If you’re Sephardi you might be en­ti­tled to Span­ish cit­i­zen­ship. But what does the process look like?

Al­most two years on, it’s time to ex­am­ine a much-talked-about law meant to right a his­tor­i­cal wrong for ex­iled Sephardim and of­fer them Span­ish cit­i­zen­ship. But has bu­reau­cracy over­come the good in­ten­tions?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - • MAR­ION FISCHEL

It is es­ti­mated that hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews lived in Spain be­fore King Fer­di­nand and Queen Is­abella forced them to con­vert or leave the coun­try in 1492. Today, the num­ber of their de­scen­dants, in­clud­ing those known as Sephardim, is be­lieved to be mil­lions world­wide. In Fe­bru­ary 2014, the in­ter­na­tional press be­gan to re­port that Spain was to amend Ar­ti­cle 23 of its Civil Code, thus mak­ing it pos­si­ble for Sephardi Jews and their de­scen­dants to ap­ply for Span­ish cit­i­zen­ship with­out the need for res­i­dency, or to give up any other pass­ports they might hold. The an­nounce­ment of this change in the law was ac­com­pa­nied by much spec­u­la­tion and ex­pec­ta­tion.

The law, how­ever, was not passed un­til June, 2015, and was not ac­ti­vated un­til Oc­to­ber of that year. Whereas at first there was ex­cite­ment about the prospect, over time pos­si­ble can­di­dates lost mo­men­tum, and many con­sid­ered the law too com­pli­cated and costly to deal with. Although costs were sup­posed to be low, with can­di­dates ap­ply­ing via an on­line plat­form for a fee of €100, and told they did not need a lawyer to as­sist in the process, the re­al­ity is not that sim­ple.

Maya Weiss-Tamir is an Is­raeli lawyer who cur­rently as­sists those wish­ing to ap­ply for Span­ish na­tion­al­ity. Her clients in­clude peo­ple who orig­i­nally “thought the process would be easy, and then were un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with the no­taries as­signed to them [in Spain] and now they need help.”

She says that there was “great com­mo­tion” be­fore the law was im­ple­mented, but re­as­sures that de­spite the seem­ingly dif­fi­cult and some­times com­pli­cated process, “it is doable.”

The costs de­pend on the per­son’s needs, as Weis­sTamir ex­plains. “A ge­nealog­i­cal re­port costs money; an old fam­ily ke­tuba [mar­riage con­tract] doesn’t,” she says, es­ti­mat­ing around €3,500 to €4,500, “in­clud­ing the trans­la­tions, but not in­clud­ing travel, ac­com­mo­da­tion and the no­tary.” The process also re­quires learn­ing the Span­ish lan­guage, which should be taken into ac­count as well. EAR­LIER THIS sum­mer, in the Span­ish Se­nate, Se­na­tor Jon Iñar­ritu, a mem­ber of the Basque EH Bildu party, asked whether Law 12/2015 had ful­filled its aim.

“Be­fore it was ap­proved,” he said, it seemed that “hun­dreds of thou­sands” would ap­ply, and yet, “due to the way it is be­ing car­ried out,” it has be­come “a com­pli­cated path,” and “an ob­sta­cle course.”

Sworn trans­la­tor Myr­iam Na­hon (the only per­son in Is­rael whose He­brew-to-Span­ish trans­la­tions are rec­og­nized by the Span­ish For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry) said ex­pec­ta­tions with re­gard to the num­ber of ap­pli­cants “were out of sync with re­al­ity.”

“At first they spoke about mil­lions, then hun­dreds of thou­sands, then tens of thou­sands. And yet by July they hadn’t reached 7,000 ap­pli­cants,” she says.

“When they started talk­ing about it, they got wor­ried that mil­lions would come run­ning, so they de­cided that the ap­pli­ca­tions would not be made through the For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry, but via an In­ter­net plat­form, un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Jus­tice Min­istry,” Na­hon says.

Car­men Al­varez, di­rec­tor of the Span­ish cul­tural In­sti­tuto Cer­vantes in Tel Aviv, also says she thought that “every­one ex­pected more peo­ple... I didn’t, so much, be­cause the law is com­plex, and it is dif­fi­cult to sim­plify it.

“The [He­brew] press in Is­rael was quite neg­a­tive [about the law] and this con­vinced many peo­ple not to ap­ply,” adds Na­hon.

