Coming home? 132,000 descendants of Spain’s exiled Jews seek nationality

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In this file photo taken on February 27, 2014 people stand near a gift shop in the old Jewish Quarters of Toledo. They descend from the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and five centuries later, they want to return to their ancestral homeland. (AFP / GERARD JULIEN)
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Colombian Andres Villegas — a Catholic who has a Sephardic Jewish ancestor — looks into documents during an interview in Bogota, on September 30, 2019. (AFP / Juan Barreto)
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In this file photo taken on February 27, 2014 people walk in a street of the old Jewish Quarters of Toledo. They descend from the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and five centuries later, they want to return to their ancestral homeland. (AFP / GERARD JULIEN)
Updated 04 October 2019

Coming home? 132,000 descendants of Spain’s exiled Jews seek nationality

  • 500 years ago, Jews faced a bleak choice in Spain: convert to Catholicism, be burned at the stake, or flee
  • Many of them fled to the Ottoman Empire or North Africa and later to Latin America

MADRID: More than 500 years ago, they faced a bleak choice: convert to Catholicism or be burned at the stake. The only other option was exile.
For Jews living in Spain at the time, 1492 was a year burned into historical memory when their community of at least 200,000 people were forced into exile.
Now, more than five centuries later, over 132,000 of their descendants have taken advantage of a limited-term offer of Spanish nationality that expired on Monday.
It is a long, complex and costly process involving a lot of paperwork. So far, only 6,000 people have been granted citizenship under the scheme.
The law, which was passed by parliament in October 2015, sought to address what the government has described as a “historic mistake” by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Known as Sephardim — the Hebrew term for Jews of Spanish origin — many of the exiles fled to the Ottoman Empire or North Africa and later to Latin America.
Under the legislation, those able to prove their Jewish heritage and their “special connection” to Spain were able to apply for citizenship, with the justice ministry saying it received 132,226 applications.
More than half of them were filed in the past month, when the ministry received some 72,000 applications.
“They said you didn’t need a lawyer but without one, it would have been impossible,” said Doreen Alhadeff, a resident of Seattle who obtained Spanish nationality for herself and two grandchildren.




Colombian Andres Villegas — a Catholic who has a Sephardic Jewish ancestor — looks into documents during an interview in Bogota, on September 30, 2019. (AFP / Juan Barreto)

Like all applicants, she had to provide proof of her Sephardic origin. This can be done through genealogical documents or through the local Jewish community.
Those documents then had to be taken personally to Spain to be approved by a local notary — a process Alhadeff says cost her around $5,000.
“I felt they had taken something important away from my family, and I wanted to get it back,” said the 69-year-old.
She remembers while growing up hearing Ladino, a 15th-century language fusing Hebrew and Spanish that is still spoken by Sephardim today.
Others are still waiting to see if their application will be accepted.
Among them is the French writer Pierre Assouline, who has written many books, including one about his Sephardic origins entitled: “Return to Sepharad” — Hebrew for Spain.
He filed his application nearly four years ago, along with a letter from Spain’s King Felipe VI — but the process is taking longer than expected.
“It’s surprising and disappointing,” he said.
Most applications came from Latin America, with around 20,000 from Mexico, 15,000 from Venezuela and 14,000 from Colombia, the justice ministry said. Another 4,000 came from Argentina and 3,000 from those in Israel.
“We knew since the start that it was going to be a law with some complications regarding the means of proof,” admitted Miguel de Lucas, head of Madrid’s Centro Sefarad, a meeting place for Jewish communities in the Spanish capital.
But, he added: “It’s better to have a law with some complications than no law at all.”
Maya Dori, an Israeli lawyer who has lived in Spain for 17 years, has been deeply involved in the process, helping about 500 people from countries as far apart as Uruguay, Panama, Costa Rica, England and Turkey.
In helping people track down their ancestry, she had seen many “going on a personal journey, reconnecting with their roots and discovering many things about their families.”
In her own case, it took seven years to get citizenship under a previous law dating back to 1924.
Unlike the recent legislation, applicants under that law had to relinquish any other citizenship and were required to live in Spain.
It is not only an attachment to historical ancestry that has provided a draw, says Gonzalo Manglano, head of the Cervantes Institute in Istanbul.
He points to the lure of a European passport for those from countries like Turkey.
“Both things carry a lot of weight,” he said.
Although those applying under the new law did not have to be practicing Jews, they needed to pass a Spanish language test as well as answering questions on Spain’s culture and society.
A similar scheme is running in Portugal which does not require a language exam.
Isaac Querub, president of Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities (FCJE), hailed the legislation as a success, saying the Sephardim could no longer be thought of as “stateless Spaniards.”
“Thousands of Sephardim have reclaimed their Spanish nationality and thousands more are in the process of doing so. Spain has closed a historical wound with an enduring act of justice,” he said in a statement.
“Spain, as the King (Felipe VI) said (in 2015), has missed them and the Sephardim will never forget that.”

