Spain’s atonement: How the country plans to make amends for killing Jews during the Inquisition

Of interest:

Juan Hernandez-Villafuerte’s parents identified as Christian, so he didn’t understand why, by family tradition, they abstained from pork, washed their hands thoroughly before and after meals and covered the mirrors in the home after someone died.

“You had to do it, but you never knew why,” he says at age 41. “I wasn’t aware of my Sephardic heritage at (any) point, even though I knew there was something different about us.”

Before immigrating to Canada in 2012, he grew up in northeastern Mexico. His mother suspected they might have Jewish roots, so this fall, he left his home in Montreal and spent most of his vacation in the municipal archives of Mexico City. He found police and church records, as well as a yellowish paper — a property record from the year 1610 — bearing the name of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

“I was actually able to touch it,” he says. “I always wanted to know who I was.”

He was prompted to begin his research after the Spanish Parliament unanimously passed a law in 2015 to grant citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews, meaning Jews with Iberian roots. The deadline for applications passed at the end of September, at which point the Ministry of Justice said it had received more than 130,000 applications, of which approximately 6,000 had been approved.

Spain’s initiative is part of a trend across Europe to repatriate Jewish families who faced persecution. Beginning in the 1300s, Sephardic Jews were forcibly converted to Catholicism, and during the Spanish Inquisition beginning the 1400s, the converts were investigated under suspicion that they may be continuing to practice judaism. Some historians estimate 2,000 converts were burned alive, while others faced different punishments, and after the Inquisition was established, an estimated 100,000 remaining Jews were expelled. Portugal also enacted a similar citizenship law in 2015, and countries including Germany, Austria and Poland have been granting citizenship to the descendants of Jews persecuted in the lead up to the Holocaust and during the Holocaust.

Spain’s initiative has led people to discover their family identities, but many of them have spent $6,000 on the application process, and the program is politically and economically charged. While some people commend Spain’s gesture as a way to rectify historical violence — or at least a way to secure a passport to the European Union — critics point out the expense of the application and question the country’s motives.

“They took everything from us — our identity, our possessions, any property that we had,” says Maria Apodaca, a Sephardic Jew who lives in Albuquerque, NM. “I don’t have $6,000 a pop to do this, and I don’t see how it would benefit me,” she says. “I was planted in the United States, and in the United States I’ll stay.”

Applicants do not need to be practicing Jews, but they do need to prove Sephardic heritage with evidence such as census documents and records of birth, baptism, marriage and death. Applicants must have these records translated by a translator recognized by the Spanish government, and they must travel to Spain to sign with a Spanish notary.

“It’s almost like a huge, many, many months-long scavenger hunt,” says Daniel Romano, a lawyer in Montreal who applied for citizenship with his wife. In his legal profession, he recently worked on an immigration case of a Venezuelan refugee, and he says her refugee claim was “100 times more simple” than his Spanish citizenship application.

Romano has always identified as a Sephardic Jew, and he had a sense of duty to accept the Spanish government’s offer of reconciliation. “It’s odd, but I felt the need to reciprocate. They cannot make amends through our mutual ancestors … if the descendants do not take up the offer,” he says.

Some applicants have sought rabbis to vouch for their heritage. Shlomo Gabay, the rabbi at Beth Hamidrash, a Sephardic synagogue in Vancouver, says he received eight or more requests per month to write letters for Spanish citizenship applications. The requests came mainly from South Americans, Mexicans and the occasional Canadian, with some people showing him original scripts from the time of the Inquisition.

“People really, really took this seriously,” says Gabay.

Though not subject to the Inquisition, Jews who refused to convert or leave Spain were called heretics and could be burned to death on a stake. Henry Duff Linton (1815-1899)/Creative Commons

In Britain, some Jews have seen repatriation programs as a ticket to work, study and travel in the European Union after Brexit. Ben Shapiro, a 26-year-old man who works at an interfaith charity in London, considered applying for Spanish citizenship but instead applied for German citizenship because the process was easier given that his relative was already applying, and it achieves the same access to the E.U.

“There’s definitely a lot of Jewish people that feel like their Spanish or Sephardic expression of Judaism is important to them, so being validated by Spain is something that’s pleasing,” says Shapiro, “but I think also Brexit is just having a big (impact on) young, liberal European-liking people who don’t want to give that up if they don’t have to.”

Spain could be taking this measure as an effort to boost its population and economy. The country’s fertility rate is far below replacement level at 1.3 children per woman, and its population is predicted to decline by 9.4 million between 2000 and 2050, according to the United Nations Population Division in 2000. The country has introduced pro-natal policies to encourage Spaniards to have more children and has accepted increasing numbers of refugees. Since applicants for the Jewish repatriation program must pass a language and citizenship test — and in many cases must hire a lawyer and genealogist to help with their claim — the initiative could attract migrants of affluence, as could repatriation programs elsewhere in Europe.

“There’s a sense certainly toward the Jews of some sort of historical debt, some sort of reckoning,” says Howard Adelman, an associate professor of history at Queen’s University, specializing in Jewish history, “but if I can be more cynical, I think there’s also an element of an attempt to bring people with assets and affluence to the countries and also to offset some of the refugees that are arriving at these countries.”

An original land grant from 1610 given to Marcos Alonso de la Garza in northeastern Mexico. His descendant, Juan Hernandez-Villafuerte, searched for the document to prove his Sephardic Jewish heritage. Juan Hernandez-Villafuerte

He notes that Muslims also endured forcible conversion in Spain, and in the 1600s, he says, hundreds of thousands of converts, known as Moriscos, were expelled. Yet, “no country has it on the table to talk about repatriating Muslims.”

Adelman says some Jews are disillusioned by antisemitism during the Trump administration, while some Jews are leaving Israel due to its unstable democracy.

“Many of them are having an awakening that they have to have another place to go, and I think that Israel used to be that escape hatch, but now Israel is in as much chaos as the United States,” he says.

Applications for Spanish citizenship surged at the time of Donald Trump’s election, says Schelly Talalay Dardashti, who works with the Spanish Citizenship Committee of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, which received 50 to 75 calls per day before the deadline from people inquiring about Spanish citizenship. Some applicants have showed up at her office and cried, she says, having observed family customs all their lives but never having understood that the customs were Jewish.

“That is a bombshell that goes off in someone’s head. That is a real identity crisis,” she says. “Citizenship is like getting this badge: yes, we are who we are.”

When Dardashti meets with people, she asks them to write down family customs related to death, food and even cleaning the home, but many applicants get DNA testing and hire genealogists to help their claim.

Dennis Maez, a genealogist in New Mexico, was so overwhelmed with requests from Sephardic applicants that he had to put on hold his day job, running businesses that sell cars and cattle. He researched family trees for approximately 250 applicants, tracing some families back as far as the year 910.

As the deadline approached, he was “absolutely burnt out,” he says. “I would just work tremendous hours putting the (genealogies) together. I just finally had to quit.”

In Montreal, Hernandez-Villafuerte did his genealogy research himself. Even if his application is approved, he never intends to live in Spain.

“I think this is something I had to do for my ancestors,” he says. “They went through a lot of pain. They were expelled from their land … To me, it’s not about, What I can do with that citizenship? It’s more about restoring something that I love, or we loved, hundreds of years ago.”

Source: Spain’s atonement: How the country plans to make amends for killing Jews during the Inquisition

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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