“It is clear that some­thing has gone wrong to ac­count for such a gi­gan­tic dis­crep­ancy,” San­ti­ago Tran­con, co-founder of Es­paña-dCIDE, Spain’s new­est po­lit­i­cal party, told The Jerusalem Post. “The pro­ce­dures it re­quires are con­fus­ing, and the con­di­tions are dif­fi­cult,” he says.

For Salomon Buza­glo, man­ager of the In­sti­tute for Sephardi and Anusim Stud­ies at Ne­tanya Aca­demic Col­lege, “the spirit of the law is not re­flected in its re­al­ity.”

The law “was pre­sented as a way of do­ing jus­tice with the Sephardim, but in the end it is not re­ally, as some peo­ple can fall be­tween the cracks. The re­quire- ments are not easy, in­clud­ing the ne­ces­sity of learn­ing the lan­guage,” Buza­glo said.

NA­HON, A for­mer mem­ber of the Madrid Jewish com­mu­nity, who con­sid­ers her­self “an in­ter­preter by trade and an in­ter­me­di­ary be­tween cul­tures by vo­ca­tion,” has cre­ated a page in He­brew on her web­site with the aim of ex­plain­ing the en­tire process.

The doc­u­ments re­quired by the Span­ish Jus­tice Min­istry fall into four cat­e­gories: a set of proofs of Sephardi ori­gin; proof of knowl­edge of Span­ish and of Span­ish cul­ture; a set of proofs that the ap­pli­cant has a link to present-day Spain; and doc­u­ments that the ap­pli­cant iden­ti­fies with, which are pass­port, birth cer­tifi­cate and back­ground check.

Na­hon’s ad­vice is that ap­pli­cants start by reg­is­ter­ing for the Span­ish lan­guage and cul­ture ex­ams – which can be taken at the In­sti­tuto Cer­vantes in Tel Aviv, and then go on to gather the rest of the re­quired proofs. A set of proofs, she said, means at least “two pieces of ev­i­dence.”

The ap­pli­cant also needs to prove he or she has a link to present-day Spain. But the ba­sic re­quire­ment is of course, proof of the Sephardi ori­gin.

A cer­tifi­cate from the Fed­er­a­tion of Jewish Commu-

ni­ties of Spain can com­plete a “set of proofs” when com­bined with an ap­pli­cant’s knowl­edge of Ladino, for ex­am­ple, own­er­ship of a fam­ily ke­tuba writ­ten ac­cord­ing to the tra­di­tion of Castile and Leon etc..

Ladino speak­ers must pro­vide proof of their claim by means of a cer­tifi­cate from a rec­og­nized in­sti­tu­tion. Those whose par­ents or grand­par­ents speak Ladino, even if they them­selves do not, can have a rel­a­tive take the test in­stead.

An­other proof of Sephardi ori­gin is the “ex­pert re­port.”

This can be ob­tained from the In­sti­tute for Anusim in Ne­tanya; from Prof. Dov Co­hen (who has dealt with sev­eral Turk­ish fam­i­lies); and Prof. Eliezer Papo of Ben-Gu­rion Univer­sity of the Negev, for­mer chief rabbi of the Sara­jevo com­mu­nity.

A “let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion” is also an op­tion, but it must be cer­ti­fied by the fed­er­a­tion in or­der to qual­ify as a piece of ev­i­dence. Letters of rec­om­men­da­tion are pro­vided, in Is­rael, by for­mer chief rabbi of the Madrid com­mu­nity, Ben­ito Gar­zon; the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Jewish Com­mu­ni­ties of North Africa; and the Coun­cil of Sephardi and Ori­en­tal Com­mu­ni­ties of Jerusalem.

Prof. Abra­ham Haim, pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil of Sephardi and Ori­en­tal Com­mu­ni­ties, bases his re­com- men­da­tions “on the sub­mis­sion of doc­u­ments and a per­sonal in­ter­view,” he ex­plains.

“The let­ter we pro­vide states that the per­son is of Span­ish ori­gin, and that his or her an­ces­tors lived there.” The cost is NIS 1,000 per adult.

Once can­di­dates have all of the rel­e­vant doc­u­ments, they must sign up on the on­line plat­form, up­load copies and close the ap­pli­ca­tion. They will then each have a no­tary as­signed to them af­ter they in­di­cate which part of Spain they are able to travel to.

