Photo Credit: Selbymay/Wikimedia
Spain today has one of the smallest Jewish communities in the EU. Fewer than 50,000 Jews currently live in Spain -- a fraction of the number who lived in the country before 1492, when they were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Pictured: The "El Transito" Synagogue in Toledo, Spain, which was dedicated in 1357. When the Jews were expelled in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave the building to the Church

{Originally posted to the Gatestone Institute website}

A piece of much-heralded legislation to grant Spanish citizenship to up to 3.5 million descendants of Jews expelled from the country in 1492 is about to end in failure: fewer than 10,000 Jews have been awarded Spanish passports ahead of an October 1, 2019 deadline.


Spanish leaders promised that the law — which entered into force on October 1, 2015 for a period of three years and was extended for one additional year — would “right a historic wrong” and demonstrate that more than 500 years after the Inquisition began, Jews are once again welcome in Spain.

The legislation, however, introduced so many cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles to obtain Spanish citizenship that most prospective hopefuls appear to have been deterred from even initiating the application process.

Also known as the “Right of Return” for Sephardic Jews (Sepharad means “Spain” in Hebrew), the law purported to grant Spanish citizenship to anyone able to meet two seemingly straightforward requirements: prove Sephardic heritage and demonstrate a “special connection” to Spain.

In practice, however, the process has been far more complicated. The legislation’s main barriers to Spanish citizenship have been obligatory exams on Spanish language and socio-cultural history, the need to travel to Spain and exorbitant fees and costs.

Although prospective applicants do not need to be practicing Jews, they must prove their Sephardic background through a combination of factors, including ancestry, surnames and spoken language (either Ladino, a Jewish language that evolved from medieval Spanish, or Haketia, a mixture of Hebrew, Spanish and Judeo-Moroccan Arabic).

According to the law, even if applicants speak Ladino or Haketia — essentially dying languages that are spoken mostly by the elderly in some parts of Latin America, Morocco and Turkey — they are still required to pass a Spanish-language proficiency exam.

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, the director of the Sephardic Center in Istanbul, Karen Gerson Şarhon, noted the paradox that even though Sephardic Jews have preserved Ladino or Haketia for hundreds of years, proficiency in those languages in and of itself does not qualify them for Spanish citizenship. “A Sephardic Jew who speaks Ladino perfectly understands spoken Spanish,” she said, “but fails the exam because the differences in the written and the oral are very great.”

Gerson Şarhon added that two-thirds of the approximately 15,000 Sephardic Jews living in Istanbul have chosen to become Portuguese citizens because that country, unlike Spain, does not require language exams for descendants of Sephardic Jews to be naturalized there.

Overall, fewer than 400 Jews obtained Spanish citizenship during the first two years of the law’s existence. Facing a public relations debacle, the government subsequently approved a decree exempting applicants over the age of 70 from the Spanish language requirements.

In addition to the language exams, the law requires applicants to travel to Spain to have their documentation verified by a government-approved Notary Public (Notario) before the completed application is submitted to Spain’s Ministry of Justice.

Several applicants told Gatestone Institute of the great expenditures of time and money involved in completing the procedure — all without any guarantee of success. One applicant from the United States recounted:

“I started the process several months ago. I am fortunate to be able to afford it, and it is sad that others may be deterred because of the cost. To me, the biggest cost items are:

  1. The taking of exams at Cervantes Institute — there are limited locations and the two exams (language and culture) are offered on different dates, necessitating two trips to a Cervantes Institute location.
  2. The trip to Spain to meet with a Notary. If all the documents are notarized and apostilled in the United States, what is the purpose of such a trip?

“It then can take a year with no guarantees. If they want to require a trip (which seems unnecessary), why not make it for the final signing? I can’t imagine how disappointing it would be to spend all this time and money ($5,000-$6,000) and then still not get Spanish citizenship.

“One thing I am disappointed about is how attorneys are taking advantage of people interested in doing it. People told me they have paid $3,000 and $5,000. There’s one attorney who is being recommended by several organizations in the U.S. and I believe he charges $1,400-$1,800. He supposedly was involved with helping get the law passed. If he really cared, he wouldn’t charge so much. All the hard work is the gathering of the documents that the applicant has already done. I met somebody yesterday who was being charged only 400 euros ($450) — that seems a lot more realistic. Perhaps the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain (FCJE) or some other group in Spain that really cares about people doing this can start offering services to help people.”

She also described what is required to apply for Spanish citizenship:

“Nothing much, just:

  1. Proof of Sephardic heritage, including a letter from the FCJE (this was actually the easiest part!);
  2. Copy of my father’s notarized birth certificate from Tetouan, Morocco;
  3. Certificate showing my Diploma for Spanish proficiency test (I had to fly to Chicago to take this because it is administered by the Cervantes Institute in only a handful of places in the United States on behalf of Spain’s Ministry of Education);
  4. Certificate showing a passing score on the exam of constitutional and sociocultural knowledge of Spain, also administered by the Cervantes Institute (requiring a separate trip to Chicago);
  5. Birth certificate (notarized, apostilled* and translated**);
  6. FBI background check (notarized, apostilled and translated);
  7. State of MN background check (notarized, apostilled and translated);

“Proof of special connection to Spain. This included:

  1. Copies of my father’s Spanish ID cards;
  2. Letter from University of Madrid confirming that my father attended, taught and obtained his PhD there;
  3. Letter from BBVA Compass, a Spanish bank, showing that I have a Spanish bank account (notarized, apostilled and translated);
  4. Letter showing donations to an organization that fosters programs that perpetuate Sephardic history, ideals, cultural and religious traditions (notarized, apostilled and translated);
  5. College transcript showing I studied Spanish (notarized, apostilled and translated).

