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The Drain to Spain Stays Mainly on the Plane?

Submitted by on February 18, 2014 – 7:55 pm 28 Comments |  
In recent weeks, reports appeared in the mainstream media, including the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the BBC News, as well as in the Jewish media, about a new law put forward in Spain that would allow Sephardic Jews—the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492—to obtain Spanish citizenship. The proposed legislation is generally viewed as “a gesture of conciliation for Spain’s expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition” (in the words of the New York Times), and preliminary indications suggest that some Sephardic Jews may take Spain up on its offer. Yet many questions remain. Is there more to this law than a belated attempt to right a historical wrong? Why is it being considered now? Will the Spanish parliament actually pass the law? And if so, how many people, and who exactly, will be eligible? What repercussions will this legislation have on the demographics and economy of Spain, Israel, and other countries as well? Will it set a precedent for other ethnic groups expelled from their historic homelands, such as the Circassians? This post will consider these issues in some detail, but first, a little history.

In March 1492, Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, banishing Jews from their realm as part of a ruthless policy to unite Spain under the banner of Catholicism. The edict accused the Spanish Jews of trying “to steal faithful Christians from our holy Catholic faith … and subvert them to their own wicked belief and conviction”. The Jews had to leave within three months, though those who converted to Christianity would be permitted to remain. As Lawrence B. Kiddle writes (“Response”, in Jewish Languages. Cambridge, MA: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978, p. 75):

“this harsh edict affected approximately 250,000 Jews, who lived in 120 communities, principally in the south of Spain. Of these, 50,000 chose the alternative of conversion, but they were subjected to prolonged harassment because it was believed that they secretly practiced their original faith and that their Christianity was superficial. Perhaps 25,000 Jews died of disease, starvation, and of emotional shock. The remaining 175,000 became refugees in foreign lands”…


This cruel expulsion not only devastated the once rich and cultured Jewish community in Spain, but also had a disastrous effect on the Spanish economy, as many of the Jews were wealthy textile traders, jewelers, and bankers. The Jewish community had been vital not only for the Iberian trade and finance; celebrated Sephardic Jewish figures from the pre-expulsion period include Hasdai ibn Shaprut, court physician, scholar, diplomat, and patron of science (882-942); Solomon ibn Gabirol, poet and philosopher who brought Neo-Platonic elements into Judaism (1021-1058); Yehuda Halevi, physician, poet, and philosopher (1075-1141); Mosheh ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides or Rambam), preeminent Jewish philosopher, astronomer and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages (1135-1204). In 1492, this thriving community was scattered in many different lands. According to Kiddle (1978: 75),

“125,000 [Jews from Spain] accepted Sultan Bayazid II’s invitation to settle in the extensive Ottoman Empire. These were the Eastern, or Balkanic, Sephardim, who settled in areas that today are parts of Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and the islands of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas. Another 50,000 exiles went to North Africa or to Portugal, where they were given a temporary heaven, and from there they went to Holland. These were the Western Sephardim, who were largely Portuguese-speaking, and who continued to use their language until the nineteenth century.”

Returning to the present, the newly proposed Spanish law is viewed by most pundits as a political gesture, an attempt “to right a half-millennium old ‘historic mistake’ against its onetime flourishing Sephardic Jewish community”. It has also been suggested that “Spain made the offer to mollify Israel, after Madrid supported last year’s successful Palestinian bid for a seat at the United Nations”. Others, such as Abraham Haim, chairman of the Council of the Sephardic Community in Jerusalem, see this measure as “the latest step in a reconciliation process that began with the establishment of diplomatic ties between Spain and Israel in 1986”. Other milestones in that process include the 2011 statement by the leader of Spain’s Balearic Islands condemning the slaughter of 37 Jews from Mallorca in 1691 during the Spanish Inquisition and King Juan Carlos’ visit to a Madrid synagogue in 1992 to “recognize the injustices of the past”.

Yet, there are deeper reasons for this measure. The economic situation in Spain remains volatile: in mid-October 2013, The Economist published a somewhat optimistic article titled “Spain’s economy. The worst may be over”, but just days later The Financial Times was far more skeptical about the country’s economic recovery. Although there are signs that the job market has started to stabilize, Spain’s unemployment rate at 26% remains among the highest in the Western world. Among people under 25, unemployment is 56.1%, higher than in any European country beside Greece. Massive budget cuts and wage freezes for government workers have undermined the country’s social services. Emigration is on the rise. The economic situation is indeed so desperate that the government is now considering ending the siesta tradition, switching to “something closer to a 9-to-5 timetable”, and even “turning back the clocks an hour, which would move Spain out of the time zone that includes France, Germany and Italy. Instead, Spain would join its natural geographical slot with Portugal and Britain”, as discussed in the New York Times.

