The Drain to Spain Stays Mainly on the Plane?

May 19, 2014 by

In recent weeks, reports appeared in the mainstream media, including the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the BBC News, as well as in the Jewish media, about a new law put forward in Spain that would allow Sephardic Jews—the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492—to obtain Spanish citizenship. The proposed legislation is generally viewed as “a gesture of conciliation for Spain’s expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition” (in the words of the New York Times), and preliminary indications suggest that some Sephardic Jews may take Spain up on its offer. Yet many questions remain. Is there more to this law than a belated attempt to right a historical wrong? Why is it being considered now? Will the Spanish parliament actually pass the law? And if so, how many people, and who exactly, will be eligible? What repercussions will this legislation have on the demographics and economy of Spain, Israel, and other countries as well? Will it set a precedent for other ethnic groups expelled from their historic homelands, such as the Circassians? This post will consider these issues in some detail, but first, a little history.

In March 1492, Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, banishing Jews from their realm as part of a ruthless policy to unite Spain under the banner of Catholicism. The edict accused the Spanish Jews of trying “to steal faithful Christians from our holy Catholic faith … and subvert them to their own wicked belief and conviction”. The Jews had to leave within three months, though those who converted to Christianity would be permitted to remain. As Lawrence B. Kiddle writes (“Response”, in Jewish Languages. Cambridge, MA: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978, p. 75):

“this harsh edict affected approximately 250,000 Jews, who lived in 120 communities, principally in the south of Spain. Of these, 50,000 chose the alternative of conversion, but they were subjected to prolonged harassment because it was believed that they secretly practiced their original faith and that their Christianity was superficial. Perhaps 25,000 Jews died of disease, starvation, and of emotional shock. The remaining 175,000 became refugees in foreign lands”…


This cruel expulsion not only devastated the once rich and cultured Jewish community in Spain, but also had a disastrous effect on the Spanish economy, as many of the Jews were wealthy textile traders, jewelers, and bankers. The Jewish community had been vital not only for the Iberian trade and finance; celebrated Sephardic Jewish figures from the pre-expulsion period include Hasdai ibn Shaprut, court physician, scholar, diplomat, and patron of science (882-942); Solomon ibn Gabirol, poet and philosopher who brought Neo-Platonic elements into Judaism (1021-1058); Yehuda Halevi, physician, poet, and philosopher (1075-1141); Mosheh ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides or Rambam), preeminent Jewish philosopher, astronomer and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages (1135-1204). [You might want to mention that that all of these people lived in Muslim states, before the Christian reconquest]. In 1492, this thriving community was scattered in many different lands. According to Kiddle (1978: 75),

“125,000 [Jews from Spain] accepted Sultan Bayazid II’s invitation to settle in the extensive Ottoman Empire. These were the Eastern, or Balkanic, Sephardim, who settled in areas that today are parts of Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and the islands of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas. Another 50,000 exiles went to North Africa or to Portugal, where they were given a temporary heaven, and from there they went to Holland. These were the Western Sephardim, who were largely Portuguese-speaking, and who continued to use their language until the nineteenth century.”

Returning to the present, the newly proposed Spanish law is viewed by most pundits as a political gesture, an attempt “to right a half-millennium old ‘historic mistake’ against its onetime flourishing Sephardic Jewish community”. It has also been suggested that “Spain made the offer to mollify Israel, after Madrid supported last year’s successful Palestinian bid for a seat at the United Nations”. Others, such as Abraham Haim, chairman of the Council of the Sephardic Community in Jerusalem, see this measure as “the latest step in a reconciliation process that began with the establishment of diplomatic ties between Spain and Israel in 1986”. Other milestones in that process include the 2011 statement by the leader of Spain’s Balearic Islands condemning the slaughter of 37 Jews from Mallorca in 1691 during the Spanish Inquisition and King Juan Carlos’ visit to a Madrid synagogue in 1992 to “recognize the injustices of the past”.

Yet, there are deeper reasons for this measure. The economic situation in Spain remains volatile: in mid-October 2013, The Economist published a somewhat optimistic article titled “Spain’s economy. The worst may be over”, but just days later The Financial Times was far more skeptical about the country’s economic recovery. Although there are signs that the job market has started to stabilize, Spain’s unemployment rate at 26% remains among the highest in the Western world. Among people under 25, unemployment is 56.1%, higher than in any European country beside Greece. Massive budget cuts and wage freezes for government workers have undermined the country’s social services. Emigration is on the rise.

