Spanish Citizenship for Sephardim: Recent Reflections

imageedit_2_6350066144Earlier today, I received a private message from a good friend of mine regarding my posting of Ezra Bessaroth’s role in facilitating the first step in helping those descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain obtain Spanish citizenship under the new law.

First, I want to praise my friend on his choice to message me privately and not engage in a back-and-forth debate on Facebook over this issue; he felt that this would unnecessarily expose me to public criticism. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Rabbi. I didn’t want to write this on your wall because I didn’t want to even imply a public criticism of you, but I have to say I’m surprised given what I know about your attitude toward Eretz Yisrael to see you encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain. Do you need see nothing problematic about that? Isn’t Spain the wrong country for Jews who want to add a second citizenship? Has Ezzy Bezzy made a similar promotional push (maybe you have) for its members becoming citizens of Israel (i.e. aliyah)?”

The point is well-taken.

Some background: When my good friends, Joe and Doreen Alhadeff, approached me with news of their involvement in promoting the new law – and having Ezra Bessaroth approved to attest to a person’s Sephardic ancestry – I asked myself whether I wanted at all to be party to encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain.

Over and above the issue of promoting this path (instead of encouraging Aliyah to Israel) there’s the question of whether we should align ourselves with a campaign that tries to redress the wrongs of the past – specifically, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and all that this tragedy entailed. In June of 2014, Rabbi Marc Angel, himself a native of Seattle and a student of Sephardic history posted a critical piece on his blog. In part, it read,

How can giving a few passports to descendants of Spanish Jews undo the untold sufferings of Sephardic ancestors? How can even giving every living Sephardic Jew today a Spanish passport serve as atonement for the humiliations, persecutions and expulsion of our ancestors? Yet, how can we shut the door to genuine contrition and reconciliation? How can we allow past injustices to fester eternally, without finding ways to overcome those horrors?….It is fine for Spain to offer Spanish passports to Sephardim; but this does not in any way address the root problem or atone for the injustices committed against Spanish Jews of the middle ages. Spain needs to be at the forefront of civilization’s struggle against anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism. Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism where ever it manifests itself. Spain must become a moral voice for strengthening the lives of contemporary Sephardic Jews, most of whom live in the State of Israel or strongly identify with the Jewish State.

Why promote Spain at all without full teshuva?
Shouldn’t we first prioritize assisting Jews to become citizens of Israel?

My personal response to both questions: I, too, am troubled by the failure of nations – many of them European – to learn the lessons of the past. I too, feel that Spain should show its concern for Sephardim by supporting the State of Israel. For whatever it’s worth, though, I do feel that the public declaration of responsibility for the expulsion from Spain is of significance. Though it falls short of what we would like to see – in my view, it does have some incremental value. It may at least qualify as “Hirhurei Teshuva”….if not complete teshuva!

To my friend’s point: Last time I checked, there is strong basis for saying that we fulfill a Torah mitzvah by living in Eretz Yisrael…and not in Spain. As someone whose offspring and offspring’s offspring presently live in the Land of Israel, and who himself hopes one day to return even if the Mashiach has not yet arrived by that time….I personally spare no efforts in making it a priority to financially support pro-Israel causes as well as assist those who have been victims of Arab terror. I am also a proud trustee of the Samis Foundation, whose meaningful philanthropy works to address some of the core social issues in Israeli society. Our congregation stands at the forefront of the Seattle community in its Israel programming, even in the face of expressed disdain by so-called “progressive” elements in our community who would prefer to see us make room for organizations which overtly and covertly undermine the IDF and the Jewish state……

Our involvement in helping establish Sephardic identity for those interested in pursuing Spanish citizenship should not be seen in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of what I’ve written above. The messages delivered in our local Orthodox Jewish day schools, in synagogue shiurim, from the pulpit, in yearly programming – including scholars-in-residence throughout our community – are unequivocal. Anyone wishing to make Aliyah knows exactly where to go and would not only be fully supported – but publicly applauded for making the commitment! (One of my mechutanim is even a Nefesh B’Nefesh counsellor….I have her phone number and email!)

But alas, we live in a very complex age. With all the good work of our Jewish schools, only 5% of Seattle’s Jewish children are enrolled in day-school Jewish education. Intermarriage rates across the country are soaring, and the Sephardim of Seattle and elsewhere are not immune.

I reflect on my own decision, 35 years ago, to become more Jewishly connected. It started with a bowl of chicken soup at the Shabbat table of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pritzker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It continued with Herman Wouk’s “This is My G-d” and Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions.” It could have stopped there, with the soup and the interesting reading…..

For the Sephardim of Seattle and around the world, Sephardic culture plays a huge role in the formation and maintenance of identity. Do I believe that bourekas and bulemas are the essence of Sephardic Jewish identity? Of course not! But do these foods play some role in maintaining even a tenuous link to tradition …. that could eventually blossom into a deeper connection?

Absolutely!

Faced with the reality of the Spanish citizenship option for Sephardim, I think that the question for a community rabbi becomes: Is facilitating the Spanish citizenship process a potential portal of entry for less affiliated Jews to open their eyes to the past, to look at themselves anew as a link in the chain of Jewish history? Perhaps the applicants had not grappled with the devotion of those ancestors who resisted the Inquisitor’s threat of death and the commitment to living a Jewish life implicit in this sacrifice. How many unaffiliated Jews have truly meditated upon the evidence of a Divine hand guiding Jewish history both before and after the expulsion?

And so, I feel that the necessary research involved in uncovering the details of one’s Sephardic Jewish roots may well be an eye-opening experience that paves the way for some more profound introspection.

I’m comfortable being a partner in this process.

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