Spain population pyramid INE

All of this has a negative effect on Spain’s already gloomy demographic situation, characterized by population decline and aging. The main reason behind the country’s shrinking population—which is no longer limited to rural or underdeveloped areas but manifests itself nationwide—is the low rate of natural growth. For some time now, Spain has experienced a falling birth rate and a growing death rate. The National Statistics Institute (INE) now predicts that the two curves will cross in 2017, when deaths will begin to outnumber births. According to an article in El Pais, the country “has not faced such a situation since the Spanish Civil War, or the flue epidemic of 1918-1919”. Some analysts explain the fertility decline by the worsening economic situation, the need for women to work and the fall in state aid. This explanation, however, does not withstand scrutiny: “in 1997, when not even the most pessimistic naysayers were predicting the catastrophe that was to befall the country a decade later, the average woman produced 1.1 children, which is lower than the current 1.34”. Some demographers are now predicting that the number of children born per woman will rise to 1.41 in ten years, but the downward birth rate trend is likely to continue as the number of women of child-bearing age (15-49) is declining: the current figure is 11.2 million and it is predicted to drop to 9.3 million in 2023. And while some demographers hope that the immigrant populations—which typically have higher birthrates in their homelands—will help slow down the population decline, the statistics do not support this hope: the birth rate among non‑Spanish-born women is dropping 1.5 times faster than among their Spanish-born counterparts. In marked contrast to the birth rate, the death rate has increased in recent years.


Another cause of Spain’s shrinking population is emigration. Before the crisis of 2008, Latin Americans were moving to Spain in large numbers—around 1.5 million in the decade to 2007, according to The Economist. In recent years, however, the tide has turned: “Spanish local records show that around 20,000 Colombians and 40,000 Ecuadoreans left the country in 2011, many to seek their fortunes at home” (see chart). While migration trends are notoriously difficult to predict, the INE survey forecasts that some 2.5 million people will leave the country, an equivalent of the combined population of the cities of Barcelona and Valencia.

Spain’s population is not only shrinking but also ageing, as life expectancy is on the increase. By 2022, the average life expectancy is expected to reach 87 years for women and 81.8 for men, growing by 2.5 and 1.9 years compared to the present figures. El Pais reports a forecast of “23,428 people aged over 100, more than double the current number”. Immigration too plays a role in the ageing process, as a growing number of younger people are leaving the country. These trends will translate into an increase in the number of elderly dependants, placing an even heavier burden on the country’s welfare system and the economy in general. Spain’s demographic trends are thus worrying not only in their own right, but also because they are bound to have a negative impact on the economy, potentially placing Spain in a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Thus, creating more jobs is an ever more urgent need, “given that this is the main reason immigrants come in the first place, and why people leave to look for work abroad”. In this context, inviting Sephardic Jews may be seen as possible partial remedy for Spain’s demographic and economic ills.

The proposed legislation, however, is not a done deal yet. Although approved by the Spanish government in early February 2013, it still has to be passed by the country’s Congress of Deputies. But Spain-internal politics may prevent the new law from being enacted. The legislative proposal was filed in November 2013 by the ruling center-right Popular Party, but Spain is to have general elections sometime in the next two years, and some pundits predict that the current government will fall. It is not clear that the Socialist Party would continue to support the Sephardic citizenship bill.

Even if the proposed law passes the parliamentary vote, another complication would be figuring out who would be eligible. Although one would no longer be required to live in Spain (a two-year minimum is the current requirement for naturalization) or to renounce one’s previous citizenship, it would not be easy to claim blood ties to people who died half a millennium ago. In this regard, the draft legislation does not provide clear answers. According to articles in Forward Thinking and the New York Times, the law says that one does not actually need to be Jewish to claim Spanish citizenship, yet other sources say that the law as currently formulated would not apply to the descendants of the “conversos”—the Spanish Jews who underwent forced conversions to Catholicism in order to remain in Spain. Although the promise made at the time was that the “conversos” would be treated as other Catholics, in practice they continued to be persecuted and most of them ultimately left Spain. It is estimated that there are millions of descendents of “converses” worldwide. The possibility that descendants of “conversos” might not be eligible for Spanish citizenship raised angry reactions from that community. It is ironic that descendants of the Jews who were forced to convert might be required to convert back to Judaism before they can prove their link to Spain’s pre-expulsion Jewish community. In an interesting twist, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former Soviet dissident, recently said that “the state of Israel must ease the way for their [the descendants of the “conversos”] return”.

