For hundreds of years, Spain has been a predominately Roman Catholic country, but that wasn’t always the case. Surprisingly, the country was once a patchwork of different ethnicities and religions.
Only a few centuries ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in the territory that now comprises Spain. Most lived in and around a region called “Sepharad,” and the millions of Jews descended from them are still referred to as “Sephardic.”
The Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1487, changed all that. Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from most of Spain in 1492. Today, fewer than 40,000 Jews live in Spain.
Now Spain wants its Jews back. The government has proposed that the descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 be given the right to acquire Spanish citizenship and passport. It would be relatively easy to qualify – the bill provides several ways to demonstrate Sephardic origins. Having a Sephardic last name is sufficient. So is “evidence of belonging to a Sephardic community” or even fluency in an archaic version of Spanish called “Ladino” once spoken by Sephardic Jews.
On the surface, Spain offering the right of return to Jews expelled more than 500 years ago seems like simple justice. And it may be, but in the larger picture, the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 is only one of hundreds or even thousands of expulsions throughout history based on ethnic or religious origins. And despite Spain’s good example, there’s no reason to think other countries that throughout history have expelled or exterminated ethnic or religious minorities will imitate it.
Even today, Christian militias in the Central African Republic are hacking to death their Muslim neighbors who haven’t already fled the country. Islamic militias in Nigeria are returning the favor by massacring Christians who haven’t evacuated.
It’s easy to find religious justifications for these killings. Indeed, the Old Testament – considered holy writ by Christians and Jews and highly influential to Muslims – describes a massacre of an entire nation ordered by God himself. In 1 Samuel 15, God sends the prophet Samuel to command Saul, the king of Israel, to "go and smite Amalek."
Saul’s orders are to "utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not." He was to kill "both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." Saul complies with the gist of God’s order but spares the life of Agag, the Amalekite king. When God learns of the oversight, he sends Samuel back onto the battlefield to reprimand Saul. Samuel then personally kills Agag and cuts his body into pieces.
Obviously, if God tells you to smite someone, you’re supposed to take Him at His word. Seen in this context, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain was mild by comparison. Jews were allowed to leave voluntarily and permitted to convert to Christianity if they wished to stay in Spain. Yet the Amalekite genocide demonstrates that the desire of one group to exterminate another – or at least drive it away – has been around as long as civilization (if you can call it that) itself.
There are, of course, numerous modern examples of ethnic and religious cleansing. A few of them have been followed by a reconciliation that permits reinstatement of nationality. Nazi Germany’s genocidal campaign in the 1930s and 1940s against Jews, Gypsies, and other minorities is perhaps the best known. But today, the children and grandchildren of Jews who fled Germany may reclaim their German citizenship.
Less well known is the Turkish expulsion and genocide of ethnic Armenians during World War I, from 1915 to 1918). During this period, Turkey deported, starved, or murdered nearly 2 million Armenians. Unlike Germany, Turkey has never come to terms with this genocide. Even today, it is a criminal offense in Turkey to acknowledge these events as genocide. Needless to say, the descendants of Armenians slaughtered or expelled by the Turks have never been offered Turkish citizenship.
Of course, Turkey is hardly unique in this arena. Even Spain hasn’t fully come to grips with its history. Only 10 years after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews, they expelled the Muslims. One hundred ten years later, in 1609, their successors expelled the descendents of the “Moriscos,” those Muslims who had converted to Christianity. Spain hasn’t proposed that the descendants of these Muslim refugees be awarded Spanish citizenship and passport.
I see no reason for someone of Sephardic descent not to acquire Spanish citizenship and passport, if only to gain the right to live and work in Europe. I’d tell my Islamic clients the same thing, should Spain ever extend this offer to the descendents of Muslims and Moriscos it expelled in the 16th and 17th centuries.
You never know when your religion, your ethnicity, or your political affiliation might make you an enemy of the state.
But at least in a few cases, it can actually be pretty useful too.