Rights of Return: Spain, Jews and the Palestinians

Spain could have sent a powerful message to the Middle East had it apologized to and embraced both the Muslims and Jews expelled by the Inquisition.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab
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Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East, including nearly two years in Jerusalem, and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea
Khaled Diab

Spain has to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the . But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492."

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews,

Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance,, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilization, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognize Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time."

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a U.K. opinion piece arguing Spain has for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule."

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in itsin modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologize unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters," not feuding “cousins."

Khaled Diab is Jerusalem-based Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at

A depiction of the expulsion of the Moriscos from Vinaros by 17th-century artists Pere Oromig y Francisco Peralta.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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