If the re­quested doc­u­men­ta­tion is com­plete, the no­tary will sum­mon the ap­pli­cant to a meet­ing in Spain, to which they must bring the orig­i­nals and no­ta­rized trans­la­tions. The no­tary will then draft a pro­to­col.

“The pro­to­col goes to the Jus­tice Min­istry for ap­proval. The fi­nal step is to swear an oath of al­le­giance to Spain in the pres­ence of a con­sul, and fill out a form to be in­cluded in the Span­ish Civil Reg­istry,” Na­hon said.

DAVID CO­HEN (not his real name) is wait­ing, any mo­ment now, for a phone call to tell him to go to his lo­cal Span­ish em­bassy, for the swear­ing in “and sign a fi­nal doc­u­ment to be­come a Span­ish cit­i­zen.”

His jour­ney be­gan in De­cem­ber 2015. For Co­hen, who prefers to use an alias (un­til his sta­tus be­comes of­fi­cial), the process “took a long time, be­cause I had to gather fam­ily doc­u­ments and pre­pare to move to Spain. Once there, I had to learn Span­ish. I reg­is­tered on­line for the Span­ish and the cit­i­zen­ship ex­ams.”

Although res­i­dence is not a re­quire­ment, Co­hen, who did not speak Span­ish, chose to at­tend a 10-week lan­guage course in Madrid. Sub­se­quently, he “lis­tened to Span­ish podcasts, read an e-book that taught Span­ish, at­tended lan­guage ex­changes in Madrid and used mo­bile apps [to learn the lan­guage].”

Both his ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents were born in North Africa, but he only had his mother’s and her fa­ther’s birth cer­tifi­cates. “At first my grand­fa­ther’s birth cer­tifi­cate was re­jected by the fed­er­a­tion be­cause, when he im­mi­grated to Is­rael, he reg­is­tered with a dif­fer­ent first name than ap­peared on his North African birth cer­tifi­cate.”

Even­tu­ally, Co­hen “found enough sup­port­ing doc­u­ments” con­nect­ing his grand­fa­ther “to his other kids,” in or­der to prove “that he was my grand­fa­ther.” Then he needed proof that he was Sephardi.

At this point, Alberto de Lara-Ben­da­han and Rosa Martinez, “my lawyers and trans­la­tors, of Na­cional­i­dad Para Se­fardies, con­nected me with the In­sti­tute for Sephardi and Anusim Stud­ies at Ne­tanya Aca­demic Col­lege, to re­quest an ‘ex­pert re­port.’ I could not have com­pleted the process with­out their help,” Co­hen says.

At the In­sti­tute, ge­neal­o­gist Abra­ham Garcia “pro­duced a long re­port of my fam­ily tree with his­tor­i­cal records for our sur­names, and con­nected that to the Jews from a par­tic­u­lar town in Spain.”

EX­PERT GE­NEAL­O­GIST Garcia ex­plained how the re­ports work. “We pro­vide proof of a Jewish com­mu­nity in the ap­pli­cant’s place of ori­gin. Take, for ex­am­ple, some­one whose fam­ily is from Is­tan­bul. We prove that the sur­name is Sephardi and was used by Jews be­fore the ex­pul­sion in Spain.”

This in­cludes reg­istries of births, deaths and mar­riages, prop­erty sales, In­qui­si­tion records and his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of the area.

“I write a re­port that in­cludes a fam­ily tree of grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents with a con­nec­tion to the Mediter­ranean basin,” he ex­plains.

In some cases, such as when a fam­ily hails from Iraq, “we need to pro­vide his­toric-sci­en­tific proof that a Sephardi com­mu­nity was es­tab­lished there in medieval times, as a re­sult of the ex­pul­sion,” he adds.

Re­ports for ap­pli­cants from Latvia and Poland are

much more dif­fi­cult. “But if the story is true, there is al­ways a way to prove it, even cir­cum­stan­tially.

“Cases of Anusim are also com­pli­cated, but we fol­low a branch of the fam­ily tree un­til we find proof that some­one was per­se­cuted for ju­daiz­ing. It can be on the ma­ter­nal or the pa­ter­nal line, but it must go back some 15 gen­er­a­tions.”

Presently, Garcia is work­ing on a re­port for some­one “from Izmir, de­scended from those who con­verted with Shab­tai Zvi. He is lucky be­cause he has a ke­tuba from his fifth grand­mother on the ma­ter­nal line.”

