Interest in Israel as Spain Weighs Citizenship for Sephardic Jews
JERUSALEM — A Spanish initiative has set off a flurry of interest in Israel among Sephardic Jews who want to acquire Spanish citizenship.
Maya Weiss-Tamir, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in applications for citizenship in European countries, said she had received 700 to 800 email inquiries since last Friday, when the Spanish government approved a draft citizenship bill.
“It doesn’t stop; the response has been crazy,” Ms. Weiss-Tamir said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Under the draft bill, Spain is offering citizenship to any person — whether Jewish or not — whose Sephardic origins can be certified. The bill removes some onerous existing requirements that include the need for applicants to renounce their current citizenship. It still requires final approval from the Spanish Parliament.
The legislation was first presented in November 2012 by Spain’s foreign and justice ministers as a conciliatory gesture toward Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors were expelled in 1492 in one of the darkest chapters in Spanish history.
Fueling the excitement in Israel this week, the newspaper Yediot Aharonot published a list of more than 50 classic Sephardic surnames, like Abutbul, Medina and Zuaretz.
Leon Amiras, chairman of an association for immigrants to Israel from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, said this week that he planned to apply for Spanish citizenship and that many families had books or documents allowing them to trace and prove their ancestry. When his own grandmother and great-grandmother left Izmir, in Turkey, for Argentina, they were issued an identity document that was certified by the Spanish consul there at the time.
Mordechai Ben-Abir, 88, Mr. Amiras’s uncle, said he hoped to be the first to obtain Spanish citizenship if the law was passed. Mr. Ben-Abir, who now lives in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, began researching his family roots when he was in his 70s, went on to obtain a doctorate in philology at the University of Barcelona and has traced his Catalan ancestry back to the expulsion of 1492. To return to Spain 500 years later with a Spanish passport, he said, would be “a victory” for his family and the Jewish people.
The Justice Ministry of Spain said this week that it had no estimate of how many Sephardic Jews might be eligible for Spanish citizenship. So far, the ministry has registered 3,000 applications, but a spokeswoman said that number should now increase.
Rachel Delia Benaim, an American student living in New York who has Sephardic ancestry, said by email that being allowed to keep her United States citizenship made the Spanish offer “a lot more appealing.” But she remained wary about how certification would ultimately be granted by Spain and said, “Any excitement about the legislation is premature.”
Jacob Levy, a retired American, said he had lost interest in getting a Spanish passport after his attempt last year to find out more about Spain’s preliminary offer were frustrated by Spanish diplomats. “I’m in not in any rush to apply again,” he said in an email, “as I’m too angry at the behavior of the Spanish Consulate in New York.”
In response to queries, the Spanish foreign ministry is now distributing via its embassies and consulates a statement explaining that it might take several months for Parliament to approve the bill, and that even if it is approved it could still be subject to modifications.
Although many applicants are interested in Spanish citizenship for sentimental and family reasons, some Israelis are keen to open a business in Spain, despite Spain’s economic problems and record unemployment, according to Ms. Weiss-Tamir, the lawyer. Spanish nationality would also grant holders the right to work in any other country of the European Union.
“The Israeli spirit is always looking for opportunities,” Ms. Weiss-Tamir said. “People want to move around Europe more easily, or to be able to work.”
A delegation of top American Jewish leaders was visiting Spain this week for high-level meetings, including with King Juan Carlos. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a statement that Spain’s citizenship bill “will help assure that the history of the violence and exile will never be forgotten.”
In what appeared to be a reciprocal gesture, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, estimated this week that worldwide, there were millions of descendants of conversos, Jews who converted to Catholicism under duress in medieval Spain, including hundreds of thousands who are exploring ways of returning to their Jewish roots. “The state of Israel must ease the way for their return,” said Mr. Sharansky, who spent years in Soviet prisons for his human rights activities before arriving in Israel.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Raphael Minder from Madrid. Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
Correction: February 14, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the title of Malcolm Hoenlein. He is the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, not its chairman.