NEW YORK, March 19, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The government of Spain "wants to right an historical wrong" against the Jewish people, declared Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, Spain's Minister of Justice, at an AJC luncheon today. The government initiative would offer Spanish citizenship to Jews who can trace their ancestry to the time of the forced expulsion of Jews in the 15th century.
The new law, expected to be approved by Spain's Parliament in the coming weeks, would "reverse more than 500 years of injustice," said Gallardon. The effort is aimed at restoring Sephardic Jewish ties to Spain, and to do so with minimal demands on those deemed eligible. They would not be required to take up residency in Spain or to relinquish their current nationality to obtain citizenship.
While at this stage it is not clear how many Sephardic Jews may be eligible, or apply, the minister said the "response has been overwhelming" since the law was first announced. Some 3,000 Jews, mainly in Turkey and Venezuela, already have applied, he added.
The minister spoke of the rich history of Sephardic Jews, who, after the expulsion from Spain, established communities in Portugal, the Netherlands, Morocco, France, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and elsewhere, and maintained their unique heritage, culture and customs. "There has been no such case in the history of peoples expelled where the exile maintained their culture and language of origin for so long and in such distant locations," Gallardon said.
"It is tempting to wonder what Spain would look like today had it not forced its Jews to decide in four months whether to convert to Christianity or leave the country," he said. "We have to right the wrong, and educate the next generation so as not to repeat it."
Gallardon emphasized that Spain has long been welcoming of Jews, and that today they are secure in his country. "Spain's laws against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are among the strongest in the European Union," he said.
"We have gone beyond the European Union requests and have developed a criminal code that is pioneering," said Gallardon. "In Spain, nobody can say that the Shoah did not take place, with the purpose of harassing Jews, without being prosecuted and punished by the court." But he also stressed that "punishment alone is not enough to fight anti-Semitism; education also is crucial."
The minister also spoke of his family's connection to assisting Jews. His grandfather was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations for saving Jews in Bucharest during the Holocaust when he was Spain's ambassador to Romania. "We cannot be indifferent to the past, we must tell the truth, we cannot deny the reality of the Shoah," said Gallardon.
Gallardon also targeted those whose criticism of the State of Israel crosses the line into outright anti-Semitism. "You can legitimately criticize Israel as a state, but not as a Jewish state."
The event was organized by AJC's Latino and Latin American Institute, directed by Dina Siegel Vann. AJC has long maintained ties with Spain and has an association agreement with the Federacion de Comunidades Israelitas de Espana.
SOURCE American Jewish Committee