Ac­cord­ing to Co­hen, “The en­tire process [of ap­ply­ing for Span­ish na­tion­al­ity] took many months of back and forth.” Asked to de­fine his ex­pe­ri­ence, he says some parts “took a few re­peated at­tempts,” and that he was some­times “sur­prised or let down along the way.”

How it all be­gan and where we are head­ing

Gabriel Elor­riaga, who rep­re­sented the Par­tido Pop­u­lar at the pro­posal of Law 12/2015, and is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the “Spain-Is­rael Friend­ship” par­lia­men­tary group ex­plained that “there is a re­nais­sance of in­ter­est in Sepharad,” with the law par­tic­u­larly aimed at those “who have pre­served the songs and gas­tron­omy and love of medieval Spain.”

“On our side, our his­toric Span­ish re­al­ity had been lost,” Elor­riaga says. “No­body stud­ied the [ Jewish] philoso­phers, doc­tors, etc., who con­trib­uted to our coun­try, our his­tory. But what is still here is the deep cul­tural in­flu­ence.”

Re­fer­ring to the Jewish tourism route, “Red de Jud­e­rias” or Net­work of Jewish Quar­ters, an as­so­ci­a­tion of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that has spread over the past 20 years, he says “it cre­ates a prox­im­ity that al­lows Spa­niards to un­der­stand that these peo­ple, these Sephardim, ‘are us, but we threw them out.’”

When Isaac Querub be­came pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­a­tion in 2011, he met with then-jus­tice min­is­ter Alberto Ruiz-Gal­lar­don to dis­cuss le­gal re­form­ing of the Pe­nal Code, “in or­der to pe­nal­ize in­cite­ment to hate and an­ti­semitism in all its forms, in­clud­ing on the In­ter­net,” and “to pe­nal­ize Holo­caust de­nial.” The re­form was ac­cepted and re­al­ized through some le­gal changes.

At that same meet­ing, Gal­lar­don and Querub spoke of re­mov­ing two con­di­tions from the law of na­tion­al­ity for Sephardim: that they should no longer have to re­lin­quish their other na­tion­al­i­ties [a con­di­tion nonex­is­tent for any other group] and the abo­li­tion of the two-year res­i­dency re­quire­ment.

“Con­cerned about the sit­u­a­tion of Jews in Tur­key and Venezuela,” Gal­lar­don asked Querub to col­lab­o­rate on the elab­o­ra­tion of a new law.

Ac­cord­ing to Elor­riaga, “The prob­lem with the [new] law is that at this point, con­di­tions [for im­mi­gra­tion in gen­eral] are es­pe­cially rig­or­ous, due to mas­sive im­mi­gra­tion over the years, es­pe­cially from North Africa... there­fore the ex­ams in lan­guage and cit­i­zen­ship are gen­eral re­quire­ments.”

Trans­la­tor Na­hon says she is “both­ered” by the con­di­tion that re­quire all ap­pli­cants for “a spe­cific link to present Spain.”

She said that by speak­ing Ladino, “these peo­ple have kept a link to medieval Spain, with their lan­guage and cus­toms,” and that this should be suf­fi­cient.

She added that “if they speak Ladino, they shouldn’t be ex­pected to speak Span­ish,” she said.

In fact, a slight al­ter­ation was made in re­cent months re­gard­ing tak­ing the Span­ish exam for those who speak Ladino: In ad­di­tion to knowl­edge of Ladino be­ing a proof of Sephardi ori­gin, those over 70 who speak Ladino are also ex­empt from the Span­ish Lan­guage exam (as are all can­di­dates un­der the age of 18).

The Span­ish lan­guage exam and the cul­ture exam are avail­able at Cer­vantes, where Al­varez said some 15 to 20 peo­ple sit for the ex­ams weekly.

She has en­coun­tered “many very touch­ing sto­ries,” she says, such as “a lady from Smyrna, over 80, who is ap­ply­ing for na­tion­al­ity for the sake of her par­ents, who al­ways talked a lot about Spain.”

An­other woman, who lost her en­tire fam­ily in Salonika, ex­cept for her par­ents, saved by the Span­ish con­sul in Athens, is do­ing it be­cause she was the last one in her fam­ily who had still not ‘re­turned,’ Al­varez says.

