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.


Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

Updated 04 August 2020

Pakistan takes steps to turn locust infestation into farming benefit

  • Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019

ISLAMABAD: First the idea was to feed them to chickens, now the plan is to grind them into fertilizer — as more locust swarms threaten Pakistan’s crops, a project aims to test ways of killing and using the voracious pests for the benefit of local communities.
Pakistan’s worst locust infestation in about 30 years started in June 2019, when the insects came over from Iran in a surge climate experts link to changing conditions conducive to the spread of the insects.
This summer, the locusts are breeding locally, says the Pakistani government, which is trying to head off another attack by spraying pesticides on newborn locusts — called hoppers because they cannot fly — in desert areas on the Indian border.
But worries that the pesticides could be harmful to plants, animals and people have motivated researchers to seek chemical-free methods of cutting the locust population.
“We wanted to come up with a locust control project that would be environmentally friendly and sustainable,” said biotechnologist Johar Ali.
For Ali and his colleague Muhammad Khurshid, who was working for the food ministry at the time, the answer was chicken feed.
In February, the state-run Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) sent Ali and Khurshid, now with the privatization ministry, to implement a three-day trial in Punjab province in eastern Pakistan.
During an infestation this spring, villagers in Okara district plucked locusts — which are largely immobile at night — off trees in a nearby forest, gathering about 20 tons of the flying insects.
The project team bought the bugs for 20 Pakistani rupees a kilo, then sold them to a nearby processing plant, which dried them and mixed them into chicken feed, Ali said.
The aim was to help control the locust surge in forested and heavily populated areas, where widespread pesticide spraying is not possible, while also generating income for communities hit by the swarms.
“It’s an out-of-box solution,” Ali said. “It could easily be scaled up in our populated rural areas. Yes, in our desert areas where locusts breed, chemical sprays make sense — but not in areas where we have farms with crops, livestock and people.”
In June, the government shifted the focus from chicken feed to compost, after PARC decided fertilizer was a safer and more feasible use for the insects.
Last month, communities living in the desert areas of Cholistan, Tharparkar, Nara and Thal were trained on how to catch locusts as they head there to breed for the season.
The next step is to look at how to turn the pests into organic fertilizer, explained PARC chairman Muhammad Azeem Khan.
By providing a “slow and continuous” release of nutrients, the compost could help farmers increase their yields by 30 percent and cut their use of chemical fertilizer in half, he said.
Pakistan’s current locust problem started with what Muhammad Tariq Khan, technical director of the food security ministry’s plant protection department, called a “climate change-induced international locust crisis” in Yemen and East Africa.
“Two big cyclones in 2018 dumped enough water in a desert area called the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula for three generations of locusts to grow undetected,” he said.
Torn by civil war, Yemen was unable to focus on exterminating the pests, which lay their eggs beneath the soil, and so “they came up like a bomb,” Khan said.
July’s monsoon rains arrived 10 days earlier than usual in Pakistan, creating moist soil conditions favorable for the locusts to breed in the border desert area, Khan said.
Swarms are also expected to arrive soon in Pakistan from Somalia, he said.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates losses to agriculture from locusts this year could be as high as 353 billion rupees ($2.2 billion) for winter crops like wheat and potatoes and about 464 billion rupees for summer crops.
“You can’t eradicate locusts, but you can control them. In this situation we have to rely on chemicals,” Khan said.
So far, insecticide-spraying operations have been carried out in 32 affected districts — both desert and cropping areas — spread over about 1 million hectares.
Pakistan’s pesticide-spraying operations had made it impossible to ensure the locusts eaten by poultry would be chemical-free, said PARC’s Azeem Khan.
“Sprayed locusts, if used as feed, are a threat to human health,” he said.
The new project, which has been approved by the National Locust Control Center, will entail buying living and dead locusts from local communities at 25 rupees per kilo.
The bugs will then be mixed with bio-waste such as manure and vegetation to turn them into compost, Azeem Khan said.
PARC is now analyzing samples of dead and decomposing locusts that have been sprayed with insecticide to assess the levels of chemical residue on them, he noted.
The PARC chairman said the government had earmarked $15 million for the project, with just over half going to the communities and the rest toward compost-processing.