The official reaction from Israel has been mostly positive, although some senior rabbis were not pleased: Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Religious Zionist rabbinical authority has “forbidden Israelis from obtaining the passports on the grounds that the gesture may be a political ruse to ‘make up for’ the expulsion of Jews” and Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Abergil, a judge at the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, reminded everyone that there is an old rabbinical prohibition against returning to Spain.


All in all, Israeli government and rabbinical authorities do not appear concerned that a mass emigration of Sephardic Jews from Israel to Spain would ensue if the proposed legislation is voted into law. Although there is no quota in the current reading of the law, this would be a limited-time offer: only those who apply within two years the law’s enactment would be granted citizenship under the new rules. So far, the Justice Ministry of Spain reported registering 3,000 applications, and various media reports indicate that the number of those expressing interest is in the hundreds or thousands. Even this possibly inflated figure, however, is a far cry from the 3.5 million Sephardic Jews worldwide, or the 2.5 million Sephardic Jews in Israel. (The numbers of Sephardic Jews in Israel and worldwide depend on the definition of “Sephardic”, which is itself a complicated issue, to be examined more closely in the following GeoCurrents post.) Outside Israel, Sephardic Jews live in France, Turkey, the United States, Latin America, and in smaller communities elsewhere. Of those who expressed interest in obtaining Spanish citizenship, only a few said they actually wanted to move to Spain permanently. For the majority of the potential applicants who were interviewed in the press, a Spanish passport would offer a sense of “poetic justice” or an opportunity to work or study anywhere in the European Union. Ironically, Spain, with its currently relatively lavish welfare system, may prove more attractive to older Sephardic Jews rather than the younger immigrants Spain so badly needs. Several Sephardic Jews from Israel who consider applying said that Spanish citizenship would be “a back-up plan for times of trouble”. From an economic perspective, Spain does not appeal to many Israel Sephardic Jews: the per capita GDP in Israel, approximately $35,000, is about $5,000 higher than in Spain. But, as pointed out by Times of Israel,

“the Sephardics in Israel, despite their large numbers, have yet to close the socio-economic gap with the European Jews who founded the country and control most levers of power. There has never been a Sephardic prime minister, and the Ashkenazi Jews still earn more on average and are overwhelmingly dominant in academia and other key areas.”

It is possible, however, that the Spanish offer would prove attractive to Sephardic Jews from Turkey, where the per capita GDP is about half of that in Spain, and the government’s continuing push for the application of Islamic law may make Jews feel unwelcome. Currently, the number of Sephardic Jews in Turkey is estimated between 15,000 and 25,000.


Another country that may become a source of Sephardic migrants to Spain is France, which is today boasts the world’s third largest Jewish community, numbering about 480,000-500,000, most of whom are Sephardic. The roots of France’s Sephardic community can be traced back to exiles from Spain in the late 1400s, but most members of the community came from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco in the 1950s and 1960s. Recent reports in the Jewish press indicate a sharp rise in “aliya” (immigration to Israel) from France, driven by “a deepening sense of insecurity and a stagnant economy”. While in absolute numbers, “aliya” from France remains but a trickle, a European Union survey of Jews from nine countries released in November 2013 indicates that a large proportion of French Jews are thinking of leaving. France ranked second only to Hungary in the number of Jews contemplating emigration because of anti-Semitism, at a staggering 46 percent. France also was second in the number of Jews who feared self-identifying as such in public (29 percent). The turning point in Jewish attitudes toward France appears to have been what many refer to simply as “Toulouse”, the 2012 slaying of three children and a rabbi by an Islamist at a Jewish school in the southern French city. Anti-Semitic attacks in France are on the rise: in 2012, a total of 614 incidents were recorded, a 58 percent increase from 2011 (see the image of protesters raising a banner reading “in France, we kill Blacks, Jews, and Arabs” during a silent demonstration in Paris in March 2012). Some 40 percent of the increase happened within 10 days of the Toulouse attack. Although they already possess the coveted EU passport, many Sephardic Jews from France may decide to move to Spain rather than Israel, especially if Spain maintains its “Jew-friendly” image.

