Sephardic Jews invited back to Spain after 500 years

The 'El Transito' synagogue and Sephardic Museum in Toledo The El Transito synagogue and Sephardic Museum in Toledo

More than 500 years ago, tens of thousands of Jews fled Spain because of persecution. Now their descendants are being invited to return.

Before the infamous Spanish Inquisition of the 15th Century, some 300,000 Jews lived in Spain. It was one of the largest communities of Jews in the world.

Today, there are about 40,000 or 50,000 - but that number could be about to swell dramatically.

In November, Spain's justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced a plan to give descendants of Spain's original Jewish community - known as Sephardic Jews - a fast-track to a Spanish passport and Spanish citizenship.

"In the long journey Spain has undertaken to rediscover a part of itself, few occasions are as moving as today," he said.

Anyone who could prove their Spanish Jewish origins, he said, would be given Spanish nationality.

The Inquisition

An engraving showing torture under the Spanish Inquisition
  • 1478 - Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition established in Spain
  • King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile wanted Spain to be entirely Catholic
  • 1492 - Edict of Expulsion ordered Jews to convert or leave
  • Muslim converts were called Moriscos. They were expelled in 1609

The news spread like wildfire among Sephardic Jews around the world.

According to the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, which processes the applications, there were about 6,000 enquiries in the first month alone - including one from an unnamed member of the US Congress.

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Candles being lit in a synagogue in Palma de Mallorca

"My initial reaction was that this was a really thrilling moment - that it was an act of justice," says Doreen Carvajal, a US citizen and reporter with the New York Times in Paris.

"It was a romantic notion on my part. I told my husband, 'I think I'm going to try and get the passport because it closes a circle'. It was very poetic."

Carvajal was brought up Catholic, but a few years ago, she discovered she has Sephardic Jewish roots.

She began to investigate, eventually tracing her family tree back to the 15th Century and the city of Segovia, north of Madrid. She has countless documents, and has detailed her story in a book, The Forgetting River: A modern tale of survival, identity and the Inquisition.

But Carvajal says that when she contacted the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, she learned that she didn't qualify. Not yet, anyway.

A composite image showing a photo of the Carvajal family in Costa Rica (left), and in the 1930s (right) Carvajal's family moved from Spain and settled in Costa Rica

Carvajal's family was among the estimated one-third of Spanish Jews who converted to Catholicism to escape the Inquisition's clutches. They were known as the "conversos".

So, Carvajal is technically the descendant of converts. She's not a practising Jew herself. She was told she would have to convert back to Judaism before she could get Spanish citizenship.

"It felt like another act of being forced. Here are these people, the descendants of the forced ones, the conversos, being told you have to do this, you have to be a certain religion. So what happens if you're a secular Jew?"

Sephardic Jews

Former Jewish area in Cordoba, Spain
  • Jews have lived in Spain since Roman times
  • Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word Sepharad, which means Spain
  • Originally used to refer to descendants of the Jews from Spain
  • They are scattered around the world - in Israel, Turkey, the US, South America, Greece, Bulgaria, France and the UK, for example
  • Sephardic Jew is now a wider term, and can refer to Jews of Oriental, Asian and African origin

The fast-track procedure has not yet taken effect - and Carvajal may well be entitled to citizenship when the rules are finalised.

The secretary general of the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, Mauricio Toledano, told the BBC that the government is still working on details of the scheme, and when the new law is presented to parliament, it's expected to specifically state that all descendants of Sephardic origin - whether they are Jewish or not - be given citizenship.

In total, about 100,000 Jews fled Spain in the course of the 15th Century. Some went to North Africa, but most settled in the economic powerhouse of the day, the Ottoman Empire - which then stretched from Hungary to Turkey, and beyond that to the south, and was expanding.

About 90% of Jews in modern-day Turkey are Sephardic Jews. Roni Rodrigue, 55, a car dealer in Istanbul, has already claimed his Spanish passport.

"I just thought I have a right to apply for citizenship, so why not."

He did this four years ago, under a pre-existing scheme, and got his papers in 11 months - though some of his friends have been waiting years.

Conversos and cryptos...

View of a torture device called Pitchfork of the Heretics, at the Inquisition Museum, in Cartagena, Colombia

It was the Jews who converted to Catholicism - rather than those who remained Jewish - who faced the greatest persecution under the Inquisition, says Stanford historian Professor Aron Rodrigue.

The conversos were under a constant watch, and it was considered a heresy if they were found to be practising any remnants of their Judaism. They faced fines, imprisonment - and the infamous burning at the stake.

No-one knows how many continued practising their Judaism secretly, under cover. Those who did were sometimes called crypto-Jews.

Some who converted went to Spanish colonies in the Americas, but that offered them little protection - the same Inquisition rules applied there.

Rodrigue has no plans to move to Spain, and has only been there twice, but says he still feels a connection.

He's a speaker of a dying language, Ladino. It's specific to Sephardic Jews and based on old Spanish, with words borrowed from Hebrew and the many countries in which they have settled since.

Rodrigue's parents spoke Ladino to each other but it has not been passed on to his children, or to most of the new generation of Sephardic Jews around the world.

It's not uncommon, though, for Sephardic Jews to feel the pull of Spain.

"I'm still Spanish in my soul and in my heart," says one British Sephardic Jew, who asked not to be named.

He's building a house in Spain, has bought land, and even a plot in which to be buried.

Like Carvajal, he's been left disappointed by the existing rules for acquiring citizenship, and stands to benefit from the new system.

He successfully went through the process to gain Spanish citizenship some time ago, but says he withdrew his application at the very end, when he discovered he would have to give up his British passport to complete the process - something he was not prepared to do.

The proposed new law, if passed, is expected to allow all new citizens of Sephardic origin to keep their existing passports.

Holy Week in Arcos de la Frontera, Spain Holy Week in southern Spain is full of ancient imagery

It is well known that when Spain expelled the Jews in 1492 it had a disastrous effect on the economy - many were wealthy textile traders, jewellers and bankers.

"At the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was said to have commented that he couldn't understand why a great Spanish king like Ferdinand would go without the Jews - who were such a source of wealth - and just give them to him," says Maria Josep Estanyol, a historian at the University of Barcelona.

Expelled from England

  • Jews were expelled from the England in 1290 - 200 years before the Spanish Inquisition
  • There were similar expulsions in France and a number of European countries
  • It was not until the 1650s that Jews were allowed to live in England again
  • Many of the first to return were Sephardic Jews of Spanish or Portuguese origin

"The Sultan was very pleased to receive these Jewish families, who went on to enrich his empire."

For decades, there has been a movement to allow Sephardic Jews to return, but it is unclear why the Spanish government has chosen to bring up the issue again now.

In theory, enticing them back now could give a boost to Spain's shrinking economy, although Estanyol doubts very many will re-establish roots in Spain.

"Given how disastrous things are here today, I'd advise against it," she says.

View inside the so-called El Aljibe (The Well), where heretics were imprisoned, at the Inquisition Museum, in Cartagena, Colombia In the colonies too - an Inquisition prison in Colombia

It has also been suggested that Spain made the offer to mollify Israel, after Madrid supported last year's successful Palestinian bid for a seat at the United Nations.

Whatever the motivation, some Muslim scholars are denouncing the offer as unfair. They point out that their ancestors were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. But no-one is inviting them back.

Gerry Hadden is Europe correspondent for The World - a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH

Additional reporting Cordelia Hebblethwaite

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