David Mendoza
Sephardic Genealogy and History

Is Spain’s Sephardic nationality law being abused?

1683 painting by Francisco Rizi depicting the auto-da-fé held in Plaza Mayor, Madrid, in 1680. Public Domain,
Madrid auto-da-fe of 1680

The Spanish police are now investigating possible fraud in the scheme offering citizenship to people of Sephardic Jewish origin. This is no surprise to those Sephardic genealogists whose complaints over recent years have been drowned out by the ringing of cash registers at some synagogues and law firms.

The legal situation is currently unclear. The Spanish Ministry of Justice recently rejected several thousand applicants, where previously almost everyone was approved. Coincidentally this happened a few weeks after the Sephardic Genealogical Society published a proposed Code of Conduct for those working with Spanish and Portuguese nationality applications. I was the principal author of this Code, written in the hope that the problems could be discreetly corrected.

Apparently at the instigation of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico (JFNM), a predominantly Ashkenazi group that champions the claims of the American “crypto-Judaism” movement, the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) got involved. The ASF is the world’s largest active Sephardic umbrella group. They may not have been fully briefed. Their condemnation of Spain’s ruling socialist party seems ill-considered and unhelpful. Others have made unevidenced accusations of antisemitism.

Following an article in The New York Times on 24 July 2021, the ASF hosted an online meeting on 5 August 2021 to discuss developments. The meeting, entitled Broken Promises: The Dismantling of the Spanish Law of Return, included no discussion of the genealogical validity of claims. It was chaired by a JFNM staffer subsequently mentioned in the El Pais article of 20 August 2021 that broke the story of alleged fraud. Not one of the nine speakers was Sephardic. I felt that the event was the “crypto-Judaism” movement rallying under a Sephardic flag to which they have no claim. 

Who are the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and what is their relevance? New Mexico has a relatively small Jewish community, overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. It is also home to a unique Spanish-speaking community, some of whom believe they are of Jewish origin. Is it true? Probably most Spanish- and Portuguese-origin communities around the world contain people with distant Jewish ancestry. With respect to the community now in New Mexico, the claim is that families remained secretly Jewish in Spain after the Expulsion of 1492. They later migrated undetected to Mexico, apparently circumventing the travel requirement of having no Jewish ancestry. In Mexico, they remained undetected and secretly Jewish. Later, like the Pilgrim Fathers and Mormons of American national mythology, they fled for religious freedom to New Mexico where they continued to remain undetected and secretly Jewish until recent times.

Erroneous ‘evidence’ of Jewish ancestry has been advanced and then withdrawn, and a critic canceled. Could the claim be true? Anything is possible in Sephardic history, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We await this evidence. Some skeptics ask why people wanting to return to Judaism would travel huge distances in the opposite direction, away from Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa to areas where the Inquisition still had authority. What were the circumstances under which the alleged ancestors became Christian? Such questions are of no relevance to those Ashkenazi cheerleaders who perhaps come pre-loaded with their own folk traditions about Sephardim. Those who study the subject may take a different position.

To be considered for citizenship an applicant needs a letter confirming their Sephardic ancestry from an authorized person at a recognized Jewish community. The synagogue credentials are checked, but not the Sephardic knowledge of the signatory. As a genealogist, I have seen some synagogue letters that contain claims so ludicrous that I laughed out loud. These can involve people doing strange things with bread. Other letters involve people having Iberian (erroneously called “Sephardic”) surnames or lighting candles, as we would also expect of Catholic populations.

The Jewish Federation of New Mexico believes that some local New Mexicans have Sephardic ancestry and so issues confirmatory letters for immigration purposes when some other congregations certainly would not. In an apparent act of cultural appropriation, they have taken to calling their local client population “Sephardim”. The talk is of Sephardic “heritage” and of “unspecific” genealogical claims. This can be a circular logic. Of course, they believe someone they have defined as being Sephardic has Sephardic heritage. But what about genealogically proven Sephardic ancestry? Someone making a genealogical claim of English or Chinese ancestry is reasonably expected to provide evidential proof. Why not for Sephardim? My belief, and I suspect this view is shared by most people in Spain, is that the nationality concession was for people of Sephardic ancestry, not those with “unspecific” “heritage”.

