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.


North Korea’s Kim sparks fresh tension with south

Updated 24 October 2019

North Korea’s Kim sparks fresh tension with south

SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the removal of South Korean-built facilities at the Mt. Kumgang resort — a rare example of inter-Korean cooperation — calling the buildings “shabby,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official news source, said on Wednesday.

Kim’s remarks will likely further test the strained relations between North and South Korea, in tandem with the stalemate over denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

“The mountain was left uncared for more than 10 years to leave a flaw, and the land is worthy of better,” Kim said. He made the comments during his inspection of the tourist spot on the east coast of North Korea.

The young dictator has ordered modern service facilities to be built in place of the “unpleasant-looking” ones constructed by the South, the agency said.

Kim even criticized his late father’s policy of depending on the South for the mountain resort, calling it a “mistaken idea.”

“Mt. Kumgang is our land won at the cost of blood and even a cliff and a tree on it are associated with our sovereignty and dignity,” he said. 

He also ordered plans to be drawn up for the development of surrounding regions as part of a master development plan for the scenic tourism resort.

He left the door open to South Koreans’ visit to the site, but stressed the North should take the lead on any tour program.

Mt. Kumgang resort opened in 1998 and was a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation following the first cross-border summit in Pyongyang between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il. The two leaders agreed to operate a joint economic zone in Kaeseong, just north of the demilitarized zone.

The inter-Korean projects saw millions of dollars channeled every year to the North Korean regime, which was desperate for cash in order to develop a nuclear arsenal.

However, the tourist resort has been closed since 2008, when a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.

A series of North Korean provocations, including a 2010 attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and the regime’s nuclear tests, have hampered the resumption of the cross-border projects.

Since Moon Jae-in became president of South Korea in 2017, his administration have placed a high priority on relations with the North. At a summit in September 2018, Moon and Kim pledged that inter-Korean business projects would restart.

The Seoul government asked the US to lift sanctions partially so that such projects — including the Mt. Kumgang resort — could be resumed, but Washington opposed the move, worrying that it would undermine the US-led international economic sanctions focused on tightening the North’s purse strings.

“This isn’t the right time, but at the right time I’d have great support,” US President Donald Trump said in April when asked about restarting tours to Mt. Kumgamg.

Observers believe Kim’s order to raze the South Korean facilities at the resort is a warning to the US that it should relax sanctions against his regime.

“This is a strong message to the US that the tourism project should be excluded from sanctions,” veteran lawmaker Rep. Park Jie-won, a four-term lawmaker who had served as chief secretary to late President Kim Dae-jung, said in a radio interview.

Park said Kim’s remarks could be related to some under-the-table trade deals with the US, citing President Trump’s recent comments on North Korea.

On Monday, Trump mentioned some potential trade deals with North Korea.

“Whether it’s North Korea, South Korea… probably, something is going to be happening with North Korea too,” he said. “There’s some very interesting information on North Korea. A lot of things are going on. And that’s going to be a major rebuild at a certain point.”

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, in charge of the South’s relationship with the North, responded cautiously to the North Korean leader’s remarks.

“We’re examining the intentions and authenticity of the remarks,” ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told reporters. “If there’s any request from the North, we’re always willing to discuss the matter based on our citizens’ property rights, the spirit of inter-Korean agreements, and efforts to facilitate the resumption of the Mt. Kumgang tourism.”

Hyundai Asan, the main operator of the Mt. Kumgang tourist site, was baffled by the North’s intention to remove its facilities, in which hundreds of millions of dollars were invested, and which include hotels, a culture center, a family reunion hall, a golf resort and more.

“We will calmly address the latest issue and seek contact with the North via the inter-Korean liaison office if necessary,” the company said in a statement.