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Sephardic Jews hoping to fulfill 500-year Spanish dream

3.5 million Israel citizens could benefit from law change allowing Iberian descendants to return

“I already feel Spanish, and underline that it is because of my Jewish roots.” Not only does 72-year-old Avraham Haim speak perfect Spanish, but he also knows Ladino, the variety of the language spoken by Jews who lived in the Iberian peninsula in medieval times and which many Sephardic families still preserve.

From memory he traces the journey of his ancestors through the centuries, from their expulsion from Spain in 1492 to the Balkans and from there to Hebron, one of the most sacred places for Jews, situated in what is now the West Bank. It was there his great-grandfather, Reina Perera, who brought that Iberian lineage with him, arrived.

Haim, who now presides the Council of Sephardic Communities of Jerusalem, is one of the 3.5 million people who Sephardic organizations estimate may be able to benefit from the Madrid government’s decision to modify the civil code to grant Spanish nationality to descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.

Announced last Friday, the move has prompted a deluge of inquiries at Spain’s consulates in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Until now Sephardic Jews have only been able to apply for Spanish nationality through slow and tedious processes, and by renouncing other passports. Now a Justice Ministry initiative, which has yet to be voted on in parliament, will allow them to keep other nationalities alongside the Spanish one.

The draft bill lists six possible ways that people can demonstrate their Sephardic ancestry. These include possessing one of the surnames concerned and “the family language” — in reference to the use of Ladino — as well as “other indications demonstrating membership of the Sephardic Jewish community” or a “link or relationship” to a “person or family with the things mentioned in the previous section.”

Facing the flood of inquiries, Spanish consulate sources were on Monday advising Israelis to be prudent.

“This is still a draft bill that is being considered in Congress,” they said. “This is a matter that cannot be evaluated until parliament passes it in a definitive manner.”

The deluge was prompted by the publication last weekend of a list of 5,200 Sephardic surnames in the Israeli media. Anticipating the new law, the local press has asked if Spain is ready to assimilate 3.5 million Jews. Newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth headlined two reports, “The Spanish dream” and “Suddenly, we are all Spaniards,” writing in the latter that “There are already quite a lot of people in Israel waiting in line for passports.” However, the paper also felt obliged to point out that “the new law will not automatically offer citizenship to all Israelis.”

Among the names on the list were Toledano, Amado, Benaroch, Suárez, Ballestero, Salom and, of course, Haim.

“I sought nationality trying to obtain naturalization papers for 40 years,” says Haim. “This is a great recognition of our people.”