The In­sti­tute for Anusim Stud­ies at Ne­tanya Aca­demic Col­lege pro­vides the in­forme mo­ti­vado (ex­pert re­port) writ­ten in Span­ish and stamped by a Span­ish-speak­ing no­tary in Is­rael, nec­es­sary when ap­pli­cants find that they, alone, can­not prove they are Sephardi.

“So far,” Buza­glo says, “although we have had some 150 in­quiries about ex­pert re­ports, only 20 peo­ple have re­quested them and these have been com­pleted. Four of the re­ports were re­quested by Anusim; these were dif­fi­cult, but we were able to pro­vide them, and today they have Span­ish na­tion­al­ity... This is very lit­tle com­pared to ex­pec­ta­tions.”

MEAN­WHILE, BACK in the Madrid Se­nate, Iñar­ritu con­tin­ued, “Per­haps for the [Span­ish] gov­ern­ment the aim has been ful­filled, if what they wanted was to re­strict the num­ber of ap­pli­cants re­quest­ing na­tion­al­ity?”

He called for “mod­i­fi­ca­tion” of the law by sim­pli­fy­ing the re­quire­ments and re­mov­ing the dead­line, and asked whether the Span­ish gov­ern­ment plans to take stock of the prob­lems that have arisen, and ex­am­ine what can be im­proved.

Sec­re­tary of State of Jus­tice Car­men Sanchez-Cortes an­swered that the gov­ern­ment was “com­pletely open and avail­able to con­sider any im­prove­ments nec­es­sary” and to hear about “any special dif­fi­cul­ties de­tected” in car­ry­ing out the law, “or if the process turns out to be par­tic­u­larly heavy for those it is meant to ben­e­fit.”

“If that were the case, the gov­ern­ment, with the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, of course, would be the first to pro­ceed to a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the law,” she said.

Un­der the cur­rent law, ap­pli­ca­tions for Span­ish cit­i­zen­ships can be filed only un­til Oc­to­ber 2018. How­ever, the dead­line, Sanchez-Cortes said in the Se­nate, “could be ex­tended by an agree­ment of a coun­cil of ministers; there is an im­por­tant mar­gin of flex­i­bil­ity.”

The fed­er­a­tion is cur­rently work­ing on hav­ing the dead­line ex­tended for a fur­ther year, un­til Oc­to­ber 2019, Querub told the Post.

Elor­riaga said that “de­spite the dead­line, at this pe­riod when an­ti­semitism is grow­ing in Europe, it must be pointed out that the law can be re­ac­ti­vated at any time, on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds and this is a his­tor­i­cal at­ti­tude,” re­fer­ring to sev­eral cases of Span­ish diplo­mats pro­vid­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion to Jews in dan­ger, in 1924, dur­ing World War II, in 1967 and in 1994.

Tran­con, a writer, scholar and ex­pert on the Jewish in­flu­ence in Span­ish lit­er­a­ture, told the Post that “the pro­ce­dure must be sim­pli­fied and the de­sire to re­turn of the de­scen­dants – not only of those ex­pelled, but also of the con­demned, the con­verts, the crypto Jews and the Anusim – must be taken into ac­count.”

He said there was a “need to look be­yond this law and open up di­a­logue about a larger is­sue: the re­la­tion­ship of Spa­niards with their Jewish past,” and for ed­u­ca­tion to re­flect “real knowl­edge about this past and the enor­mous in­flu­ence of the Jewish cul­ture and tra­di­tion on Span­ish cul­ture and the Span­ish na­tion. “It is im­pos­si­ble to un­der­stand our past, and even our present, with­out knowl­edge of that de­ci­sive in­flu­ence.” ■

‘The prob­lem with the new law is that at this point con­di­tions for im­mi­gra­tion in gen­eral are es­pe­cially rig­or­ous, due to mas­sive im­mi­gra­tion over the years, es­pe­cially from North Africa’

(Vic­tor Fraile/Reuters)

TOURISTS VISIT Toledo’s 12th-cen­tury sy­n­a­gogue, Santa Maria La Blanca, in cen­tral Spain.

(All pho­tos are cour­tesy)

ISAAC QUERUB, pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­a­tion of Jewish Com­mu­ni­ties of Spain.

MAYA WEISS-TAMIR, lawyer as­sist­ing those seek­ing Span­ish cit­i­zen­ship.

SAN­TI­AGO TRAN­CON, co-founder of the Es­paña-dCIDE Party.

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