Decoder

What is Sephardim?

It is the Hebrew term for Jews of Spanish origin. More than 500 years ago, the Sephardim faced a bleak choice when Spain told them convert to Catholicism or be burned at the stake. The only other option was exile. many of the exiles fled to the Ottoman Empire or North Africa and later to Latin America. In a bid to correct the injustice, Spain's Parliament in 2015 passed a legislation that allowed those able to prove their Jewish heritage and their “special connection” to Spain to apply for citizenship.


Indonesia eager to ease restrictions despite ongoing pandemic

Updated 30 May 2020

Indonesia eager to ease restrictions despite ongoing pandemic

  • Government deploys police and military personnel in public places

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government is in the process of easing the restrictive measures implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), spending most of last week in preparations to reopen the economy. This comes despite an uptick in new infections that has brought the total number of cases to more than 25,000 across the archipelago on Saturday.

“We still have important, strategic agendas that remain a priority for our national interests and that should not be halted,” President Joko Widodo said during a Cabinet meeting on Friday.

To ensure citizens abide by guidelines — such as wearing face masks and observing social distancing — the government has deployed 340,000 police and military personnel to monitor the situation in over 1,000 public places in four provinces and 25 regencies and municipalities across the country.

Experts, however, are divided over the government’s decision to involve the military in dealing with the pandemic.

“The military have been a part of the government’s response to the pandemic since the beginning. So far, they have not overstepped their role,” Stanislaus Riyanta, University of Indonesia’s intelligence and security analyst, told Arab News, adding that “public discipline” was necessary for the virus-containing measures to work.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the university, echoed Riyanta’s statements.

“Compliance with the health protocols in public places is the only vaccine we have right now. We have no other choice but to adopt these measures,” Riono said.

However, Asfinawati Ajub, human rights advocate and chairwoman of the Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation disagrees, adding that such reasons are not enough to deploy military personnel and that the policy was “ill-intended.”

On Thursday, Minister of Tourism Wishnutama Kusubandio said that regions that had been declared safe to reopen would need at least one month to implement health protocols. Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi discussed issuing social distancing guidelines to open places of worship.

But Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono, another epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, told Arab News that the nationwide anti-virus measures, in general, were not enough to curb the spread of the virus, let alone allow for an easing of restrictions.

“We can review the measures based on each region’s capacity to contain the virus, such as controlling the spread, isolating the infected, or identifying imported cases,” he said.

On Friday, West Java Gov. Ridwan Kamil said that after imposing province-wide, large-scale social restrictions, new cases had dropped significantly and that a majority of regencies and municipalities in the province — the third-most infected in Indonesia — could start easing some restrictions.

The government said that the reproduction rate of new cases in virus-stricken Jakarta had dropped to a more controllable level and that if this remained consistent for at least two weeks, it would be safe to lift some restrictions.

As of Saturday, there were 557 new infection cases, increasing the national tally to 25,773, while the death toll rose to 1,573 with 53 new deaths reported, health ministry official Achmad Yurianto said.

While 10 provinces did not report any new positive cases, five provinces — East Java, Jakarta, South Sulawesi, Central Kalimantan, and West Java — recorded the highest number of new infections.

“In Jakarta, not all of the 101 new cases were from residents in the city but rather from returning migrant workers who had arrived in Jakarta airport and had to be tested. Those who tested positive for COVID-19 were recorded in Jakarta's data,” Yurianto said.

Jakarta will continue implementing its large-scale social restrictions until June 4, a deadline that has been extended for the third time since it was first declared on April 10. East Java has emerged as a new COVID-19 hotspot, with new clusters popping up in the province.

Meanwhile, the provincial capital and Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, remained the worst-hit in the province, despite the extension of large-scale social restrictions.

“City residents have not been complying with restrictions. Many Surabayans cannot work from home. They have to go out to earn their living,” Nunung Pramono, a freelance tour guide in Surabaya, told Arab News.