel corridors elsewhere is all part of the same thing,” he told BBC Radio.
Shapps said he sympathized with travelers but that they should not be entirely surprised, given the fluid situation around the pandemic.
“Where we see countries breach a certain level of cases ... then we have no real choice but to act,” he told Sky News.
He ruled out any special assistance for holidaymakers, saying they knew the risks before traveling, with a possible quarantine to France having been rumored for weeks.
Airlines UK, an industry body representing BA, easyJet and Ryanair, called on Britain to implement more targeted quarantines on the regions with the highest infection rates and to bring in a testing regime.
An EU study showed that imported cases of COVID typically only account for a small share of infections when a pandemic is at its peak, but are more significant once a country has the disease under control.