Jan Meisels Allen
In June, 2015, Spain’s law granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews passed. The law promised Spanish citizenship to descendants of those Jews expelled due to the Spanish Inquisition. This was based on a government decision in 2012, that described offering citizenship to Sephardic Jews as compensation for their ancestors’ expulsion from Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Spanish royal house and church during the Spanish Inquisition. According to Spain’s Justice Ministry, over 2,200 applications were turned down in the last quarter, while only three were turned down the year before.
Of the 150,000 total applications that have been submitted since 2015, 33,485 people have been granted citizenship to date. Only about 6,000 have been accepted in the past quarter. Applicants from Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico have been severely affected.
The shift is driven by a fear of fraud and is the product of what some experts say are retroactively implemented bureaucratic standards for applications, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
To be eligible for a Spanish passport, applicants have to put forward evidence of medieval Sephardi ancestry through heritage certificates and family trees. They also have to demonstrate special links to Spain and Spanish language skills through tests.
A change in interpretation of the law occurred last October. Previously, government notaries were the first intermediary for applicants, sending applications along to government officials or directing applicants to gather more materials. Since October, government officials have stepped in, rejecting applications previously approved by the notaries and not providing applicants a chance to submit further documentation before issuing a rejection letter.
The Spanish “Law of Return,” as it is sometimes called, has also closed its new application window entirely for the near future. It will need parliamentary approval to be reopened.
Additionally, Spain’s Ministry of Justice had previously approved many applications with Sephardic heritage certificates from organizations such as the Union Sefaradi Mundial and the Jewish Federation of New Mexico. Today, the ministry is only accepting certificates issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which ceased issuing them on July 31 so that they could get through a backlog of applications.
The ministry said there is no difference in the way the law is being interpreted, but rather, they are cracking down on suspected fraud perpetrated by some applicants.
Portugal passed a similar bill in 2015, granting citizenship to Sephardic descendants. Data from last year shows that 23,000 people have obtained a Portuguese passport through the law. The Portuguese law is more restrictive because it requires applicants to prove ties with a specifically Portuguese Sephardic community. The smaller Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto are the only organizations that can approve applications, which must show ties to one of them.
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Jan Meisels Allen
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee