The deadline for Sephardic Jews living outside Spain to request Spanish nationality has expired with almost 127,000 applications; mostly from Latin America Jews living in Mexico [20,000 requests], followed by Jews in Venezuela and Colombia.
In 2015, Spain passed a law to atone for the medieval expulsion of Sephardi Jews in 1492; when Spain’s Catholic monarchs, having finally defeated the Muslim Moors, forced Jews to convert or leave.
In the Muslim kingdoms of Al-Andalus, the Jewish community generally flourished, their religion was tolerated and Jewish scholars made a significant impact, spreading eastern knowledge to medieval Europe. Spanish Jews gave the Hebrew name “Sepharad” to the Iberian peninsula. So descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal still describe themselves as Sephardi Jews.
As Christians kingdoms slowly recaptured Spain, things steadily got worse for Jews; until wide spread attacks on Jews in 1391 started a century long pattern of forcing Jews to convert to Catholicism.
There are also many descendants of Moriscos Muslims, forced to convert to Catholicism rather than be killed or expelled from Spain in the early 1500s, and who like Spain’s Jews remained true to their religion in secret: until they were expelled from Spain in 1609.
These descendants of Moriscos Muslims, like the Sephardic Jews in 1492, were scattered across North Africa, and are now wondering if they too can claim a similar right to Spanish citizenship.
Blanca Carrasco, 52, an administrator at the University of Texas at El Paso says: “I remember [the Jewish custom of ] covering mirrors whenever there was a death in the family.”
Yolanda Chavarria-Radcliffe, said she heard her grandparents say a few times, “We were once Jews. It never really meant much to me when I was a little girl,” she said in a recent interview.
“But as time went on, I was never satisfied with Catholicism or Christianity. Then, when I learned about the history of Conversos [Jews forced to convert who remained Jewish]; I began investigating my family ancestry and discovered that Chavarria and other family names stretching back centuries — Juarez, Orrantia, Aguirre, Enriquez — are well-known Converso names.”
Chavarria-Radcliffe along with her daughter and three of her grandchildren, returned all the way back to their roots by converting to Judaism under the supervision of El Paso’s Rabbi Stephen Leon.
According to scholars, crypto-Jews and Muslims converted to Catholicism under threat of death during the Spanish Inquisition, but secretly remained practicing Jews or Muslims. To escape the suspicion of the Inquisition, the Jews disproportionately settled in far-flung parts of the Spanish or Portuguese empire such as Brazil and Mexico. The Muslims, who were mostly farmers stayed on their land until they were expelled in 1609.
By the 16th and 17th century, many of these Jewish “Conversos” in Mexico had migrated into the Rio Grande valley, all the way up to modern-day New Mexico.
In Albuquerque New Mexico, Dr. Sarah Koplik oversees a program that looks at genealogies to determine whether someone has Sephardi heritage. Those with Converso roots can obtain a certificate from Koplik to apply for Spanish citizenship under a 2015 program by Spain’s government offering citizenship to anybody with a Sephardi background and language proficiency in Spanish as an effort to atone for the sins of its past.
Koplik estimates that 300,000 to 400,000 Hispanics in New Mexico today have Converso roots. “We’ve documented that about one-quarter of the 80 initial settler families in New Mexico were Conversos. Based on genealogy and excellent record keeping, we know that 30 to 40 percent of the one million New Mexican Hispanics today have at least once crypto-Jewish ancestor,” she says adding: “After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, we started getting hundreds of applications and we’ve now processed thousands.”
At the same time the German embassy in London, since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, has received more than 3,380 applications for restoring German citizenship under article 116 of the German constitution for descendants of people persecuted by Adolf Hitler’s party. In previous years, only about 50 such requests were made annually.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, a member of the British House of Lords, argued in an essay she wrote after the Brexit referendum. “It doesn’t make me any less British, but it does allow me to reclaim a bit of my history,” Neuberger, whose mother was a refugee from Germany, wrote in The Guardian.
“It also declares a belief in Europe, an admiration for how Germany has dealt with its Nazi past, and a real belief that [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s welcome of [mostly Muslim refugee] migrants was both right and brave.”
Historians reckon there were about 200,000+ Jews in Spain before their expulsion. Sephardi Jews settled mainly in North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey and, later, Latin America.
Applicants have had to prove a family connection with medieval Spain – and in many cases, that proved difficult. In addition, they had to get their Sephardi origins certified by a solicitor in Spain. Spanish Jews gave the Hebrew name “Sepharad” to the Iberian peninsula. So descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal still describe themselves as Sephardi Jews.
Applicants for Spanish nationality were entitled to keep their current nationality, though in general Spain does not allow dual citizenship and had to pass tests on Spain’s culture and constitution, and show competence in Spanish or the Judeo-Spanish variant called Ladino.
A similar program in Portugal started later and is still open.
Jews who get Spanish nationality under the new law are not required to move to Spain. The naturalization ceremony can be performed at a Spanish consulate in their home country. There are estimated to be at least two million Sephardi diaspora Jews worldwide.
Rocío Sánchez, a Colombian genealogist, said “the majority of the people that I have dealt with who want to benefit from a Spanish passport are young people, between 25 and 35 years old, almost all professionals”.
AFP news agency interviewed a Colombian Catholic engineer, Andrés Villegas, who researched church records in Colombia, tracing his ancestry, and examined records of the Inquisition in Cartagena, who punished anyone practicing Jewish religious rites.
He found that an ancestor, militia captain Cristóbal Gómez de Castro, born in 1595, had been prosecuted by the Inquisition for “Judaising”. Colombia was part of the Spanish empire at the time.