What Do You Do With a Spanish Passport?

There’s an op-ed piece The New York Times this week about Spain’s current offer of citizenship to Sephardim, with a good analysis of the “real” motivation driving the offer. This follows an article that appeared in late January in The Forward, also well worth reading, in which a Sephardic American journalist considered his options, visited Spain, and said “no thanks” to the idea of a Spanish passport.

I wasn’t going to weigh in on this one, but I’ve changed my mind.

The Amateau (Amato) family in Rhodes, 1917

The Amateau (Amato) family in Rhodes, 1917

The law has yet to be enacted, but to read the papers in Spain, you’d think tens of thousands of Sephardim will be lining up with their with their application forms and Ladino accents to claim a glorious Spanish passport.

Of course, the vast majority of Sephardim are not exactly champing at the bit to wave the Spanish flag, even if they will be allowed dual citizenship. (Which also happens to be a passport to all Europe, folks.) Among the printable comments I’ve read are:

“Too late. They had their chance.”

“Are they for real?”

“You can’t spell ‘repatriation’ without ‘reparation’.”

“They can go to hell.”

Both articles assert that Spain’s reasons for trying to lure back “its Jews” are motivated more by economics than by any true sense of moral responsibility. Were the latter the case, Spain wouldn’t be saying “you can come back if you want to,” it would be asking, “won’t you please come back?”

It’s not enough for the Minister of Justice to say what a mistake Spain made in 1492. No one in the Spanish government has gotten the tone right on this issue, and that pisses off a lot of Spanish Jews. We’re still waiting for the apology, for a genuine show of remorse. If Germany could do it, why not Spain, right?

Spain used to exasperate me so, people couldn’t understand why I stayed. I’ve learned things, had experiences and encountered attitudes that would at the very least make you roll your eyes, if not scream with rage – which is exactly what I did for a long time. We carry ancestral experience in our DNA, and for a few years I found myself reacting not only to whatever major or minor annoyance that was happening, but to the wrongdoing of centuries.  I could literally feel every single one – every abuse, every indignity ever suffered by any Spanish Jew – to the core of my being. It wasn’t fun.

It’s exhausting to live with so much anger. No matter how righteous, how valid your reasons may be, in the end it’s self-destructive to hang onto that kind of energy all the time. It drains your health, and your spirit, and your ability to effect positive change.

Processing my own rage took a very, very long time, and couldn’t begin until I recognized it as the bereavement it was; I was living in a state of grief. I found I was in deep mourning for all of my ancestors, all Spanish Jews, all conversos, all cryptos. All of them. That’s a heavy load to carry around. Apparently it was always in me, but I had no idea until it all came spilling out. Glad that’s over. I much prefer happy and peppy.

Every dysfunctional family knows you can suppress a dirty little secret (or a really big one), but that won’t make it go away. On the contrary, it festers. If I could feel so deeply as an “outsider,”  I thought, imagine what a Spaniard carries around here at the scene of the crime, where they don’t exactly do a good job dealing with the elephant in the room. The fact is, most of them would rather the whole business just went away. But not all of them.

And that’s where the opportunity is.

I’ve been asked by an ardent, Madrid-hating, Catalan separatist why on Earth I care so deeply about my Sephardic heritage. I’ve been asked to promote “Sephardi Lite” cultural activities in places where as a Jew my own presence wouldn’t be appreciated. In a country where it’s considered profoundly rude to ask a person whether they’re Jewish, a real invasion of privacy, I’ve been introduced endlessly in social situations as “Janet – she’s Sephardi!”. (Apparently it’s okay to announce this about someone else, although I assure you it can be a real conversation stopper. And granted, I’ve had the same token Jew experience in New York.) Well-meaning friends try to hook all us Jews up together, like we’re all supposed to be best buds just because, you know, we’re Jews. An acquaintance hugged me when he learned I can hold my own cooking shellfish and bacon. Even if I did think his reaction was kind of jerky, I took the high road – but not the high and mighty. Other than through stereotypes, he’s had zero exposure to Jewish people or culture. Zero. He’s naïve. And it turned out he was looking for a chef.

So much naïveté can be tiresome, but it sure beats bigotry. A good teacher doesn’t tire of earnest questions, or shows of openness and a willingness to learn. People don’t often ask questions in Spain (it’s a cultural thing), so when someone does, that’s a rare opportunity. You’ve been given the gift of an ear that wants to hear what you’ve got to say. That’s a time to choose your words wisely and well – not to say screw you.

You can’t force a sincere apology any more than you can torture someone for an honest confession. You can’t force people to think a certain way, or to embrace you, or love you, or even to like you. You can hope they’ll understand you. That’s a good start. But they’ll never begin to understand you if you don’t get to know one another first. So how do you get to know someone in Spain? Slowly, for one thing. Unless you’re family, an invitation home is rare. And now Spain wants to hold the door open.

Politics is politics. They may or may not get around to actually doing it, and personally I have no idea whether I’ll apply for a Spanish passport, but I’m also not too concerned about their reasons, official or otherwise. They don’t matter. I can form my own. I can be the reason.