In the next post, we will consider more closely the question of who qualifies as a Sephardic Jew, and some of my own family history will be revealed.



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  • Randy McDonald

    Hmm. Although Israel is somewhat richer than Spain, it also has somewhat higher inequality than Spain ( A quick glance at Wikipedia suggests that median household income in the two countries are so close as to be practically similar (

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Interesting point, Randy. But wouldn’t the (slightly) higher inequality in Israel + social mobility mean that more (younger) people would want to stay and try their luck? But at any rate, the economic figures seem so close between the two countries that it wouldn’t make much sense to move (unless the specific individual has a better job or study opportunity). It would be interesting to examine “economic migration” more generally though: how different the economic figures should be before the flow of migrants “for greener pastures” is significant… I don’t know of any such studies though… Anyone?

      • Randy McDonald

        Is there higher social mobility in Israel than in Spain? I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal reports suggesting that Sephardim still tend towards the bottom of the pile.

        I suspect that there might be somewhat more of a drift towards Spain than towards Israel, for two reasons.

        1. Spain is substantially larger than Israel. It might enjoy economies of scale that Israel would lack, and opportunities accordingly.

        2. Spain is looking for potential migrants from Israel, not the other way around.

        That’s only my guess.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          I would assume that with unemployment of 6.2% in Israel (compared to 26% in Spain), there’s actually MORE job opportunities. It would of course depend on the sector, education levels, etc. Gross statistics don’t tell the whole picture, of course.

          Re: Sephardic Jews being “at the bottom of the pile” in Israel, I wonder whether the relevant statistics pick the right group—as I discuss in the next post (to appear later this week), the term “Sephardic” has more than one meaning. Some people who fall under this term are lower on the “pile” but those are not the ones with historic ties to Spain, I’d think (Yemeni Jews, for example, or Bukhara Jews).

          Point 2 is well taken, but since most prospective emigrants to Spain under this law hail from Israel, the situation in Spain must be (significantly) BETTER than in Israel, not about the same… I am not saying that Spanish economy is necessarily much worse (esp. if we take into account security considerations), but I am not convinced it’s sufficiently better to attract enough people from Israel. But the possibility of having a EU passport “just in case” may be attractive for many people…

          Another consideration that hasn’t come up (and so far I haven’t looked into it for the next post either) is levels of religiousity. I don’t have figures on this handy, but anectodally I suspect that Sephardic Jews in Israel (under either definition) are more religious than Ashkenazic Jews—and so might be less interested in emigrating for that reason also… Especially if the rabbis are against it!

          • Randy McDonald

            It depends on the region. Many Spanish regions have populations comparable to that of Israel and GDP per capitas well in advance of the Spanish average–Madrid and Catalonia stand out, particularly.

            (Nice post on the Sephardim, BTW.)

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            (Thanks, Randy.)

            The same can be said about Israel: averages are averages and in Israel too some regions are much more affluent than others…

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Interestingly, the figures in this article show Spain to be among the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe, but the more recent figures (from the 2013 survey cited in the post) place it into a more “Jew friendly” category. I wonder if Spain got better in this respect, or other countries (France, Sweden, and Hungary, especially) got worse?

  • Brandon Equality Smith

    I’m a longtime shadow-reader of this blog, as well as the blog you maintained before you joined this one (its name escapes me, as I haven’t had reason to visit it recently).

    I just want to say that I’ve truly enjoyed getting to learn from you. And I’m more than a little curious about your family history, given the bits and pieces you’ve dropped in many previous articles.

    Thanks to you and Martin Lewis, for all the time and effort y’all put into making information more graspable for others!

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for reading our blog, Brandon, and welcome to the discussion!

  • Joab

    Spain is probably just looking for a scapegoat, now that the country seems to be on a downward spiral. The Jews have can play this role to perfection, with all their experience.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Yeah if Jews come, it’ll be their fault as they were there, and if they don’t, it’s their fault because they didn’t come…

      • Muhammad

        I hope this is a joke.

        So when Spain tries to show a good gesture, they’re interpreted as trying to set a trap for the Jews.

