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Once hounded, Sephardic Jews find Spanish embrace

Saturday - 2/15/2014, 12:00am  ET

File - In this Oct. 7, 2013 file photo, ultra-Orthodox Jews gather to watch the funeral procession of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. Rabbi Yosef was a spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jews. The Spanish conservative government, which enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament, plans to make amends in weeks to come with a law that offers citizenship to the legions of Jews forced to flee Spain in 1492. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Associated Press

MADRID (AP) -- They were burned at the stake, forced to convert or chased into exile. Now Spain is moving to right a half-millennium old "historic mistake" against its onetime flourishing Sephardic Jewish community: the European Union country is on the verge of offering citizenship to descendants of victims estimated to number in the millions.

The Spanish conservative government plans to make amends with a law expected to be passed within weeks or months in Parliament that offers citizenship to the descendants of legions of Jews forced to flee in 1492. Asked whether the new law amounted to an apology, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon replied: "Without a doubt."

"What the law will do, five centuries later, is make amends for a terrible historic mistake, one of the worst that Spaniards ever made," Ruiz-Gallardon told The Associated Press in an interview.

Descendants of Sephardic Jews, he said, will be considered "children of Spain."

The term "Sephardic" literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew, but the label has come also to apply to one of the two main variants of Jewish religious practice. The other -- and globally dominant one -- being "Ashkenazic," which applies to Jews whose lineage, in recent times, is traced to northern and eastern Europe.

Because of mixing between the groups and other factors, there is no accepted figure for the global Sephardic population, but reasonable estimates would range between a fifth and a third of the world's roughly 13 million Jews. Hundreds of thousands live in France and already have EU passports. But the largest community is in Israel, where almost half of the 6 million Jews are considered Sephardic.

It is not completely clear how much of a historical link Spain will require. Most of Israel's Sephardics hail from northern Africa and southern Europe, which were early ports of call after the expulsion from Spain, and so they may be able to easily show direct links. But other communities, from places like Iraq and Yemen, are considered Sephardic by religious practice yet may have trouble proving a connection to Spain.

Either way, interest already is running high.

Hundreds of Israelis claiming Sephardic ancestry have contacted the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv, begun researching their family histories and taken to the airwaves to discuss their newfound citizenship possibilities.

To some, the prospect of Spanish citizenship marks a significant dose of historic justice.

To others, it simply offers a European Union passport. That's a big deal in a country that is still technically at war with many of its neighbors and where prosperity is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Israel's per capita GDP of nearly $40,000 year is significantly higher than that of Spain -- which has been wracked by economic crisis in recent years -- and on a par with rich nations like France and Britain.

But the Sephardics in Israel, despite their large numbers, have yet to close the socio-economic gap with the European Jews who founded the country and control most levers of power. There has never been a Sephardic prime minister, and the Ashkenazi Jews still earn more on average and are overwhelmingly dominant in academia and other key areas.

"I want to live somewhere else, and if I can do it without too much of a fuss I will," said Maoz Mizrachi, a 25-year-old salesman whose father's family traces its roots to Spain. "It's tough for young people to get ahead here and this gives me the opportunity to try somewhere else."

The fact that Israel's economy is actually in better shape than Spain's didn't seem to concern him: "If I get it (Spanish citizenship), I'll be the happiest guy in the world," he said.

Leon Amiras, who heads an association of immigrants to Israel from Latin countries, said his phone hasn't stopped ringing since the news emerged. "People from every corner are interested, from professors to doctors, engineers to plumbers and bus drivers," he said. "Everyone is talking about this."

The reform will allow dual nationality, enabling the newly minted Spaniards to retain their previous citizenship. Such an arrangement would give Sephardic Jews the same dual nationality privilege Spain currently grants only to Latin Americans. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany offers citizenship to descendants of Jews forced to flee the Nazis. Israel itself, of course, offers automatic citizenship to Jews.

Previously, under a 1924 law, the government had discretionary powers to award Sephardic Jews nationality, but the new law is much more far-reaching: According to Ruiz-Gallardon, Spanish nationality to those who can prove ancestry will be a right the authorities must honor.

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