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Five Centuries After It Kicked Them Out, Spain Welcomes Back Sephardic Jews

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

JERUSALEM—Spain expelled some 300,000 Jews in 1492. Now, if everything goes as planned, it’s about to invite their descendants back. And the move has got all of Israel buzzing.

The Sephardic Ancestry Bill, which is expected to pass through the Spanish Senate this month, aims to correct a “historic mistake” by offering citizenship to as many as 3.5 million Sephardic Jews around the world whose ancestors were forced out by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. 

It’s a surprising development, given the climate in Europe. Anti-Semitism has gripped other economically suffering European countries, such as Hungary, the U.K., and France, where hostilities against the Jewish community have reportedly reached record levels, manifested in the desecration of synagogues and violent assaults. In January, just days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a gunman who pledged his allegiance to ISIS held hostage and killed four Jews (three of whom were children) at a kosher supermarket in Paris, spurring many of the country’s 600,000-strong Jewish community to reassess their status, in many ways reminiscent of the period preceding the rise of the Third Reich.

In Spain, though, among the hardest hit from the economic crisis and suffering one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the proposal to welcome its long-displaced Jewish citizens home has been met with virtually no opposition.

What may seem like a trans-Mediterranean olive branch has divided Israeli public opinion and opened up centuries-old family wounds. Since the announcement of the bill, Israel’s Sephardic community—Jews who originate from Spain, or “Sephard,” in Hebrew—have succumbed to what Israeli media has dubbed “Spanish fever.” Thousands have bombarded the Spanish embassy in Tel Aviv with requests and engaged lawyers to begin getting their papers in order. Just as many have lined up to question the loyalty of their globally-minded and entrepreneurial compatriots.

For Sidney Corcos, like many Sephardic Israelis who plan to apply for citizenship, the proposal has opened a painful and complicated chapter of his family’s past. Corcos is an unofficial Israeli historian of Sephardic Jewry in North Africa. The walls of his Jerusalem apartment are crammed with books, faded photos, and framed copies of original family trees chronicling the emigration of his family and others from Spain to Morocco during the Inquisition, and then again, from Morocco to Israel after another round of persecutions and pogroms in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sidney Corcos in his Jerusalem apartment.
Shira Rubin

He hopes to use a Spanish passport to minimize hassle when visiting Europe and Morocco, “but the second, deeper, reason is that my ancestors were Spanish, they fled Spain, so I would like to bring it full circle and say, ‘Here I am back. I haven’t forgotten you or this event in the history of the Jews.’”

About 300,000 Jews lived in medieval Spain, making it once the largest and most vigorous Jewish community in Europe. In cities like Toledo, they were the backbone of the intellectual and business class. The Corcos family, hailing from the town of Corcos in Castile, boasts that it was made up of rabbis and tajjar al-sultan, Jewish traders personally employed by the Moroccan king and valued for their fluency in numerous languages, diverse connections, and business acumen.

Centuries later, after being chased out of Muslim lands such as Lebanon, Syria, North Africa, and Iran, however, Sephardic Jews like the Corcoses arrived in an Israel that viewed them as primitive. They faced systematic stigmatization by the European Ashkenazi elite, were barred from marrying Ashkenazis, and were sent to live in backwater development towns. At the age of 18, just before the outbreak of the Six Day War, Corcos says he planned to serve in the army, “but they said to me, ‘no, you’re Moroccan,’ and they demoted me two classes back.” 

Despite his family’s early challenges, Corcos says that Israel is the one and only home for the Jews. He has no intention of using a Spanish passport as a one-way ticket out.

“My father came here so that we can stay. We came here to renew our ties to ancient Israel, and then to come here and then just turn our back? Why?” he says, voicing a familiar criticism of the new generation of Sephardic Israelis who hope to use Spanish citizenship as a way to gain access to the EU. Other critics go even further. In the past, expatriates to Europe have been derogatorily called “yordim”—literally, “descenders,” setting them apart from those who “ascend” to life in Israel. Worse, they’re sometimes accused of betraying the Jewish nation for more comfortable living conditions elsewhere.