Filed under History

15 responses to “What Do You Do With a Spanish Passport?

  1. Janet this article is amazing! Not only a lot of food for thought, but so well and interestingly written! Thanks!

  2. Mark L.

    Beautifully written- of course you echo a lot of my thoughts on the subject. Sephardim shouldn’t be so dismissive of their connection to Spain- the connection is there, whether they want to acknowledge it or not- and this provides a chance, a doorway. In “Forgetting River” Doreen Carvajal described a culture of secrecy in Spain, much as you’ve stated here- where nobody is willing to talk and everybody covers up secrets, everybody has a facade when it comes to history, words are carefully chosen so as not to careen over historical cliffs. If the Spanish are genuinely willing to listen, that’s huge.

  3. Estelle hasson abisror

    I wouldn’t step foo t in Spain. Saw a program of the Spanish Inquisition where they were burning. jews on the cross for amusement!

    • Janet

      Estelle – Following the American Civil War and right up until the 1960’s, southern lynch mobs murdered thousands of Americans, the vast majority of them African Americans who were minding their own business. There is no justification. Would that fact keep you from stepping foot in the United States?

      The ancient Romans killed early Christians (and anyone else they decided to execute) by feeding them to wild animals, in great spectacles at the Coliseum. Would that prevent you from visiting Italy today?

      Yes, the autos de fe were mounted as staged events, a twisted form of “entertainment” designed to terrorize the public into towing the line. When you think of the barbarism and suffering, it’s horrific, and no, there is no justification. But that was hundreds of years ago. And on the very same soil, hundreds of years before that, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in what was in most ways a model society – also for hundreds of years.

  4. Beverly Shumansky

    Janet,I never and I mean never read anything so well worded on this subject. It surely made me stop and think, in fact It made me cry! Beautiful

  5. Mark L.

    I believe this obsessive need for secrecy about Muslim and Jewish roots in Spain is what lies at the root of such particularly Spanish obsessions as “limpieza de sangre” and the “sistema de castas”: the need to construct the false idea of a “pure Spanish Catholic race” to oppose those perceived as outsiders, when in fact the reality is far more complex. Intermarriage, conversion, name-change, flight..

    • Janet

      Well, yes, though I believe you’ve got it turned around. I’d say that limpieza de sangre and caste system laws are the root cause of the desire for secrecy. The laws lasted from the 15th to 19th centuries. They may have ended officially, but the social stigma lingers, and the issue is psychological. Apartheid is one thing. Segregation. But if you’ve been raised with such negativity toward a group of people and you know that’s who you are from, you are effectively being raised to hate yourself. So you’d rather not know who you’re from. But you do. You all do. That’s the elephant in the room. Apply that to a whole society for hundreds of years and imagine the buried feelings. That’s a lot for a nation to deal with, don’t you think? This, I believe, is what makes it so awkward, so difficult for Spain to find the right tone, to deal with this issue in ways the rest of us deem “appropriate”. A person has to feel they’re in a relatively safe environment before they come out of the closet. Well, the whole country has to come out of the closet on this one. That calls for a lot of consciousness raising first, and then a lot of group therapy. These are things can’t be initiated by politicians – they must begin in the hearts and minds of individuals. What people outside of Spain don’t know is that there are earnest efforts being made here to raise consciousness.

  6. Walter Franco

    To all interested in this issue, Spain previously conceded citizenship to anyone, anywhere that could proved to have roots in this country, this issue was ignored unless an interested party searched for it. During the Second W.War some fortunate Jews were able to scape through Spain under such laws. Even tough most people are under the geographical impression that our Sephardim were on the Balcanes and Closer to the Mediterranean area, Sephardim lived in most countries of Europe as the evidence of Spanish – Portuguese Synagogues shows. Some of the brave Spanish Diplomats included non Sephardic among those allowed passage to protect them from the nazis. The changes to the Immigration Laws accord Sephardim, and related people the right to Citizenship without need for residence and or renunciation of any other nationality as it is the case with the current laws that require applicants to reside over five years and to resign their citizenship in order to be granted Spanish Citizenship. Motivations aside the Spanish government will have to streamline the process not because the flow of True Sephardic applicants but most Latin Americans that would see the opportunity to work in the UE. Portugal set their rules that requires the Jewish Community input to accept candidates to citizenship insuring the they are Sephardic or close related to a Sephardic family. It will be interesting to see the implementation of the law by Spain. Shabbat Shalom L’Kulam Yehuda Franco

    • Janet

      Walter –

      My post is about putting aside politics and economics, which is where your thoughts seem to dwell. And in your thoughts there are misconceptions.

      During WWII, Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe escaped through the Pyrenees at the same time Francisco Franco prepared a list of several thousand known or suspected Jewish Spaniards and handed it over to Hitler. Meanwhile, the refugees hardly waltzed through the country, and Lisbon, not Spain, was their intended final destination. It was a very dangerous journey. I have family members who can attest to that.

