In Search of Citizenship, Israelis Prepare for a New Spanish Inquisition

Some 200,000 may be eligible to apply for a Spanish passport when three-year window opens on October 1, but cost and time involved may deter many.

Shuka Cohen

Rinat Emanuel’s singing repertoire includes many classics in Ladino (the Spanish dialect once widely spoken by Sephardi Jews). A descendant of Sephardi Jews who spent centuries in Greece and Bulgaria after being expelled from Spain, this American-born Israeli performer still feels a visceral connection to the land of her ancestors, saying she’s “deeply rooted in Spanish culture.”

Emanuel is among the estimated hundreds of thousands of Israelis who might now be eligible for Spanish citizenship, under a new law approved last week, which takes effect on October 1. The law, passed in the Spanish cabinet, grants descendants of Jews forced out in the 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition the right to take up dual citizenship.

“It’s definitely an enticing thought,” says Emanuel, who also acknowledges that she hasn’t yet decided whether to move ahead with the process.

According to Leon Amiras, the chairman of OLEI, an Israel-based organization that represents immigrants of Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese descent, the potential number of Jews who could be eligible for Spanish citizenship under the new law is huge. “We’re talking about 2 million in Israel and another 1.5 million abroad,” he says.

In reality, though, Amiras doesn’t believe more than 200,000 have serious prospects of meeting the list of requirements stipulated in the law. And that’s assuming the investment of time and money required doesn’t deter them from the start.

“There are many bureaucratic hurdles involved,” notes Amiras, an Argentinian-Israeli lawyer whose Jerusalem office is currently assisting dozens of Israelis interested in acquiring Spanish citizenship. “You have to speak Spanish with reasonable fluency. You have to pass an exam on Spanish culture, and nobody has any idea what type of knowledge will be required. You have to be able to produce letters certifying that your family came from Spain, both from the rabbi in your current community and the rabbi in the community where you were born. You are required to travel to Spain to appear in person before a notary there, and there are numerous fees involved in opening and submitting files. Israelis are practical people. They may want to obtain Spanish citizenship, but I’m not sure they’re going to want to deal with the whole hassle.”

Rinat Emanuel singing:

In Amiras’ estimation, the costs could reach as high as $5,000, taking into account Spanish classes and round-trip flights to Spain, while the time involved would be “a minimum of a year and a half, two years.”

And there won’t be a lot of time to think about it, either, since the new law is in effect for only three years – meaning that anyone who doesn’t submit an application before October 2018 won’t have another chance to do so.

Nonetheless, the prospect of Spanish citizenship beckons. For many Israelis who don’t already hold a second citizenship, it provides an opportunity to acquire a European Union passport and thereby find employment in Europe. For Jews feeling uneasy these days about being Jewish in places like Turkey, Spanish citizenship provides an opportunity to relocate to safer shores. For yet others, the advantages are not so much material as symbolic.

Jews like these – among them singer Nuriya la Tanita – say they feel a sense of vindication after all these years when Spain didn’t own up to its responsibility for the Inquisition. “I see this as a kind of tikkun,” she says, using the Hebrew word for “repair.”

Nuriya, as she is known professionally, is a Mexican-born performer with family roots in Iraq and Syria. Before moving to Israel two years ago, she spent a year in Andalusia studying flamenco music. “I felt this deep fracture when I was there because of the Inquisition,” she recounts. “It was something almost palpable.”

Although several of her ancestors had classic Sephardi last names, Nuriya is not convinced she has enough evidence of her Spanish roots to meet the requirements of the new law. “For those who are eligible, I think that, spiritually and symbolically, taking out Spanish citizenship is a good thing to do,” she says.

It was in February 2014 that Spain first unveiled its proposal to grant citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled from its territory more than 500 years ago, in recognition of its “historic mistake.” The office of the Spanish embassy in Tel Aviv was immediately bombarded with inquiries.

“We received hundreds of phone calls every day,” recalls Manuel Gonzáles Garagorri, first secretary and consul at the embassy. “And those are just the ones we were able to answer, because the phone was ringing nonstop and we couldn’t get to all of them.”

Initially, he says, there was a lot of confusion about the law. “People thought it applied to all Sephardi Jews, not just those with proven roots in Spain,” he notes. “Then all these lists of names that supposedly qualify you for citizenship were circulating, but none of them was authorized by us.”

Gonzáles Garagorri acknowledges that the process of applying for citizenship may be cumbersome for many, but says “proving that someone belongs to a community that was expelled 500 years ago is a complicating thing.”

The upside, he says, is that candidates have to go through the process only once. “Once you’re accepted as a Spanish citizen, you can pass it down through the generations.”

That is the single reason someone like Keren Kordova, whose family has no difficulty tracing its roots back to Spain, is even considering it. “It’s not something that really interests me,” says the 32-year-old Tel Avivian, now pregnant with her first child. “I also have British citizenship, so I don’t need another European passport. But I just learned I won’t be able to pass my British citizenship down to my children, which is why I’m even thinking about Spanish citizenship.”

Portugal also recently passed a law granting citizenship to Sephardi Jews with roots in the country expelled during Inquisition times. But the burden of proof in their case is much lighter.

“We didn’t have to pass any exams when we were expelled from Spain,” laments Amiras, who traces his Spanish roots back through all four of his grandparents. “So I don’t understand why we have to pass so many to get back in.”

Will he be applying for Spanish citizenship then?

“Absolutely,” he responds.