Though the law will likely go into effect only in the coming months, the controversy has been raging since it was first announced in 2012. Anat Lev-Adler, writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, mocked Facebook posts showing her Sephardic friends already dressing up for the trip to Europe: “So many comments irritated me in the past few days… since my pure Sephardic brothers began preparing three-piece suits, as if gold is being handed out at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid.” She asks those eager to add Spain to their collection of passports to consider what they are sacrificing.

It turns out, as painful as it may be to find out, that even after 60-something years of existence (and one Holocaust, let's not forget), our wandering instinct is still strong, and there seem to be people who insist on thinking that two passports in the hand are better than a homeland taking shape.

Even within the Corcos family, there’s tension between loyalty to Israel and a desire to discover the world. But the positions are not as clear-cut as they might seem. Sidney Corcos’s 22-year-old daughter, Keren, believes that while her religion and nationality are an essential part of her identity, she doesn’t necessarily owe Israel her life. 

“For me, the most important thing is to go out and experience the world,” says Keren, who recently finished her army service and is now moonlighting as a singer in Tel Aviv. “I’m very thankful that I grew up here, but I also don’t see any reason to live in Israel just because I’m Jewish. I would like the opportunity to choose.” With family members living in Europe, she knows that the situation is undeniably tense, though Keren is also aware that many of the continent’s Jews view Europe as home and are not exactly fleeing en masse.

For young, creative, and mostly nonreligious Israelis, the country’s small, tight-knit atmosphere can feel suffocating. As the conflict trudges on and the newly formed coalition has proven to be one of the most conservative and pro-religious in Israel’s history, many war-weary Israelis say they are simply fed up with the country’s rightward direction.

While neither Israeli nor Spanish authorities expect a mass exodus to Spain, the possibility of at least some Sephardic Israelis relocating has brought a focus on Israel’s identity struggle. Already, thousands of their Ashkenazi peers have moved to Europe after obtaining citizenship from Poland, Germany, and other countries their grandparents fled following the Holocaust. The Sephardic Ancestry Bill has also raised a troubling question: Why is the so-called Start-up Nation failing to retain its most skilled, educated, and mobile? Israel’s brain drain is considered the most severe in the Western world. The problem garnered particular attention in 2013, when two chemists who had emigrated to America for lack of opportunity in the Israeli academia won the Nobel Prize.

Berlin, furthermore, has famously attracted hordes of young Israeli students, artists, and musicians, many of whom say they simply can’t afford to live in Tel Aviv. There, and in other cities, the housing crisis continues to worsen while the Netanyahu government has appropriated billions of dollars for the West Bank settlements project.

“We’re very happy that our students are going to the best universities in the world, that they are able to do everything and experience the very good conditions for artists in Europe,” says Eli Petel, a prominent Sephardic Israeli artist and the art department director at the Bezalel Academy, the country’s foremost art institute. “But it’s also a loss for an Israeli identity that is connected to the local, and to the history and experience of living as Jews in Israel.” 

Observers speculate that Spain, for its part, may be hoping that an influx of Jews, along with their investment capital, could revive its stagnant economy, as they have already done in Mexico, Argentina, and even Egypt. But according to Jose Caro, a descendent of the influential Toledo scholar Yosef Caro, Spain’s potential offer may have less to do with rebooting the economy than clearing its conscience. “Because all the pogroms, all the dictatorships, all the biggest catastrophes in history occurred in Spain, it is trying to change that history,” he says. 

Caro himself plans to take out a Spanish passport, but only if it can be done in an honorable way. Unlike a Portuguese version of the law, which went into effect on March 1 and requires nothing more than a simple vetting process, Spain’s may be difficult to navigate by design. Spanish legislators have crafted tentative amendments requiring applicants to travel to Spain to undergo the vetting process and to pass tests on Spanish culture, current events, and language—which Caro calls “ridiculous,” since many of the Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, not Spanish.

“Spain, if they want, can offer us things, they can play politics, but not when it comes to our Holocaust,” he says. “The King needs to know that we don’t want anything from them, only the dignity which is our right. I only want this so that my children can see this—it is for them.”

This article has been updated. The tajjar al-sultan who were ancestors of Sidney Corcos were employed by the Moroccan king, not the Ottoman Empire as reported earlier.