After 522 Years, Spain Seeks To Make Amends For Expulsion Of Jews : Parallels Spain's monarchy decimated the Jewish population by expelling, killing or forcibly converting Jews in 1492. Now the country may offer their descendants Spanish citizenship.
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After 522 Years, Spain Seeks To Make Amends For Expulsion Of Jews

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After 522 Years, Spain Seeks To Make Amends For Expulsion Of Jews

After 522 Years, Spain Seeks To Make Amends For Expulsion Of Jews

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Spain wants to make amends for its expulsion of the Jews in 1492. It plans to offer citizenship to their descendants. In a moment, we're going to hear from NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. But first, here's Lauren Frayer in Spain.

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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: As night fell recently over the Spanish city of Toledo, Hanukah candles lit up empty streets outside a medieval synagogue.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in Ladino).

FRAYER: Folksongs in Ladino, a blend of Spanish and Hebrew, waft across the garden of the synagogue, now a Sephardic museum where not a single employee is actually Jewish. But these cobblestone streets were once home to one of Europe's most vibrant Jewish communities.

SANTIAGO PALOMERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: A 13th century poem describes Toledo's Jewish life, with eight to ten synagogues, says historian Santiago Palomera. Tax records show this was the most important Jewish enclave. Jews prospered here until 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled them. Some 300,000 Jews, up to a quarter of the Spanish population, had to convert, flee or be killed. Now their descendants may become Spanish again.

MAURICIO TOLEDANO: I think it's a fair reparation, on the part of the Spanish state, of the injustice that occurred in 1492.

FRAYER: Mauricio Toledano heads the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, which will help evaluate passport applications. Applicants don't necessarily need to be Jewish themselves.

TOLEDANO: The question is, were your ancestors Spanish Jews in 1492? If the answer is yes, whether you're Jewish, Christian, Muslim or whatever you are today, that has nothing to do with it.

FRAYER: Some Muslim groups have noted that this offer doesn't apply to them. Their ancestors were also expelled as Spain's Catholic kings consolidated power. Toledano says some 3 million people are descendants of Spain's expelled Jews. The government expects tens of thousands to apply for citizenship from all over the world, including many from Israel, where the offer is getting lots of attention. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Toledo, Spain.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: I'm Emily Harris in Jerusalem. When Spain announced its plan to offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews, Israeli Ezer Karavani's ears perked up.

EZER KARAVANI: When I first heard of it, I said, well, that's a nice opportunity for me.

HARRIS: Spanish citizenship would mean the 35-year-old computer programmer could leave Tel Aviv and work anywhere in Europe. While the Spanish government calls this rectifying a wrong, Karavani is not thinking that way.

KARAVANI: I don't think that somebody owes me something, definitely if it happens, you know, 500 years ago

HARRIS: Spanish citizenship would also offer a potential escape from Israel's volatile security situation and high cost of living. But leaving Israel for these reasons is a touchy subject here, particularly leaving for Europe, with its history of Jewish persecution. In Jerusalem, Karavani's 68-year-old cousin, Itsak Levy (ph), traces the family roots back to 15th century Spain. But he has no interest in Spanish citizenship.

ITSAK LEVY: No, I don't need. I don't need it.

HARRIS: He's not looking for a job or a chance to live abroad. But his disinterest goes deeper than that. Levy doesn't trust Europe. And he thinks emigration will weaken Israel.

LEVY: It's a way, European way, to destroy this country.

HARRIS: But Levy is a passionate protector of Sephardic culture.

LEVY: The first thing is to save the language. At 10 years, 20 years later, no one will speak Ladino.

HARRIS: Levy posts online videos of Ladino speakers and singers, including his mother, who has passed away. He sings along with one recording.

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LEVY: (Singing in Ladino).

HARRIS: And although Levy's young relative, Ezer Karavani, is much more focused on the future than the past, he too keeps recordings of his grandmother singing in Ladino. He can't remember the lyrics, but he plucks along on his guitar.

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KARAVANI: (Playing guitar to recording of Ladino song).

HARRIS: He'll practice the words, he says, before he applies for Spanish citizenship. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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