      Anyone person born in Latin America, plus a few other countries (and all Sephardim), may already apply for Spanish citizenship after two years of continuous residency. Also those in other countries whose parents or grandparents were born in Spain. They are the last people who need to bother with this law. Your preoccupation that “most Latin Americans” as opposed to “True Sephardim” might “see the opportunity to work in the UE” is unfounded.

      The difficulty for Sephardim under the earlier law was in showing documented proof of a direct lineage to Spain, which for most would prove either too costly or simply impossible. That is why the requirement has been eased. But Spain has made it clear that they will not grant automatic citizenship to any Sephardi who seeks it. It will be granted only to those who can demonstrate they have in some significant way actively maintained their Sephardic – i.e. Spanish Jewish – cultural identity, not just a family tree. There is plenty of information available on this point.

      In a refreshing change, Spain – the country of “limpieza de sangre” – is not so interested in pedigrees. You may choose to see it as purely politics, but it can also be taken as a shift in consciousness.

  7. Joanna Bafaloukas Bulgarini

    Janet, I can say the same for Italy, can’t you? Nothing ever changes in the land of intrigues. Ahhh, Italy, the world’s most elegant “third world” nation.
    Joanna – Rome

  8. Hi Janet, I am a Spaniard of 46, currently living in Timisoara (Romania). I am not a Jew, but for personal cultural interest I am very much in touch with the Jewish community. I got to this blog because for May the 9th we are going to organize a Sephardic evening, with food, music and videos of people speaking ladino, and I was looking for cooking recipes. I saw your post and read it. What to say, sorry about the bad experiences, but I never felt in my cycle of family (catholic) and friends signs of antisemitism, and I am quite surprised of what I read. Meeting a Jew was not a conversation stopper, rather the opposite. Of course there are people who don’t like Jews, but normally they are the same that are against everyone else (non white, LGBT, muslims, ….), and I hope they are a minority. Well, maybe most of the US Sephardim won’t be interested in having a Spanish passport, and even some can say “They can go to hell”, but honestly I felt very happy when the project of law was announced and I have no economic interest in it. I hope that, once the law approved, many people from other countries will want to obtain something that is also theirs. And yes, I am not the Government, but I also have my word and can say, I am sorry, it should not have happened. Now we can not change the past, let’s look forward.

  9. I am Spanish and I have always been interested in “la convivencia”, when Jews, Muslims and Christians all lived in relative harmony in Al-Andalus. I am not proud of what my ancestors did during the inquisition, it was a gruesome time of ignorance and we lost a lot of cultural richness, not to mention countless of our brothers and sisters. For what it’s worth (probably nothing), I am personally sorry for what happened and if any sefardí comes to my city, I will welcome them with a warm embrace and an open heart.

    While this new law may seem like a kick in the teeth for most Sephardic Jews, especially those who don’t have that yearning that a lot of the older generation had for Sefarad, I do believe that it is at least a step in the right direction towards some form of reconciliation. Is it enough? Probably not, but I don’t believe anything will be enough to completely satisfy everyone.

    I can’t help thinking about a documentary called “El último sefardí” where an old Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo called Maurizio Albahari explained that he wrote a letter to the King (I think it was before this law came into fruition) asking for Spanish nationality; not to live here but to feel like he had a homeland. However, he would have needed to move to Spain to claim it but didn’t want to leave Sarajevo as he was near death. He ended the interview saying that all he wants is to have the following written on his tombstone: “here lies a Sephardic Jew of Spanish Nationality”. Alav ha-shalom if he has already passed away.

    If you are interested, I recommend that documentary. You can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4FWyYYN2_M (but it’s only in Spanish & Ladino).

    • Janet

      Your words of apology are deeply appreciated, and received as they are offered, in the spirit of healing. Rest assured that’s still so important in this conversation; you encourage other Spanish people to think rather than sweep history under the carpet.

      I know the film you mention, and while I feel for Mr. Albahari, I don’t recognize his sentimental longing for Spanish citizenship as truly representative of the Sephardim, nor even of his generation. My own parents, grandparents (who were born in the 1800’s), their very large families, and circles of friends felt no sentimental longing for Spain itself, despite their identifying strongly and proudly as Spanish people, as did I growing up. Rather, they lamented a beautiful heritage that was needlessly, tragically altered by what you so aptly describe as gruesome ignorance. What a waste. But these were able, resourceful people of great dignity, capable of building strong communities and successful, beautiful, meaningful lives for themselves wherever in the world they might live. That is what they did.

      I wouldn’t call the final version of the citizenship law a kick in the teeth. We’re not an ingenuous lot, and most Sephardim weren’t expecting perfection. But what you call a step in the right direction could have been the whole journey easily enough. The new law was supposed to be reparation, not a favor; proficiency tests, time limits, and other obstacles should not be part of the package. Portugal understood this and got it pitch perfect, stating that the country has no moral right to impose conditions on Portuguese Jews who want their ancestral citizenship returned. Were Spain to do the same thing, yes, that would be enough.

      Laws that are written can also be rescinded, extended, or changed for the better or the worse. Time will tell what the future holds, and raising people’s consciousness is the most critical step toward ensuring more steps in the right direction.

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