Sephardic Jews Seeking Portugal Citizenship Met With Ease - While in Spain, Hurdles Abound

Spanish lawmakers are finally preparing this month to approve a law that potentially allows hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Sephardic Jews around the world a shot at citizenship.

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If you can trace your ancestry to Toledo, you could eligible to Spanish citizenship.
If you can trace your ancestry to Toledo, you could eligible to Spanish citizenship.Credit: josh Nathan-Kazis / The Forward

For Alfonso Paredes Henriquez, it was the opportunity not only of a lifetime - but of a half-millennium. The Panamanian real estate developer, a descendant of Sephardic Jews kicked out of Spain five centuries ago, was elated when the country announced it would atone for the Inquisition by granting citizenship to people who can prove lineage from exiled Jews.

Then came a long wait, as Spain's Sephardic Jew citizenship law took two years to wind its way through Parliament. One amendment after another were tacked on that made the application process tougher and delayed approval for a bill that faced virtually no opposition.

Frustrated, Paredes Henriquez turned instead to Portugal. The neighboring country had enacted its own law to grant citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews exiled during the Inquisition, which forced Jews to flee convert to Catholicism or be burned at the stake. He submitted his Portuguese citizenship application in late March.

"Spain came out saying they would make a law but Portugal did it first and it's easier in Portugal," said Paredes Henriquez. "Portugal just swooped in."

Spanish lawmakers are finally preparing this month to approve a law that potentially allows hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Sephardic Jews around the world a shot at citizenship, though there are no reliable estimates of how many people might be eligible.

A Spanish passport means those who get it would be able to live or work anywhere in the 28-nation European Union, and apply for citizenship for immediate family members. While some European nations are experiencing a surge in anti-immigration sentiment, Spain and Portugal are not, and the laws have not generated opposition.

Many would-be applicants thought the Spanish law, announced in 2013, would carry few requirements beyond thorough vetting of ancestry. That's the case with the Portuguese law, which was proposed after Spain's but went into effect in March 1.

But Spanish lawmakers ended up adding amendments making the process for Sephardic Jews similar to that faced by permanent residents seeking citizenship. The hurdles are significant: Sephardic applicants must learn and be tested in basic Spanish if they don't speak one of several Jewish languages rooted in Spanish. They also must pass a current events and culture test about Spain. And they have to establish a modern-day link to Spain, which can be as simple as donating to a Spanish charity or as expensive as buying Spanish property.

Paredes Henriquez - whose Spanish ancestors were driven into Portugal by the inquisition - predicted the extra steps would translate into more lost time, money and frustrating red tape. In Portugal, he only has to prove his family history and that he has never been convicted of a crime punishable by three or more years in prison.

"Portugal is being more friendly about the process," he said. Indeed, the country is currently examining its first round of applications with decisions expected in a few months. "There's more willingness to do it, and they're doing it right."

Spain's Jewish federation has received more than 5,000 requests for information about the Spanish law. For now, they are telling would-be applicants to start gathering family history as evidence, to consider learning some Spanish and to think about establishing a link to Spain, said federation president Isaac Querub Caro.

The federation is also warning people the law isn't expected to become open to applicants until October, in order to give enough time to create the Spanish language and citizenship tests and set up a digital application system.

Once the law is in effect, applicants will have a three-year window to seek citizenship. Querub said the amendments added to the Spanish law were unexpected, but declined to criticize them.

The law "has a series of conditions but they do not take away from the value of the law," he said. "And we appreciate this generosity of the Spaniards."

Spain's ruling Popular Party has brushed off criticism of the amendments. In a parliamentary debate last month, Gabriel Elorriaga, a senator, said that clearer rules were needed for granting Spanish citizenship to all seekers - not just Sephardic Jews.

But there is one sense that the rules for Sephardic Jews will be in a privileged class compared with many others seeking Spanish citizenship: The Sephardic Jews will be allowed to have dual nationality. Currently, Spain allows double citizenship only for applicants from former Spanish colonies, plus Andorra and Portugal.

In Israel, reaction to the Spanish law entanglements is mixed - even among those who seem to easily meet the requirements.

Take Jose Caro, who can trace his roots to Joseph Ben Efraim Caro, a revered Jewish scholar believed to have fled the country in 1492 - the year Spain's monarchy issued decrees ordering Jews and Muslims in Spain to convert or leave. As a native of Chile, Caro speaks fluent Spanish and studied Spanish culture and history in Argentina, where he was raised.

But Caro, a 58-year-old insurance broker, has decided not to apply because he sees the conditions Spain has imposed as an affront to his family and its history of expulsion and persecution.

If only Spain's upcoming law were more like Portugal's he would seek citizenship and a passport "for the honor of my family."

Caro, who heads a group representing immigrants to Israel from Latin America, won't apply for Portuguese citizenship because he considers his ancestors' stay there "just a stop" in their exile from Spain, their ancestral land. Virtually all of Portugal's Jews fled to the country from Spain. The Jews who ended up in Portugal were only there five years until they, too, were ordered to convert or leave in 1497.

Haim Ashkenazi, a 22-year-old university student, said the possibility of getting a Spanish passport was tempting for historical reasons and for the opportunities it could bring. His ancestors left Spain for Turkey and moved to Israel three generations ago. He knows some Spanish.

But that enthusiasm fizzled when Ashkenazi began researching the conditions for citizenship on behalf of his family. He realized that proving his family's lineage was more difficult that he thought. He interviewed his grandmother, looked up archival documents and only got so far as his grandfather's grandfather. In the end, the expense of hiring a genealogist, coupled with the cost of trips to Spain for the citizenship process, proved prohibitive.

Leon Amiras, who heads a group representing Spanish-speaking immigrants to Israel, said his group unsuccessfully lobbied 30 Spanish members of parliament to soften some of the citizenship requirements.

"This is scandalous," said Amiras. "I am not naive and don't expect Spain to hand out passports without conditions but there is a limit." He said that beyond costs, the length of the process could deter elderly Sephardim from pursuing citizenship.

But 89-year-old Mordechai Ben Abir said he's not bothered by the extra steps he'll have to take.

He completed a doctoral degree at a Barcelona university at age 82, and discovered his family's historic links to Spain. Ben Abir's thesis went back in time through 25 generations to tie him to the Caballero family that fled Spain.

Despite his age, Ben Abir, who was born in Argentina and moved to Israel in 1955, said he is "going to get a passport no matter what."

"My goal is not to have a passport for the honor of having a European passport," he said. "I want to feel that we returned to Spain, so it would be clear that we won. That we still exist. That we live."

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