Thoughts on European Citizenship Part 2 – The Spanish Proposal

The Spanish proposal could create millions of new Spanish citizens
The Spanish proposal could create millions of new Spanish citizens

In Part 1 on this series I examined the proposal by Malta to essentially sell its citizenship to

high paying investor immigrants without requiring much substantive investment, residence, or connection to the country.  In this post I would like to look at the proposal by Spain to give their citizenship to descendants of Sephardi Jews who were banished from the country during the Inquisition.

During the uproar over the Maltese proposal, Viviane Reding said in her capacity as European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship that the EU expects member states to award citizenship in “a spirit of sincere cooperation with the other member states…[and] should only award citizenship to persons where there is a genuine link or genuine connection to the country in question”.

Before I got any further with this post I would like to stress that I am a Librarian, not a lawyer.  I am just an amateur researcher interested in this topic and no information found on this blog should be considered legal advice.

My research on this topic is complicated by two things : Firstly I do not speak or read Spanish so I am reliant on English language Media.  Secondly, this bill has not yet become law.  In short I am analyzing media reports of a bill which I have not independently reviewed.

The European History that provides the reasoning for this bill could fill a book. In summary on the 31st of March 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain issued the Alhambra Decree (alternatively known as the Edict of Expulsion), which ordered that the Jewish population of Spain (known as Sephardi) to either convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain.  In July 1492 those who did not convert were expelled from the Kingdom.  The actual number of people in the exiled Jewish population is unknown.  The site I link to above estimates it at 200,000.    This article estimates that there were 300,000 Jews in Spain in 1492.  This article estimates 225,000.  Whatever the number, many of them fled to Portugal where they were expelled again in 1496, and also to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.  In a symbolic gesture similar to Galileo being pardoned, the Alhambra Degree was formally revoked in the 1960s.

Since the 1960s the various Spanish governments have taken an official position of reconciliation.  Current Spanish naturalization rules already take this into account as Sephardi Jews need only live in Spain for two years to apply for naturalization, in comparison to ten years for those without a Spanish or Iberoamerican connection.

This proposal takes it to the next step.  Under current Spanish naturalization rules one can be “Spanish by Origin” or “Spanish Not By Origin”, with Origin meaning a person being naturalized is a citizen of former Spanish territorial possession such as Portugal or much of South America.  Those who naturalize as Spanish by Origin can be dual citizens, whereas those who are Spanish Not By Origin must renounce their alternative citizenship.  Currently those naturalizing under Sephardi rules are naturalizing Not By Origin.

In 2014 a bill was proposed in Spain which would replace the naturalization rules for Sephardi Jews with a new rule providing full Citizenship by Origin to descendants of the original Sephardi exiles.  According to some reports this would be Citizenship by Origin allowing the new Spanish citizen to keep their original passport.  Naturally this has generated significant interest in Israel where approximately 1.4 million Sephardi Jews live.

So what exactly would be required to obtain Spanish Citizenship in this way?  Until the bill actually becomes law its anyone’s guess.  Would one have to actually be Jewish in order to qualify or is descent enough?  How does one actually prove descent?  Since there are no firm records of who was expelled how would descent be traced back?  Even if one is probably descended from someone who was exiled  genealogy records can be notoriously spotty, especially around World War II, and become progressively more difficult the further you go back.  Proposed episodes of the celebrity genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are have had to be cancelled because no records for those with Jewish ancestry could be found.  The work and luck required to be able to trace your lineage back more than 3 or 4 generations is immense.  How will people be able to go back 522 years?  Would genetic testing results be enough to prove descent?

When I think about the possible ramifications of this proposal I think about a French-Canadian man named Zacharie Cloutier.  Cloutier was born around 1590 and had five surviving children.  By the year 1800 he had at least 10,850 descendants.  As the centuries have continued that number  of people descendant from Zacharie has become astronomical to the point where Zacharie Cloutier is a common ancestor of the Duchess of Cornwall, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Madonna, Hillary Clinton and Anjelina Jolie to name just a few.

