Spain Moves to Correct 500-Year-Old 'Error'

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Andres Rosenberg Benadretti

(CNN) -- Being gay in Chile, Andres Rosenberg Benadretti once thought he could never get married. But his family's past may help him tie the knot some day.

Spain, where same-sex marriage is legal, has been considering a law that would make it easier for Jews of Spanish descent like Rosenberg Benadretti to get dual citizenship.

"This is something that can actually happen for me – it would be a dream come true just to have the option," said the 27-year-old. "Every human being should have the option to get married."

That isn’t the only reason Rosenberg Benadretti wants a Spanish passport, though. Mainly, he wants acknowledgement of his Spanish heritage, which goes back more than five centuries.

“My ancestors would be proud of me, and if one day I get to have children of my own, I’d love to pass on this beautiful cultural baggage,” he said in an e-mail.

Centuries after Spain formally and sometimes violently prevented Jews from practicing their religion, forcing them to convert or leave the country, the proposed law would open the country's doors to the dispersed descendants of Sephardic Jews.

On June 6, the country came one step closer to correcting what one Spanish official called a 500-year-old "error."

"Simply remembering it wasn't enough," Spain's Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón said in an e-mail to CNN, who called the country's expulsion of Jews a "historical error."

Spain wants to “recover the identities of those who retain a strong cultural affiliation” with the countr, the justice minister added.

“How many petitions will arrive from this moment is a question we can’t answer,” he said. “But anyone who is Sephardic Jewish has the right to be Spanish.”

Spain's cabinet has approved the citizenship bill, but it still needs to pass in the parliament to become law. The government press office says there is no official estimate on how many people would be eligible for dual citizenship.

According to Spain's Justice ministry, the requirements for dual-citizenship suggest that the opportunity will be offered regardless of the applicants' religion or beliefs.

The bill suggests a variety of ways that Sephardic Jews could prove their eligibility, including certification from their local rabbis or the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, or just having heritage tied to the names of Jews who lived in Spain centuries ago.

Applicants must also pass a test on Spanish language and culture, according to the Justice Ministry.

Despite the expulsion in 1492, Spain’s well-preserved medieval neighborhoods retain traces of juderías, the medieval Jewish quarters.

The winding, narrow streets of such historic cities as Girona, Cordoba and Barcelona hark back to a time known as the "Convivencia," when Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted in the country in relative peace -- although there were some pre-Inquisition attacks.

In 1492, everything changed. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the country's entire Jewish population to convert to Christianity or leave the country.

The expelled Jews spread out across Europe, North Africa, Arabia and the Western hemisphere. Today, their descendants, called Sephardim ("Sefarad means "Spain" in Hebrew) are everywhere.

Some of the Jews who stayed in Spain continued practicing their faith in secret, and to this day there are some Spaniards who were born Christian but believe their ancestors preserved Jewish traditions.

Words such as "crypto-Jews," "judios-conversos," "marranos," "xuetas" and "anusim" are used to characterize a complex legacy of forced conversion and secret religious practice among Spanish Jews.

Now, the Spanish government is hoping to right its historical wrongs.

"They say that they want to make good for what they did bad in the history now," said Israeli lawyer Maya Weiss-Tamir, an expert in citizenship applications.

But she also thinks that Spain may be motivated by its flagging economy. "Maybe new money will help them," she said.

Whatever the motivation, Weiss-Tamir has gotten more than 1,000 emails and phone calls since February from people who want to know more about how to gain Spanish citizenship.

"This is very popular in Israel to have a second citizenship," she said. "Our grandparents were born in other countries and had a life over there."

Lynne Winters, director of the American Sephardi Association in New York, said she has been getting dozens of inquiries.

"Does it change the fact that Jews had to leave Spain in 1492 or die or all the other horrible things that happened? It doesn't change that," said Winters, who has met Spanish lawmakers behind the proposed law.

“I think there is on some people's part a sincere desire to make amends."

Currently it is possible for Sephardic Jews to seek citizenship, but the process is complicated, and may involve a two-year residence in Spain or renouncing one's current nationality.

Under the citizenship criteria currently in force, Spain has seen about 3,000 applications from Sephardic Jews, Ruiz-Gallardón said.

The new law would not require anyone to stay in Spain for two years or give up their current passports, making this attractive to people who are not looking to move.

Leon Amiras, a lawyer in Jerusalem, has ancestors who sojourned from medieval Spain to Salonika, Greece (also known as Thessaloniki) and Turkey, and then to Argentina, where his parents live and speak Ladino.

Proving his heritage won't be hard, Amiras says. He has a document with a black and white photograph of his grandmother and her mother, with the signature of the Spanish consulate in Istanbul, stating that they were part of Turkey's Jewish community.

"For others it will not be easy," Amiras said. "They just remember many things and many traditions."

Amiras wants to apply for Spanish dual citizenship so that his children, age 14 and 17, have that affiliation as well."They are also part of the chain of the Sephardic people," he said. "My heart is not just in Israel but also in Spain."

Rosenberg Benadretti also spoke of a divided heart – for him, it’s between Chile and Spain.

His connection isn’t just ancestral: He completed a master's degree in Barcelona, where family members live.

A Spanish passport could allow him to apply for scholarships to Ph.D. programs in Spain, where he hopes to get an advanced degree in communication or education.

As part of his case for citizenship, Rosenberg Benadretti will note that he had a Bar Mitzvah in a Sephardic synagogue, and his grandparents are buried in a Sephardic cemetery in Santiago.

Recently, he stopped by a Spanish consulate in Chile, looking for more information on the proposed law, but nothing official was available, he said.

The Chilean is hopeful he’ll get to embrace a Spanish identity, and the practical advantages that come with it, including access to jobs in the European Union.

But if Spain's parliament approves the law, Rosenberg Benadretti said those kinds of perks will fall lower on his list of priorities. Ranking higher in his heart are the fulfillment of romantic love, and love for Spain.


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