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Law granting Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews meets with discreet success

Rules were changed as applicants were being held back by high fees, tests and paperwork

Marco Macías at his Spanish citizenship ceremony.
Marco Macías at his Spanish citizenship ceremony.

Not hundreds of thousands, not even tens of thousands, as political pundits had originally forecast. Only 3,843 Sephardic Jews have obtained Spanish citizenship thanks to a law introduced in 2015 to provide symbolic redress for the expulsion of Jewish people from the peninsula over 500 years ago.

A Sephardic Jew who speaks Ladino understands modern Spanish perfectly but will flunk the language test

Karen Gerson Sarhon, Sephardic Center Istanbul

A further 5,682 requests are still being processed. The deadline for applications expired in March, and extending this date further would require a legal reform that the government is not contemplating.

The bureaucratic red tape associated with the law explains why the Sephardic community has shown less enthusiasm than expected. Besides providing certificates and documents proving one’s origins, applicants had to appear before a public notary, pass a Spanish language examination, and get tested on their knowledge of Spanish politics and culture, all at a cost of around €5,000.

Law granting Spanish citizenship to Sephardic Jews meets with discreet success

Ultimately, most of the 8,365 applicants who were nationalized Spanish in the last three years did so not through the 2015 law, but through two subsequent decrees issued in 2015 and 2016 that eliminated those hurdles.

The paradox with the original law lay in the fact that even though Sephardic Jews have managed to preserve Ladino or Haketia, a 15th-century Spanish enriched with words from their host countries, this did not help them become Spanish citizens.

The government issued two decrees in 2015 and 2016 eliminating the hurdles included in the original law

“A Sephardic Jew who speaks Ladino understands modern Spanish perfectly, but will flunk the language test because the differences in the written language are very significant,” says Karen Gerson Sarhon, coordinator of the Sephardic Center in Istanbul. Two thirds of the approximately 15,000 Sephardim who live in Istanbul have instead opted to become Portuguese citizens, as that country never required a language examination, adds Gerson.

Although a majority of successful applicants came from Turkey (2,693), only 257 went through the original process, while the rest obtained citizenship through the fast-track method established by decree.

English version by Susana Urra.

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