Spain passes citizenship plan for ancestors of Jews expelled in 1492

Daniel Silva
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People stand near a gift shop in the old Jewish Quarters of Toledo, Spain, on February 27, 2014

People stand near a gift shop in the old Jewish Quarters of Toledo, Spain, on February 27, 2014 (AFP Photo/Gerard Julien)

Madrid (AFP) - Spain's lower house of parliament approved Thursday a law that eases the path to citizenship for descendants of Jews who were forced to flee the country five centuries ago during the Inquisition.

The measure aims to correct what Spain's conservative government calls the "historic mistake" of sending Jews into exile in 1492, forcing them to convert to Catholicism or burning them at the stake.

"This law says much about who we were in the past and who we are today and what we want to be in the future, an open, diverse and tolerant Spain," Justice Minister Rafael Catala said before it was approved.

The law -- which comes into force in October -- grants dual citizenship rights for Jews with Spanish ancestry, who are known as Sephardic Jews.

Under the previous 1924 law the government had discretionary powers to award Sephardic Jews nationality but candidates had give up their previous citizenship and they had to be residents of Spain.

The new law gives Sephardic Jews the same dual citizenship privilege Spain currently grants only to people from its former colonies and neighbouring Portugal and Andorra.

The law had the backing of Spain's two main parties and it comfortably cleared its final reading.

The Spanish government estimates that about 90,000 people will apply for citizenship, although officials admit there is no precise way of knowing how many descendants meet the criteria.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely welcomed the passage of the law, saying it "respects the long history of the Jews of Spain".

"This is a historic day, an important day, an emotional day," said the president of the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, Isaac Querub, whose ancestors took refuge in North Africa after they were expelled from Spain.

Kelly Benoudis Basilio, 70, a retired French literature professor who lives in Lisbon, is already preparing to apply for Spanish citizenship even though she has no plans to live in Spain.

"For emotional reasons it is very important," said Basilio, a descendant of Jews expelled from Spain who was born in Ksar el-Kebir in northwestern Morocco and has Portuguese citizenship through marriage.

She said she learned to sing lullabies in haketia, one of several Jewish languages that is rooted in Spanish, as a child in Morocco.

"Tradition and memory are very important in Jewish culture," said Basilio.

- 'Bureaucratic hell' -

Applicants do not have to be practising Jews but they must have their Jewish heritage vetted by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities or by rabbis where they live.

They will also have to pass tests on Spanish language, culture, prove they have a "special connection" to Spain and travel to the country at their own expense to apply.

The law will expire after three years although it could be extended by another year if deemed necessary.

While Jewish groups have welcomed the move, some Jewish leaders have complained that the requirements are too burdensome.

Leon Amiras, who heads an association of immigrants to Israel from Latin countries, said the length of the process and costs involved will deter most Sephardic Jews from applying.

"They will have to go through a Via Crucis, a bureaucratic hell, they will say they don't want it. I am disappointed with the law," he told AFP.

During the debate in parliament Gabriel Elorriaga, a lawmaker for the ruling Popular Party, said the law needed to be "precise" to "correctly identify" the descendents of Jews who were expelled.

Though estimates vary, historians believe at least 200,000 Jews lived in Spain before the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand ordered them to convert to the Catholic faith or leave the country.

Many found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans, North Africa and Latin America.

They risked the death penalty if they returned to Spain.

Up to 3.5 million people around the world are thought to have Sephardic -- Hebrew for "Spanish" -- Jewish ancestry.

The citizenship law is the latest step in Spain's modern efforts to atone for its past harsh treatment of Jews.

In 1992 Spain's former King Juan Carlos visited a Madrid synagogue to recognise "injustices of the past."