July 5, 1950 marks a historic day for the Jewish people. Eager for new immigrants, the government of the nascent Jewish State, Israel, granted the right of return to all Jews. In a historic first, Jews could now obtain citizenship by virtue solely of their historic ties, without residency or language requirements. Until recently, however, Israel stood as the lone country offering Jews the right of return.
In the past two thousand years, Jews have established communities throughout the world. Although the Jews of the Iberian Peniansula constituted one of the most entrenched and prosperous Jewish communities in Europe, their position came to a precarious end in 1492 and 1497 with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, respectively.
However, in the last two years, Spain and Portugal have made efforts to rectify their tarnished history with the Iberian Jews by introducing legislation promoting the right of return for people of such descent. The approved legislation, now in development, seeks to offer Jews who can provide evidence that their ancestors originated from the Iberian Peninsula citizenship, without the requisite residency period necessary of others seeking citizenship.
While the details have yet to be released by the government, officials have suggested that Jews with traditionally ‘Sephardic’ names (of Iberian origin) or Jews with an Iberian linguistic heritage (namely Ladino) may be eligible for citizenship. The Spanish government has entrusted to the Federation of the Jewish Communities of Spain the process of differentiating between eligible and ineligible candidates for citizenship.
According to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain: “At present, the [Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain] is pending administrative development of the policy announced in November by the Ministry of Justice and Foreign Affairs. This implementation may still take a few months […] Regarding Sephardic names, we inform you that we do not have information we can provide.”
The curious timing of the legislation, more than 500 years after the expulsion of Iberian Jewry, lends itself to speculation. As is the case with Portugal, politician José Ribeiro e Castro saw correcting a historic injustice as the impetus for the legislation. Nevertheless, factors other than rectification may also be at play, such as political and economic expediency.
At present, the Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula comprise a minor fraction of the once robust Spanish and Portuguese communities prior to expulsion that once boasted an estimated population of nearly one million Jewish residents. Today, some 10,000 and 600 Jews call Spain and Portugal home, respectively. Moreover, if the Jewish experience in Spain and Portugal is at all similar to that of their other European counterparts, then there might not be much of an appeal to return.
This attempt to appeal to Jews of Iberian origin has the potential to fall on deaf ears. On the whole, the past several decades have witnessed dwindling Jewish communities throughout Europe, largely due to the reemergence of anti-Semitism and increasing economic opportunities elsewhere. In a recent survey, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, amongst several thousand European Jews, nearly a third of respondents claim to have considered emigration due to perceived anti-Semitic persecution. At present, the emigration trend may undermine any real efforts of Jews to return to Spain and Portugal.
Moreover, the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing global recession has been particularly destructive to Spain and Portugal’s economy. Youth unemployment in Spain sits at a staggering 57.7% and overall unemployment in Portugal remains in double digits at an estimated 15.3%. Both nations have experienced sovereign debt crises followed by austerity measures intended to stabilize their respective economies. Attracting new Jewish emigrants may fit into the economic calculus of jumpstarting the economy. The arrival of immigrants may bode well for an economy increasingly unresponsive to efforts to restore it to its previous luster.
The cynics among us can certainly point to a series of questions and criticisms in regards to Portugal and Spain’s decisions. After all the gesture is over half a millennium too late and at a particularly expedient time. Nevertheless, the gesture should be judged primarily on its outcome. As naïve as it may seem, this gesture may in affect represent a genuine effort to mend one of the greatest injustices in Jewish history. In a society where victors have the power to write history, devastating atrocities and acts of cruelty often dissipate without mention. Any effort that acknowledges the crimes of the past, let alone attempts to rectify them, represents a positive step forward.