The Spanish government has announced that it will grant automatic citizenship to Jews of Sephardic descent, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492.
The measure has been welcomed by Jewish groups, who say the move is long overdue and that it rights a historic wrong.
But Muslim groups are now clamoring for reciprocity, and are demanding that the Spanish government grant instant citizenship to millions of descendants of Muslims who were also expelled from Spain during the Middle Ages.
The so-called Right of Return for Sephardic Jews (Sepharad means Spain in Hebrew) was announced in Madrid on November 22 by the Spanish Justice Minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, and the Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo.
Under existing Spanish law, Sephardic Jews already benefit from a preferential naturalization procedure that allows them to claim Spanish citizenship after having lived in Spain for only two years, a privilege that is also available to citizens of Spain's former colonies in Latin America and elsewhere.
The change means that Sephardic Jews -- wherever they live in the diaspora -- will have to present an accreditation from the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities (FCJE), a Jewish umbrella group, confirming their ancestry to claim a Spanish passport.
Spain's offer applies only to those who identify themselves as Jewish. It does not apply to Sephardic Anousim (anousim in Hebrew means "coerced"), the descendants of Jews who were compelled by the Spanish Inquisition to convert to Roman Catholicism (they are sometimes also called crypto-Jews or Marranos). Secular anousim must seek religious training from the FCJE and undergo formal conversion to Judaism before they can obtain Spanish citizenship.
The Spanish government has not said how many Jews it expects will apply for citizenship (a total of 698 Sephardic Jews obtained Spanish citizenship during the period 2006-2010). There are an estimated three million Sephardic Jews around the world today. Most live in Israel, the United States, Belgium, Greece, France and Turkey, but there are also sizeable communities in Latin America, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela.
No more than 45,000 Jews currently live in Spain -- out of a total Spanish population of 47 million -- which is only a fraction of the number of Jews who lived in the country before 1492, when Jews were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism or go into exile.
The Edict of Expulsion, issued on March 31, 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon), and also known as the Alhambra Decree, ordered Jews to leave the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, and their territories and possessions, by July 31 of that same year.
Up to 800,000 Jews are believed to have left Spain as a result of the decree. Another 50,000 chose to avoid expulsion by converting to Roman Catholicism.
Spain first began granting citizenship to Sephardic Jews -- on an individual basis, not en masse -- in 1988, when the government of Felipe González modified the Spanish Civil Code. The concessions were halted in 2009 by the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, but the procedure has now been revived and amended by the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy.
Reacting to the Rajoy government's pledge to expedite the naturalization process for Sephardic Jews, Isaac Querub, the president of the FCJE, declared that November 22, 2012 would "pass into history as a day of clear blue sky and intense luminosity."
For his part, Foreign Minister García-Margallo emphasized the historic links of the Jewish people with Spain. At a ceremony at the Centro Sefarad-Israel in Madrid, he said: "Our relations have never been forgotten and have intensified the more tolerant and democratic Spain has become."
But Spanish political commentators have been speculating about both the reason and the timing behind the government's move.
Just one week after announcing the Right of Return for Sephardic Jews, Spain voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations. The November 29 vote was a major blow to Israel; some commentators have speculated that Spanish government announced the citizenship measure as a "gesture" to minimize the impact on bilateral relations.
Others say the Spanish government is seeking to attract Jews as a way help remedy the country's severe economic problems. Just days before welcoming Sephardic Jews back to Spain, the government announced on November 19 that it would offer residency permits (the equivalent of a US green card) to foreigners who buy houses priced at more than 160,000 euros ($200,000) as part of its efforts to revive a collapsed real estate market and divest itself of hundreds of thousands of unsold homes.
Meanwhile, Muslims are now demanding that the Spanish government grant automatic citizenship to millions of descendants of Muslims who were expelled from Spain in the seventeenth century.
Much of the Iberian Peninsula was occupied by Muslim conquerors known as the Moors from 711 until 1492, when the Moorish Kingdom of Granada surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella. But the final Muslim expulsion from Granada, known in Arabic as Al-Andalus, did not take place until over a century later, beginning in 1609, when King Philip III decreed the Expulsion of the Moriscos.
The Moriscos were the descendants of the Muslim population that converted to Roman Catholicism under threat of exile from Ferdinand and Isabella in 1502. From 1609 through 1614, the Spanish government systematically forced an estimated 350,000 Moriscos to leave Spain for Muslim North Africa.
Today there are an estimated 5 million descendants of the Moriscos living in Morocco alone; there are millions more living in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Tunisia and Turkey.
In a December 3 essay published by the Morocco-based newspaper Correo Diplomático, the Moroccan journalist Ahmed Bensalh Es-salhi wrote that the "decision to grant Spanish citizenship to the grandchildren of the Hebrews in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while ignoring the Moriscos, the grandsons of the Muslims, is without doubt, flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time. The decision could also be considered by the international community to be an historic act of absolute immorality and injustice…This decision is absolutely disgraceful and dishonorable."
Bensalh then went on to threaten Spain: "Is Spain aware of what might be assumed when it makes peace with some and not with others? Is Spain aware of what this decision could cost? Has Spain considered that it could jeopardize the massive investments that Muslims have made on its territory? Does Spain have alternatives to the foreign investment from Muslims if they ever decide to move that capital to other destinations due to the discrimination against Muslims?"
Bensalh's article is the latest salvo in an escalating battle being waged by Muslim historians and academics who are demanding that Spain treat Moriscos the same way it treats Sephardic Jews.
Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an "Andalus-Algerian" university professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif in northeastern Algeria, has been engaged in a four-year campaign to persuade Spanish King Juan Carlos to identify and condemn those who expelled the Muslims from Al-Andalus in the fifteenth century. Al-Ahmar is also demanding that millions of Moriscos expelled from Spain be allowed to return there.
In a letter addressed to Juan Carlos, Al-Ahmar calls for a "full legal and historical investigation of the war crimes that were perpetrated on the Muslim population of Andalusia by the French, English, European and papal crusaders, whose victims were our poor miserable people, after the collapse of Islamic rule in Andalusia."
The letter speaks of "the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492."
Al-Ahmar wants the Spanish monarch to apologize "on behalf of his ancestors" and to assume "responsibility for the consequences" that this would entail. He says it is necessary "to identify criminals, to convict retroactively, while at the same time to identify and compensate victims for their calamities and restore their titles." This process would culminate with "a decree that allows immigrants to return to their homes in Andalusia, and grant them full citizenship rights and restoration of all their properties."