Old exclusions, new exclusions

I am Jewish. My grandparents were born in The Netherlands and in Poland, my parents in Australia. Three or four generations back, around the start of the twentieth century, my ancestors were still in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But I’m Mediterranean by design – dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. Looking at me, you’d never guess these white, Eastern European, Ashkenazi roots.

Ashkenazi Jews, or Ashkenazim, are the largest ethnic division of Judaism, making up 75–85 per cent of the global Jewish population. Their forebears can be traced back to central and Eastern Europe while Sephardic Jews, Sephardim, hail originally from the Iberian Peninsula. The word Sephardic, in fact, comes from Sefarad, meaning Spain in Hebrew.

Just recently, the Spanish government announced it was passing legislation to grant citizenship to Sephardic Jews expelled from the country during the Spanish Inquisition. Before that time, religious minorities had been generally tolerated and allowed to follow their own laws and customs in private. In 1492, royal decrees were issued by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella that institutionalised discrimination and persecution against other religions. Essentially, members of any other religious group were considered inferior to Catholics.

At the time, around 100,000 to 200,000 Jews living in Spain were forced either to convert to Catholicism or be expelled. They left Spain and travelled to North Africa, the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. Ironically, many also ended up in an area called Galicia, the same name as the state in Spain, a region that straddles the border between what is now southern Poland and Ukraine. My forebears can be traced to this region.

Spain already has a similar citizenship law. The main difference with the latest revision is that it allows successful applicants to hold dual citizenship rather than have to relinquish any other nationality they hold. The bill also speeds up the process by providing six different ways a Jew can prove their Sephardic origins. These include ‘having a Sephardic last name’(there will apparently be a list of surnames published),  ‘evidence of belonging to the Sephardic community,’ or speaking Ladino – a form of medieval Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews. When the Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced the bill on 7 February 2014, he said that it was laden with ‘deep historic meaning’ that would compensate for shameful events in the country’s past.

Spain’s repentance towards a minority it harshly discriminated against in the past is admirable but its historically generous offer is not really as charitable as it seems.

The first hurdle is that, while it may sound easy to be granted Spanish citizenship, it is not. Jews of Spanish heritage have ended up all over the world. Continuous expulsions, wars and the Holocaust make it difficult for families to document their origins. It is virtually impossible to trace an Eastern European family tree back to their Spanish heritage. Like me, most Eastern European Jews can only trace their ancestors back to the mid-late 1800s. Records going back any further for Jewish families generally only extended to members of the Rabbinate – Jewish religious community leaders. The earliest record I have is the birth of my great, great grandfather Moses to Isak Stolz and Marjem Sass in November 1868. The only hint I have of my Sephardic roots is the maternal Sephardic surname Sass – and my looks. There is no other documented evidence of Sephardic ancestry.

Another issue is that at the time of the Inquisition and later, atrocities were also committed against other minority groups such as Muslims before their expulsion. Like Jews, Muslim homes were destroyed, mothers were separated from their children and people stripped of their wealth if they refused to convert to Catholicism. Like Jews, many Muslims escaped to the Ottoman Empire. There are now an estimated five million descendants of these Moors. With such a great number, it is reasonable to assume that some of those now fleeing violence in countries like Syria, Egypt or Libya make up a portion of the number that risk their lives attempting to breach the large physical barriers Spain has set up around its territorial outposts on the African continent, Cueta and Melilla. Many also attempt the journey by flimsy dinghy across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Spanish Canary Islands ever since Spain has installed a network of thermal infrared cameras along its entire shoreline, making it almost impossible for larger, safer vessels to go undetected. The irony of a distant descendant of a fleeing Moor, battling their way back in to fortress Spain has surely crossed the minds of many who make the attempt.

Spain is currently one of the most restrictive countries in Europe in terms of immigration and asylum, particularly for the many Muslims coming via North Africa. Spanish border police have used rubber bullets to deter migrants. Some have even been killed or drowned attempting to breach the barrier. Those that make it into the enclaves are housed in overcrowded, shanty-type internment camps where Spain attempts to establish their nationality. Many are eventually repatriated anyway.

Spain is now offering citizenship to a potentially large number of Jewish people. Sephardic organisations estimate that 3.5 million Jews could potentially apply under the law. While it is questionable how many of these applicants would be successful, the passing of this draft bill raises questions about Spain’s veiled generosity. Muslims, and others, were forced to endure much the same treatment as Jews at the hands of the Inquisitors but have not been offered similar opportunities of repatriation despite the likelihood that many are today in desperate circumstances and much in need of Spanish generosity.

Generosity of spirit and righting past wrongs is a very powerful symbol in international relations. It’s also good PR. Nonetheless, in this case it is right to question why Spain is only showing such sentiment towards a specific minority group. Personally, it is impossible for me to trace my ancestors back ten or fifteen generations to prove my Sephardic origins. My only link with this law is to see justice served, not just to Jews but to anyone who may have a right to be somewhere they are not necessarily welcome.

Marika Sosnowski

Marika Sosnowski is a Middle East researcher and regular commentator on Melbourne radio station Triple R. She tweets at @mikisosnowski

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