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Once hounded, Sephardic Jews find Spanish embrace

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For centuries Sephardic Jews have maintained some of their gastronomic customs, an extensive oral tradition of popular Spanish novels, and in some cases spoken Ladino, which is close enough to Spanish that it enables communication with Spanish speakers anywhere. Further details on eligibility will be published after lawmakers approve the legislation.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, doubted that Spain will receive a flood of applications for citizenship. But he said key questions remain on how people will prove eligibility.

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"I’m sure it could be a bureaucratic nightmare to determine who is eligible and who is not," he said during a visit this week to Madrid in which he met with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and King Juan Carlos.

Sergio Della Pergola, a Jewish demographer at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said it was very hard to give an exact number of descendants due to intermarriage and conversion over the years. But it was definitely in the millions, he said, estimating that in Israel alone about 2.5 million people were descendants of exiled Sephardim.

Shmuel Refael of Bar Ilan University thought the number of those who would qualify if the language provision was enforced is much lower, with only about 250,000-300,000 people in Israel having some potential knowledge of Ladino.

"It’s very hard to reconstruct a list of exiled Jews of Sefarad (Spain), even though we know historically where the Sephardic Jews went, to the Balkans and north Africa," he said. "It will be complex and complicated to say an exact number of exiled Sephardim in the world."

Because Israel has association agreements with the EU, Israelis can generally travel there with great ease already. But an EU passport enables residence and work in the entire 28-nation bloc, giving access to high-quality, subsidized education.

Given Israel’s existential angst, many citizens have sought foreign passports in recent years for other reasons, too, namely as a back-up plan for times of trouble. Israel is surrounded by hostile forces in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, and faces constant tensions with Iran as well.

Spain’s move is perhaps surprising because it comes during wrenching economic times in which one out of two youths are unemployed, raising questions among some about whether the country can sustain more immigration. Yet there has not been an outcry, and Spaniards seem generally behind the plan.

"In those times it was also permitted to burn and behead people," said Inaki Galipiento, a Madrid restaurant owner. "What they have now approved corrects a historic atrocity, and that’s fine."

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Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion in March 1492, banishing Jews as part of a ruthless policy to unite Spain under the banner of Catholicism. The edict accuses the Spanish Jews — one of the great Jewish centers of learning from that era — of trying "to steal faithful Christians from our holy Catholic faith ... and subvert them to their own wicked belief and conviction."

Hoenlein, the Jewish American leader, said the government’s Feb. 7 decision followed key steps by Spain in recent decades to address its painful Jewish past.

There are other important milestones. One that is frequently cited is 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. King Juan Carlos’ visit to a Madrid synagogue in 1992 to recognize "injustices of the past" is another.

Ruiz-Gallardon, the justice minister, has his own personal link to the issue. His great-grandfather Jose Rojas Moreno was the Spanish ambassador to Romania during World War II and is credited with helping to prevent deportations of Jews to concentration camps.

His actions helped evacuate 65 Jews to Spain and he also gave protection to the goods and estates of 200 other Jews, according to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which conducts Holocaust research.

"What the government is saying," Hoenlein said, "is there was something that took place and we can’t rectify history but we can make this gesture."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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