        And if they didn’t try to make a good gesture, then they must be antisemitic for not even trying.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          It was a joke of sorts, yes. Sorry if it wasn’t obvious, as often such nuances are indeed lost in writing. I was being sarcastic because historically it’s just so typical to blame the Jews no matter what the outcome. The anti-Semites of all stripes find the excuse to hate the Jews, no matter what the Jews do. I personally don’t think much will come out from this gesture by Spain, but it’s a nice gesture and hopefully they really meant it in good faith, although I personally think they are more concerned about possible outcomes to Spain itself (getting it out of the downward spiral it is in now) than about the welfare of the Jews.

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  • Frederico Freitas

    “Will it set a precedent for other ethnic groups expelled from their historic homelands, such as the Circassians?”

    I believe you have touched upon a very important point here. If the right of return is to be accepted as the norm by modern-day nation states, then not only the Palestinian would have the right to return to Israel, but also the descendent of the Moors would have to be accepted by Spain too, as argued by Khaled Diab on Hareetz.

    “It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.”

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      It is indeed an important point—I was going to mention it but didn’t get to it. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Xezlec

      Well shoot, we Cajuns were chased out of Quebec by the English. How widely should this precedent spread?

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Who knows…. They might not adopt the law at all… Besides, was it the same sort of expulsion, I wonder?

        • Xezlec

          Same sort? It was because of national identity rather than religion, but still one group forcing out another, and dramatic enough for Longfellow to write a poem about it, at least. I suppose I can’t compare the suffering of the Jews through the centuries with the Cajuns, but it’s the same principle: making up for something wrong that happened in the past. For the benefit of other readers:

          • SirBedevere

            I think you are right that this was a very similar expulsion in some ways, since there was always a strong religious element to British/French relations in colonial North America. There was no question, for instance of expelling Dutch and Swedish colonists after the seizure of New Netherlands, for instance. That said, I think the majority of you Cajuns were expelled from Nova Scotia, not Quebec, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713.

          • Xezlec

            Leave it to me to get my geography wrong on a geography blog.

          • jemblue

            The expulsion took place in 1755, during the Seven Years’ War, but you are correct that it took place in Acadia (now Nova Scotia) and not Quebec. Some Acadians did, in fact, resettle in Quebec.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thanks for the link. My point was: was the expulsion of the Cajuns as brutal as that of the Jews (or Circassians, for that matter)? I hope not but I am ashamed to say I know little about that chapter in history…

          • Xezlec

            My guess would be that it wasn’t as brutal. I don’t really know much of the details myself, to be honest. One of those things I should probably read more about.

          • Randy McDonald

            I’m from the east coast of Canada, PEI.

            My understanding is that up to a third of the Acadian population died as a result of the deportation. There were no acts of genocide in the sense of massacres, as I understand it, just ill-prepared shipping of people to places where they had no sustenance.

            Contemporaries–including British and American contemporaries–seem to have found the act very problematic. If different personalities had been in play–in particular, if Governor Lawrence had been a different person, perhaps able to recognize an informal neutrality of the Acadian settlers–it might well not have happened.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thanks for sharing this, Randy!

      • Thomas

        No, it was Acadia. Québec (Canada at the time, unrelated to what is called Canada now, a federation of states) was a different colony. Cajun = Cadien = Acadien

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks for the correction, Thomas.

  • Ilya Zlatanov

    I recommended this article to two young Sephardi girls, friends of mine. One of them lives in Bulgaria and the other in Israel. It turned out a funny chat
    Buba:Wow! This seems to be serious!
    Me:I am not sure… It sounds somehow… eyewash
    Sally:Come on, Barcelona! Come on, Madrid! And then – Cairo. Egyptian citizenship :)) Why not? They have chased us from Egypt, too..
    Buba: No, thanks, hahaha
    I liked it terrifically in Spain. I would stay there with pleasure, kind people, nice
    Sally: Why,what do you have against the pyramids, that ancient civilisation…
    Me: Come on, as it is clear from the article for most
    Sepharadim the question is sentimental, not that they want to live in Spain
    Sally: Nice land, nice people – passionate toreros y torocidas and fans of bloody spectacles?
    Buba: … and dogkillers, don’t forget about it! But they turned out to be cool, however I wouldn’t want to admit it
    Me: Bullfighting – these are Roman traditions. I didn’t expect such disregard for history :)
    Sally: Don’t be so literal! ! Why not dream? I even looked for my surname in the lists cause the are such : )),but alas …