The blog Sephardic Geneaology has a helpful post analyzing the actual text of the draft proposal as it existed in February 2014.  According to this post there would be six methods by which one could claim citizenship under this bill :

1. A certificate from the General Secretariat of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain saying the applicant is of Sephardic origin.

2. A certificate from the Rabbinical Authority legally recognized in the country in which the applicant resides.

3. Family names, languages, or other evidence of applicants connection to the Sephardic Community.

4. If said person was included in a list of Sephardic families protected by Spain such as the decree of December 29th, 1948 or those who obtained special naturalization through the royal decree of December 20th, 1924.

5. The applicant can prove linkage to person or family member who the previous stipulation applies to.

6. In the event the application is sent to the civil registry office in charge of the residence of the applicant it will consider any applicant’s sign of belonging to the Spanish community in their area.

In March Spain’s Minister of Justice gave a speech in New York City where he provided some information.  He repeated the often quoted proposal that having a common Sephardi surname would be grounds for citizenship, and that applicants would be asked to submit certifications for local Rabbis.  A list of common Sephardi surnames was picked up by several news organizations and incorrectly identified as an official Spanish government list.  Interestingly this created a stir in the Philippines where many people with those surnames suddenly thought they could become Spanish Citizens, although chances of a Filipino having actual Sephardi exile lineage is slim.  When asked about the case of Syrian Jews, many of whom consider themselves Sephardi although most are not descended from those exiled in 1492 the Justice Minister said that the government’s intent was not to be overly strict and “we are opening a door”.


This brings me back to Vivian Reding’s assertion that EU citizenship should only be awarded to those with a genuine connection to an EU country.  Do the people who could be covered by this proposed law have a genuine connection with Spain?    For comparison, since 1949 German law has allowed descendants of Jews who fled during the holocaust to have their citizenship restored, and approximately 100,000 Israeli’s hold German passports.  In both cases the stated objective of providing citizenship is to right a historical wrong.  The difference is that less than a century has passed since Germany stripped its Jewish population of its citizenship.  It is easy to make the case that those covered by the German rules have a genuine connection to Germany.  In most cases the generation whose citizenship was stripped is within living memory.

Traditionally a generation has been defined as about 20 years, but modern scholars think of it being around 25 years.  Even if we are generous and consider a generation to be 25 years that means that 20 generations have passed since the original exiles left Spain.  I have no idea what my ancestry is like 20+ generations ago.  For all I know I might qualify under this proposal.

The way I see it, this proposal could go two ways.  One, the rules will be so restrictive that the new law will be functionally symbolic or Two, the rules will be loose enough that it will open up citizenship to an enormous pool of people.

Some articles suggest this could create upwards of 3 million Spanish citizens although as the example of Zacharie Cloutier points out the actual number of descendants could be astronomical.  Just like those who might obtain passports via the Maltese proposal all these people will have the right to live and work in any of the 28 EU countries.  Some have suggested that this proposal is little more than a vehicle to create a pool of people who can invest and buy property in Spain to revive its shattered economy.

So why did the Maltese proposal create such an instant backlash, whereas this proposal did not?  Is it the fact the citizenship is not being directly exchanged for money, but rather for the hypothetical potential of future investment?  Granted Jewish history in Europe is littered with violence and this is naturally a source of historical facepalming, but this proposal has the potential to give millions of people the right to live and work in the EU with no requirement that they have any financial or residential ties to the country providing them the passport, just like the Maltese proposal.

This article by the Economist suggests that with Spain’s current economic crisis few people who qualify will actually take up residence in Spain.  But this does not preclude someone from taking up Spain’s offer of a Passport and setting up residency in England, Germany or any other strong European economy.

Perhaps it was the overly financial overtones of the Maltese proposal that caused the backlash?  Perhaps this proposal will face a backlash once the actual criteria for inclusion are widely know.

In Part 3 of this series I will take a look at Scotland’s proposal for citizenship should its referendum in September be successful, and compare that proposal to how other European countries make citizens.

As a final note I did not link to this article anywhere in the post but I recommend reading this article from the Jewish Daily Forward.