Spain population pyramid INE

All of this has a negative effect on Spain’s already gloomy demographic situation, characterized by population decline and aging. The main reason behind the country’s shrinking population—which is no longer limited to rural or underdeveloped areas but manifests itself nationwide—is the low rate of natural growth. For some time now, Spain has experienced a falling birth rate and a growing death rate. The National Statistics Institute (INE) now predicts that the two curves will cross in 2017, when deaths will begin to outnumber births. According to an article in El Pais, the country “has not faced such a situation since the Spanish Civil War, or the flue epidemic of 1918-1919”. Some analysts explain the fertility decline by the worsening economic situation, the need for women to work and the fall in state aid. This explanation, however, does not withstand scrutiny: “in 1997, when not even the most pessimistic naysayers were predicting the catastrophe that was to befall the country a decade later, the average woman produced 1.1 children, which is lower than the current 1.34”. Some demographers are now predicting that the number of children born per woman will rise to 1.41 in ten years, but the downward birth rate trend is likely to continue as the number of women of child-bearing age (15-49) is declining: the current figure is 11.2 million and it is predicted to drop to 9.3 million in 2023. And while some demographers hope that the immigrant populations—which typically have higher birthrates in their homelands—will help slow down the population decline, the non‑Spanish-born women had an even sharper downturn in births—9.4 percent over 2012, compared to the 6 percent drop in the total population [I am a bit confused by these statistics]. In marked contrast to the birth rate, the death rate has increased in recent years. Another cause of Spain’s shrinking population is emigration. While migration trends are notoriously difficult to predict, the INE survey forecasts that some 2.5 million people will leave the country, an equivalent of the combined population of the cities of Barcelona and Valencia. [you might want to mention the fact that before 2008, Latin Americans were migrating to Spain in large numbers, but the trend has reversed since then, with many Spaniards moving to Latin America.  I think tat the Economist had an article on this recently}

Spain’s population is not only shrinking but also ageing, as life expectancy is on the increase. By 2022, the average life expectancy is expected to reach 87 years for women and 81.8 for men, growing by 2.5 and 1.9 years compared to the present figures. El Pais reports a forecast of “23,428 people aged over 100, more than double the current number”. Immigration too plays a role in the ageing process, as a growing number of younger people are leaving the country. These trends will translate into an increase in the number of elderly dependants, placing an even heavier burden on the country’s welfare system and the economy in general. Spain’s demographic trends are thus worrying not only in their own right, but also because they are bound to have a negative impact on the economy, potentially placing Spain in a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Thus, creating more jobs is an ever more urgent need, “given that this is the main reason immigrants come in the first place, and why people leave to look for work abroad”. In this context, inviting Sephardic Jews may be seen as possible partial remedy for Spain’s demographic and economic ills.

The proposed legislation, however, is not a done deal yet. Although approved by the Spanish government in early February 2013, it still has to be passed by the country’s Congress of Deputies. But Spain-internal politics may prevent the new law from being enacted. The legislative proposal was filed in November 2013 by the ruling center-right Popular Party, but Spain is to have general elections sometime in the next two years, and some pundits predict that the current government will fall. It is not clear that the Socialist Party would continue to support the Sephardic citizenship bill.

Even if the proposed law passes the parliamentary vote, another complication would be figuring out who would be eligible. Although one would no longer be required to live in Spain (a two-year minimum is the current requirement for naturalization) or to renounce one’s previous citizenship, it would not be easy to claim blood ties to people who died half a millennium ago. In this regard, the draft legislation does not provide clear answers. According to articles in Forward Thinking and the New York Times, the law says that one does not actually need to be Jewish to claim Spanish citizenship, yet other sources say that the law as currently formulated would not apply to the descendants of the “conversos”—the Spanish Jews who underwent forced conversions to Catholicism in order to remain in Spain. Although the promise made at the time was that the “conversos” would be treated as other Catholics, in practice they continued to be persecuted and most of them ultimately left Spain. It is estimated that there are millions of descendents of conversos worldwide. The possibility that descendants of “conversos” might not be eligible for Spanish citizenship raised angry reactions from that community. It is ironic that descendants of the Jews who were forced to convert might be required to convert back to Judaism before they can prove their link to Spain’s pre-expulsion Jewish community. In an interesting twist, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former Soviet dissident, recently said that “the state of Israel must ease the way for their [the descendants of the “conversos”] return”.

