SPAIN. Spain wants to make amends, and Jews are noticing. The Spanish government has offered citizenship to Jews descended from the 1492 expellees, and thousands have applied. The policy’s motivation was probably part humanitarian (atone for the expulsion), part political (appease Israel after voting for Palestine’s upgraded U.N. status) and part economic (entice wealthy Jews to live in Spain). Though administrative glitches delay the process, the move is clearly meant to open a more promising chapter in the history of Spanish-Jewish relations.
That history is messy. Under the Romans, Jews were ostracized. Under the anti-Christian Visigoths, they recovered somewhat. Under the Christian Visigoths, they were ostracized, baptized, enslaved, expelled, beheaded, burned and stoned. Under the Muslims, they fared better. They flourished in commerce and the arts, becoming businessmen, physicians, religious scholars and intellectual enablers of the Renaissance. They became so successful that some Islamic officials decided to persecute them. When the Christians battled the Muslims for control of the Iberian Peninsula, Jews were in an impossible position. They fought in the army of Christian King Alfonso VI, so the Muslim rulers oppressed them. They gained more rights under Alfonso VII and Alfonso VIII, so the clergy oppressed them. They prospered as tax collectors, so the Christians over-taxed them.
Their lot steadily worsened as the Christian reconquest moved south. Their books were burned, their families separated, and their ghettos attacked. A friar incited massacres of Jews in the 1390s, leading a movement that killed 100,000 Jews and forced a similar number to convert. Anti-Semitism spread during the 15th-century, as the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand (the grandson of a Jew) instituted the Inquisition. In 1490, the King and Queen promised to protect the Jews who would help them defeat the Muslim empire. Two years later, after completing the reconquest, they changed their minds.
The 1492 Edict of Expulsion ended public Jewish life in Spain, and it took a long time for Jews to come back, not as crypto-Jews or conversos, but as conspicuous Jews. After the government abolished the Inquisition (1836) and permitted religions other than Catholicism (1868), Spain became a sort of safe haven for the global Jewish community. Jews fled there during the Spanish Moroccan War, World War I, the Great Depression, the Holocaust (en route to other countries), and the Argentinian Dirty War. Several synagogues opened, and Jews became slightly less nervous about publicly professing their faith.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government tried to improve religious tolerance. It officially repealed the Edict of Expulsion in 1968, and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1986. It hosted the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference for Israel and the Arabs, and in 1995 created the Route of the Sephardim that brings travelers to Jewish historical sites. The taxpayer-funded Israel-Spain House promotes Judaism throughout the country, and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain represents Jewish interests to the government. In 1492, Spain expelled Jews who did not convert. Now, it wants Jews to become Spanish citizens.
The results are mixed. The presence of Jews in Spain is growing, amounting to some 15,000 in a country of 50 million. Their diversity is increasing, with members of the three main denominations creating religious communities. Jewish day schools exist in several large cities, and towns that haven’t seen Jews since the 15th-century are welcoming them back. Still, anti-Semitism remains widespread; dozens of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi groups with nearly 10,000 members operate in Spain, and Nazi war criminals seek refuge there. The recession threatens Spanish Judaism’s long-term viability, as many youth relocate to countries with better job prospects. The country is mostly Catholic, and the culinary trends that permits—like the ubiquitous presence of ham—make it difficult to keep kosher. For most Jews, Spain is a travel destination, not a home.
Amending the citizenship law won’t change that. There are too many barriers to Spain becoming the next global center for Judaism, as America and Israel were in the 20th-century. The best we can hope for is that Spain will slowly and persistently become a more religiously tolerant country, a safe place for Jews to live and explore their heritage. Only then will Jews come to Spain en masse, and stay there.