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  • Daniel Santacruz

Sephardi Jews are no longer Spaniards without a land

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

“The Spain of today wants to take a firm step toward the definite reconciliation with the Sephardic communities.”

By Daniel Santacruz

Official program of the event at Madrid’s Bet Yaakov synagogue.

The invitation was intriguing: On March 31, 1992, the king of Spain, Juan Carlos, would abrogate the edict of Expulsion of the Jews from that country, issued on March 31, 1492.

The announcement would be made, said the invitation, by Mauricio Hatchwell Toledano, president of the International Jewish Committee for Sepharad ’92, at a press conference to be held in the offices of a Jewish organization in New York City.

I was excited because I would be one of the privileged ones to witness a major historical event. I attended as a reporter for the New York Jewish Week.

It was May 1990 and plans to commemorate one of the most traumatic episodes in Jewish history, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, had already begun.

Toledano told the audience that at a prior meeting with the king in Madrid, he had promised to abrogate the decree exactly 500 years after the expulsion. Author Elie Weisel and Sepharad ’92 vice-president Andre Sassoon also attended. According to Toledano, the king said, “If I am alive, I will join you.”

Asked to elaborate on the king’s decision to abrogate the edict, Toledano said that although it had never been officially annulled, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had abrogated it de facto.

Based in New York, Sepharad ’92, founded by Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president, organized a host of activities to commemorate the quincentennial with symposia, museum exhibits, publications and tours.

Between 1990 and 1992, Sephardim, Jews of Spanish origin, were the toast of the town. Besides Sepharad ’92, other organizations were created just to commemorate the history of Sephardic Jews in the United States, Spain, Israel, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal and Latin America. Sephardim were featured in countless articles in publications, and were the topic of talks and movies held and shown in synagogues and Jewish community centers.

In 1990, the most memorable event of the year for Sephardim was the awarding of the annual Prince of Asturias Award to Rabbi Solomon Gaon, chief rabbi of the World Sephardi Federation and director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University in New York City. Representing the world’s Sephardic Jews, he delivered the acceptance speech in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, in front of prince Don Felipe in the city of Oviedo, in northern Spain.

The commemorations of the quincentennial were capped by a ceremony at Madrid’s Bet Yaakov synagogue on March 31, 1992.

The main event

That day at exactly 6 p.m., king Juan Carlos and his wife, queen Sophia, arrived for the two-hour event, which brought rabbis, diplomats and reporters from Turkey, Israel, France, Morocco, Great Britain and the US. I covered the ceremony for several American publications, one of six US reporters invited by the Spanish government.

Wearing tallitot, rabbis said Hebrew prayers and a choir sang traditional Jewish songs from the women’s balcony. Rabbi Gaon addressed the king in Ladino. The king and ministers of the Spanish government wore white kippot. Queen Sophia covered her head with a black mantilla (lace veil).

Text of President Chaim Herzog’s speech in Spanish.

In his speech, Israeli president Chaim Herzog, on his first official visit to Spain, praised the contributions of Spanish Jews to Jewish civilization, which live on in Ladino, romanceros, poetry and folklore, he said.

“We remember not only the Spain of the Inquisition, but the Spain where for hundreds of years a magnificent Jewish culture flourished,” he added. “We cannot change the past, but we can learn its lessons and thus assure a better future for us and humanity.”

Addressing the attendees, king Juan Carlos said that “it may seem odd to choose the anniversary of a separation for a meeting of such profound significance, but the history of all people and without doubt, that of Spain is full of lights and shadows.”

The king never apologized for the expulsion, as some Jewish organizations hoped he would do at the ceremony. The expected annulment of the Edict of Expulsion, anticipated with fanfare since 1990, didn’t happen either. Was the hoopla about it more of a public relations ploy?

What the Constitution changed

Thirty years later, as I was analyzing the Spanish Constitutions and government documents that have dealt with religion for this article, I found that the king had no reason to annul the edict. The Constitution of 1869 allowed freedom of worship for the first time and on December 14, 1968, a century later, the government represented by the Ministry of Justice, responsible for non-Catholic religions, officially repealed the edict.

History also took a beating by some of the media that covered the commemorations. Headlines like “500 years after the expulsion, Spain reaches out to Jews” (The New York Times, April 1) and “500 years later, Spain embraces Jews” (International Herald Tribune, April 1) made it appear that Jews had arrived and settled in Spain just the day before. Also on March 31, the prestigious Madrid daily El País seemed to have discovered that there were descendants of the expellees of 1492 in Israel in an article with a headline that would raise eyebrows: “Los últimos sefardíes” (The last Sephardim).

Jews began returning to Spain, mostly from North Africa, at the end of the nineteenth century. Although few in number, they mostly settled in Seville, Madrid and Barcelona. On December 16, 1968, two days after the Edict of Expulsion was repealed, the Bet Yaakov synagogue was inaugurated, the first officially sanctioned since 1350.

That synagogue was preceded by one in 1917 that met in an apartment in downtown Madrid. It closed its doors in 1938.

Catholic residents in Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona, Girona and Besalu we talked to expressed pride in the country’s Jewish past. A teenager we met on a street in Toledo approached us and asked us how she could find out if she had Jewish roots. “I have seen several programs on television that encourage people to look and see if you have Jewish ancestors,” she explained.

It seems that Spain made amends by revoking the Edict of Expulsion, thus deciding to live in peace with its past. In 2015, it went a step further by passing a law inviting Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship. Thousands of applicants, mostly from Latin American countries, have responded.

According to the preamble of the law, “the Spain of today wants to take a firm step toward the definite reconciliation with the Sephardic communities.”

Published originally in The Jerusalem Post on March 31, 2022.

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