Sitting in Bet Shalom, a reform synagogue on a sloping street off Barcelona’s Gracia, I speak to Jaim Cassim, the synagogue’s president. Additionally, he is the president of the committee set up to make the law, as he is also a lawyer.
When inquiring why the law was not easier to pass, Jaim admitted that:
‘In the moment that it was signed, there was a conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel. The IDF fired a missile in Lebanon and killed a Spanish soldier, and a minister [of foreign affairs], started to harden the conditions of this law.’
Laura’s theory that the law was primarily gestural diplomacy came into focus.
If the law’s stated aim of wishing to correct a historical error were true, and the Government had a genuine concern for the ancestors of the expelled Sephardim, its rubric would not be altered by diplomatic blows.
The law’s practical difficulties further support the theory that it was passed for more self-interested motives. Diplomatic relations and appearing historically progressive, have been prioritised over any sincere desire to ‘correct’ a historical error.
Hannah Zohar, a Venezuelan Lawyer, outlines the practical impediments that affect those groups most in need of citizenship in her office in Barcelona’s Poblenou area.
She argues that the law ‘should be more flexible… We are talking about a time in history from 500 years ago and there are cases in which people are not (religiously) Jewish’.
The law claims not to discriminate against those who are no longer religious, although without evidence of Sephardic traditions within recent family past, proving one’s Iberian origins is a temporal feat. Unlike Portugal’s Law of Return, Spain does not accept testimonial evidence of one’s Sephardism.
Even with all the required evidence gathered, the requirements for the Spanish culture test go further in complicating this process. As mentioned in the prologue of this series (link to prologue), the test must be passed in a Cervantes Institute center, although:
‘Not all countries have centres. I have a client from the Dominican Republic where there is no center for this exam.’
In Venezuela, there was no center until January, despite the law’s issuing two years ago.
The tight window of the law also dissuades applicants, as it is only validated for three years. As Zohar explains, ‘many people were not informed in time… You are leaving out the people who want to apply’.
Jaim Cassim sheds light on how many Jews have been able to pass the law: ‘you know the truth? Very few Jews have passed that law. At the beginning they thought many Jewish people from all around the world are going to become Spanish because of this law, in matter of fact – very very few went on to win citizenship rights’.
Building an Independent Diasporic Identity
Although the Spanish Government is not able to control the immediate association of Jews with Israel, and in many ways this is a correct assumption, it should be sensitive to the negative effects of this reductive identification. Part of this sensitivity would be not focusing on promoting this link in one of the rare institutions Jews have to represent their identity in Spain.
The history of the public conception of Jewish identity cannot be understood outside of the institutions and government’s which have reduced and misrepresented the group. Spain is working within such a tradition.
Although many Jews within Spain support Israel, it is their lack of choice about how they are perceived in relation to this nation that becomes a difficulty.
Laura expands on this problem:
‘In the street, people don’t know anything about Jewish people, while they know even less about the difference between being Jewish and being Israeli.’
Her voice is raised as she imitates these questions, her words are embedded with frustration:
‘How come you’re not from Israel? And if you are Jewish why are you not living in Israel?’
The repercussions of this are felt in Spain and Catalonia.
In May of last year, a Catalan lawmaker requested that the head of Barcelona’s Jewish community would leave the local government’s parliament because he was a “foreign agent”. The American singer Matisyahu, in 2015, was not allowed to perform in Spain until he declared his views on Israel.
In 2015, the most affirmed question that the ADL gave to Spanish society was ‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than the countries they live in’ –– a stereotype which grew within Spain during the beginning of Franco’s reign.
Isaac Levvy, the founder of LICRA, a new association set up to tackle anti-Semitism in Catalonia, told me that he wants to disentangle these immediate presumptions:
‘Number one is to show that Jewish people are separate from Israel. What’s bad is that every time something happens in Israel it means Jews here are vulnerable.’
The Left already struggle to see Jews and Israel as not interchangeable, but the Right are institutionalising this lack of distinction for economic gains.
It cannot be denied that the majority of Jews identify with Israel, although this connection is formed in a variety of matrixes. However, the majority of Spain’s Sephardim are from Morocco, and they may have more connections and ancestral memory of Arabic than Israeli culture. Likewise, many of the country’s Ashkenazi Jews came from Argentina’s dictatorship.
These historical contexts inform their identity today, as well as premising their existence within Spain –– in short, they are not conduits from Israel. They have sociocultural roots within Spanish soil, which have never been dug up and examined independently from Israel.