The official reaction from Israel has been mostly positive, although some senior rabbis were not pleased: Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Religious Zionist rabbinical authority has “forbidden Israelis from obtaining the passports on the grounds that the gesture may be a political ruse to ‘make up for’ the expulsion of Jews” and Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Abergil, a judge at the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, reminded everyone that there is an old rabbinical prohibition against returning to Spain.


All in all, Israeli government and rabbinical authorities do not appear concerned that a mass emigration of Sephardic Jews from Israel to Spain would ensue if the proposed legislation is voted into law. Although there is no quota in the current reading of the law, this would be a limited-time offer: only those who apply within two years the law’s enactment would be granted citizenship under the new rules. So far, the Justice Ministry of Spain reported registering 3,000 applications, and various media reports indicate that the number of those expressing interest is in the hundreds or thousands. Even this possibly inflated figure, however, is a far cry from the 3.5 million Sephardic Jews worldwide, or the 2.5 million Sephardic Jews in Israel [the Wikipedia puts the figure at 1.4 million in Israel and 2.2 in total The larger numbers you use perhaps include Jews of “Maghrebim and Middle Eastern (Mizrahim) background and have no historical connection to the Iberian Peninsula” but who use the Sephardic style of liturgy.  It might be useful to have a paragraph on such issues] . (The remaining Sephardic Jews live in France, Turkey, the United States, Latin America, and in smaller communities elsewhere.) Of those who expressed interest in obtaining Spanish citizenship, only a few said they actually wanted to move to Spain permanently. For the majority of the potential applicants who were interviewed in the press, a Spanish passport would offer a sense of “poetic justice” or an opportunity to work or study anywhere in the European Union. Ironically, Spain, with its currently relatively lavish welfare system, may prove more attractive to older Sephardic Jews rather than the younger immigrants Spain so badly needs. Several Sephardic Jews from Israel who consider applying said that Spanish citizenship would be “a back-up plan for times of trouble”. From an economic perspective, Spain does not appeal to many Israel Sephardic Jews: the per capita GDP in Israel, approximately $35,000, is about $5,000 higher than in Spain. But, as pointed out by Times of Israel,

“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.”

It is possible, however, that the Spanish offer would prove attractive to Sephardic Jews from Turkey, where the per capita GDP is about half of that in Spain, and the government’s continuing push for the application of Islamic law may make Jews feel unwelcome. Currently, the number of Sephardic Jews in Turkey is estimated between 15,000 and 25,000.


Another country that may become a source of Sephardic migrants to Spain is France, which is today boasts the world’s third largest Jewish community, numbering  about 480,000-500,000, most of whom are Sephardic. France’s Sephardic community can be traced back to exiles from Spain in the late 1400s, but most French Jews come from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco in the 1950s and 1960s. Recent reports in the Jewish press indicate a sharp rise in “aliya” (immigration to Israel) from France, driven by “a deepening sense of insecurity and a stagnant economy”. While in absolute numbers, “aliya” from France remains but a trickle, a European Union survey of Jews from nine countries released in November 2013 indicates that a large proportion of French Jews are thinking of leaving. France ranked second only to Hungary in the number of Jews contemplating emigration because of anti-Semitism, at a staggering 46 percent. France also was second in the number of Jews who feared self-identifying as such in public (29 percent). The turning point in Jewish attitudes toward France appears to have been what many refer to simply as “Toulouse”, the 2012 slaying of three children and a rabbi by an Islamist at a Jewish school in the southern French city. Anti-Semitic attacks in France are on the rise: in 2012, a total of 614 incidents were recorded, a 58 percent increase from 2011 (see the image of protesters raising a banner reading “in France, we kill Blacks, Jews, and Arabs” during a silent demonstration in Paris in March 2012). Some 40 percent of the increase happened within 10 days of the Toulouse atack. Although they already possess the coveted EU passport, many Sephardic Jews from France may decide to move to Spain rather than Israel, especially if Spain maintains its “Jew-friendly” image.

In the next post, we will consider more closely the question of who qualifies as a Sephardic Jew, and some of my own family history will be revealed.








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