*Apostille is an international certification signed by Secretary of State.
**All translations had to be done by a sworn translator recognized by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“And then there was the hiring of an attorney and a trip to Spain to meet with the government’s Notary (which does not guarantee that I will get Spanish citizenship).

“Piece of cake.”

Although official data on the number of Sephardic Jews who will have obtained Spanish citizenship under the 2015 law will not be available until all applications are processed — which may be several years after the deadline for applications expires on October 1, 2019 — initial indications show that the law has failed to “right a wrong.”

As of the end of 2018, only 3,843 Sephardic Jews had obtained Spanish citizenship under the law, according to data published by El País. Roughly 70% (2,590) of those were from Latin America (Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico). Another 5,682 applications were pending approval — at a success rate estimated by Gatestone to be around 50%.

El País noted that although 8,365 applicants received Spanish citizenship since 2015, most of them did so through subsequent decrees issued in October 2015 (4,302) and August 2016 (220) (here and here) that eliminated some bureaucratic hurdles for Jews who submitted their applications before the current law entered into force.

In other words, no more than 5,000 Sephardic Jews will have received Spanish citizenship under the 2015 law — one percent of the 500,000 that the Spanish government said would benefit from the law, and 0.15% of the estimated 3.5 million Sephardic Jews in the world today.

Addressing the Spanish Parliament in June 2015, then Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catalá proclaimed:

“Today we have approved a law that reopens the door for all of the descendants of those who were unjustly expelled. This law says much about who we were in the past, who we are today and what we want to be in the future: A Spain that is open, diverse and tolerant.”

In practice, however, that has not been the case. Jon Iñarritu García, a congressman representing the Basque Country, challenged the government’s self-congratulatory rhetoric:

“We want to express our disappointment because this law, which was supposed to restore justice, has become increasingly complicated. If we observe the procedures, the prerequisites, the number of documents to be submitted, the certified translations, the fees, the language and culture exams and the need to travel to Spain, we cannot but wonder about the reason for all of these hurdles.

“If this law was meant to make up for the injustice of the expulsions and the exploitation that occurred, the most logical thing would be to avoid such an onerous procedure for the applicants. If you would calculate the cost for each of the applicants throughout the procedure, it would oscillate between €4,000 ($4,500) and €6,000 ($6,700) for each individual.

“Why is it not possible for applicants to perform the required procedures at Spanish consulates abroad? And why do the documents need to be notarized? Why is the law limited to just three years, extendable to four? Why is the law not indefinite if it is to correct an injustice? Do not put deadlines!

“Why the exams to test knowledge of the state and language? Why does the law fail to recognize a greater role for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which represents the Jewish communities with the relevant authorities in the government?

“All these facts lead us to conclude that the government has the clear intention that the fewer the number of applicants, the better. And the economic filter ensures that only people with high purchasing power can apply.

“Similarly, given the complication of both traveling and taking the exams, only young people can do this. As the Jewish proverb says: ‘For an old man every hill is a mountain.’

“You know that elderly people can hardly overcome such complications and obstacles. Last year, after I told a member of the Sephardic Jewish community in the Northern Basque Country about the proposed law, he said he did not believe it would come about, but even if it did, applicants could hardly have access to Spanish nationality. This person told me that it was easier to win the Nobel Prize than to obtain Spanish nationality.

“Considering all of these factors, we believe that this law does not right a wrong. This law is more of a symbol, a first step, but not a law that will serve to satisfy the majority of Sephardim who would like obtain Spanish nationality.”

Jordi Jané i Guasch, a congressman representing Catalonia, also expressed frustration over the law:

“The law has very serious deficiencies because it is an obstacle course. We are making the procedures very difficult for applicants to provide accreditation, plus the costs that this entails, and then they may not even obtain citizenship. Let’s be honest. We have not done everything well… there are too many tests, too many requisites, too many exams.”

Spain today has one of the smallest Jewish communities in the European Union. Fewer than 50,000 Jews currently live in Spain, according to the FCJE. That is a fraction of the number of Jews who lived in the country before 1492, when they were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country.

The Edict of Expulsion was issued on March 31, 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon). Also known as the Alhambra Decree, the edict ordered Jews to leave the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon by July 31 of that same year.

The number of Jews affected by the edict is in dispute due to the lack of accurate data. The Jesuit historian Juan de Mariana (1536-1624), in his magnum opus Historiae de rebus Hispaniae (a history of Spain from its earliest times), put the number of exiles at 170,000 families or 800,000 Jews. Modern scholars believe the actual figure was more likely to have been between 200,000 and 300,000.

According to J.H. Elliott’s classic history, “Imperial Spain: 1469-1716,” around 200,000 Jews are believed to have lived in Spain (150,000 in Castile and 50,000 in Aragon) at the time of the edict, and between 120,000 and 150,000 Jews fled the country.

Jane S. Gerber, in her book, “The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience,” estimated that 175,000 Jews left the country due to the edict and another 100,000 converted to Catholicism.

Benzion Netanyahu, in his classic, “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” wrote that “the number of Jews during the Expulsion amounted to approximately 225,000” and that between 200,000 and 230,000 Jews converted to Catholicism between 1391 and 1392, when anti-Jewish rioting began in Seville — rioting that sowed the seeds of the Inquisition.

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The writer is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group, one of the oldest and most influential foreign policy think tanks in Spain.