We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place: Spain Offers Citizenship and Israelis Freak Out

What do you know: Under the right circumstances, even Israelis support the right of return.

Israel as a country is prone to freaking out. Israelis freak out over everything: Netanyahu’s son rumored to be dating a girl who isn’t Jewish? National freak-out. German politician speaks German (Who would have thunk!) in the Knesset? You just know it’s going to top the news cycle for a few days. But even by Israeli standards, the national craze that followed the Spanish government's offer of citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 was off the charts.

In fact, if this week had a name, it would be called The Spanish Freak-Out. Nothing else that happened this week could rival the intensity of emotions that the Spanish offer stirred.

First of all, thanks to the Spanish draft bill (approved by the government, still due to appear before parliament), for a few moments this week it was useful - nay, desirable - to be of Mizrahi origin. 

To explain: the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 are called Sephardim. In Israel, they are also called Mizrahim. For many, many years, Mizrahim in Israel were underprivileged and discriminated against by the Ashkenazi elite. Even today, in many ways, Sephardi Jews can still be said to suffer from discrimination and negative stereotyping.

But this week, with the promise of a brand new Spanish passport? Boy, how the Ashkenazim were envious. “It’s pretty amazing how Mizrahi names went from being unwanted to wonderful the minute they allow people to leave Israel,” wrote one sarcastic tweeter.

To say that the Spanish bill stirred some excitement would be a major understatement. Israelis today, it seems, react to the chance of a foreign citizenship with the enthusiasm usually reserved for people dying of thirst after they find water. Soon the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv was flooded with calls by over-eager Israelis who wanted to know if, when and how can they get a chance to brush up on their Spanish. Family members pestered their siblings and spouses and parents, looking for any name in their genealogy that might have a hint of Spain. 

The excitement was so big, that few even asked why, 522 years after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella banished Spain’s entire Jewish community, does Spain want its Jews back? Certainly this has nothing to do with the fact that Spain isn’t doing too well these days, and might just crave the tax money of 3.5 million potential new Jewish citizens. No matter, was the general consensus, so long as we get to get a European passport. Y Viva España! 

And then the news sites published the list. Comprised of about 5,300 family names, it was supposedly an official list by the Spanish government of surnames that qualify their bearers for Spanish citizenship. It was forwarded by emails, published in full on news sites, and was the talk of the entire country last Sunday. Surprisingly, the list contained quite a few Ashkenazi names.

That was the first clue.

What followed were 24 hours of frantic searching (“I am not on the list and I am Sephardi!” and “Ha ha! My name’s on the list, and I thought I was Ashkenazi!” were two very typical tweets that day), angry tweeting, hysterical news coverage (“Check for yourselves: Are you eligible for Spanish citizenship?”, “Tips: how to apply for a Spanish passport”) and angry denouncements. Some of Israel’s biggest rabbis published their own denouncements and called their supporters to refuse Spain’s offer. “Spain is in bad shape economically so they are suddenly courting us”, said Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the chief rabbis of religious Zionists in Israel. Others rabbis also followed suit.

Finally, the truth came out, courtesy of a blogger by the name of Ben Suissa: the list that drove an entire country crazy was a fake, composed by an anonymous Internet user. Finally, the Spanish Embassy had to intervene and state that there is no official list of names, and that criteria for eligibility have yet to be formed.

The Spanish statement did, eventually, aid in dissipating the excitement somewhat. But still, the Spanish Freak-Out can teach us quite a bit about what it means to be Israeli these days. The rapid pace at which the news about the Spanish bill spread and became a national sensation, the eagerness with which news sites published a dubious list filled with many suspicious-sounding names, the way Israelis hurried to celebrate or denounce something as inane as a Spanish passport, all testify, once again, to Israel’s love-hate relationship with diaspora.

It is the same love-hate relationship that in recent years drove thousands of Israelis to Berlin, some of whom were equipped with German passports. The same fervor that Finance Minister Yair Lapid and former Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan to compare emigration from Israeli to treason.

Faced with soaring housing prices, an overbearing cost of living, ethnic tensions, national embarrassments and an economic future that seems less than certain, many Israelis find themselves these days looking for options abroad. The energy - a tense, bitter, and angry energy of a potential emigrant - can be seen out in the open. This week, with the news of the Spanish bill, these energies erupted, with the added bonus that for the first time ever even non-European Jews could claim they have options elsewhere. 

Normal countries, with normal people, don’t go crazy just because an economically-challenged country offered them citizenship. But Israel did. And more than it teaches us about Spain, it teaches us something about Israel: a country where people will believe anything, no questions asked, so long as it entails a way out.

Amos Biderman