It is not just the JFNM issuing letters lacking genealogical evidence. Elsewhere, I have seen letters stating that apparently Ashkenazi families have Sephardic ancestry, a common but generally mistaken belief. It is likely that applicants who are Sephardic in the Israeli sense of “not Ashkenazi” but are not of Iberian ancestry have received citizenship. Indeed, how many of those writing or reviewing letters know the difference between a Toshavi and Megorashi Jew from North Africa, let alone which one is Sephardi? Very few, I think.

The non-Sephardic JFNM has probably issued more letters confirming Sephardic ancestry than any other synagogue. I heard one claim of 20,000 letters but don’t know if it is correct. Their annual accounts are no longer on their website, and their accounting methodology seems to have changed for 2019. Between 2015 (the effective start of the nationality concession) and 2018, their Program Service Revenue rose from $84k/year to $786k/year. Is all or much of this extra income – $702k/year in 2018 – related to the nationality concessions?

An obvious riposte is that any synagogue could have done the same as the JFNM. But here’s the problem. A synagogue that adheres to recognized genealogical standards is making a lot of work for itself and for the applicant. If the applicant’s goal is simply to secure a European Union passport, will they go to a synagogue that demands detailed evidence and who may feel unable to issue a letter, or to one that does not adhere to genealogical standards? The system seems to disadvantage those who operate to high standards, which often means the Sephardic congregations. Spain’s requirement is for a letter, not that the letter be true. A letter containing unevidenced supposition has the same legal value as one accompanied by generations of detailed genealogy.

What are the genealogical requirements of the JFNM? I don’t know. I have seen several of their letters but none of these indicated that the JFNM had seen credible proof of Sephardic ancestry as I would understand it. Maybe this was an unrepresentative sample or the evidence was in documents I did not see. 

Since the El Pais article, there has been a deafening public silence from the JFNM. I am not sure how effective the legal threats against the Spanish Government will be. The JFNM would risk throwing their “crypto-Jewish” clients under the bus. Perhaps one goal of the JFNM will be to hold on to monies earned from the scheme, which I estimate may be somewhere in the region of $2-5 million. 

It is rumored that the explosion in applications from Latin America towards the end of the scheme had a connection to organized crime. Let’s not pretend that all rabbis practice what they preach. What is the Spanish Government to do if an intentionally fraudulent applicant has ticked all the boxes (a ‘surname report’, bizarre family tradition and letter from a rabbi), even though they have no proven Sephardic ancestry? Should they be granted citizenship? If not, what about the other applicants who have no proof to genealogical standards?

As I see it, the heart of the problem is this: there is a legal process that relies on the opinions of people who may be entirely ignorant of the subject. Many of the letters confirming Sephardic ancestry may not be worth the paper they are written on. Of course, this does not mean that many or most of the applicants are undeserving. I suspect that any problem is principally in the Americas where, of course, there are also many people with ancestry in the Western, Eastern and Megorashi Sephardic communities. In Brazil, there are probably people whose Western Sephardic ancestors were left or remained behind after the Portuguese drove out the Dutch in 1654, and who knows about elsewhere? I do not question the possibility of people of Sephardic ancestry being found all over Latin America, but it strikes me as odd that the Spanish Government should be expected to award citizenship on unevidenced claims that would be rejected by a local genealogical society. 

Under Spanish law, an applicant needs a letter confirming Sephardic ancestry from an overseas synagogue, from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain and from a notary. It is possible that some applicants have sought to bypass the FJCE, which would be a problem in itself. Yet not one of these three institutions is required to have any knowledge of the subject. It is possible that people of no Sephardic ancestry have met the legal requirements of Spanish citizenship under the Sephardic concession.

Reportedly, one of the reasons for the recent refusals is because applicants have received letters from synagogues not in their country of residency. Again, the accuracy of the letters is not relevant. Some synagogues in the country of residence may decline to issue letters due to absence of evidence, but the applicant can easily shop around to find another synagogue that trusts what they have been shown is true. I have been in the uncomfortable situation of telling people that their “Sephardic” family came from Poland or that there is no reliable evidence they have Jewish ancestry. One such person said that their family had already spent $30k with lawyers, a genealogist and a synagogue. This family were apparently wrongly persuaded they had Sephardic ancestry and have acted in good faith throughout. 

My understanding – and I would welcome public clarification – is that the JFNM believes the letter of the law should be observed, without reference to whether the claim meets generally accepted genealogical standards. They may be unaware of the existence of such standards. The position of the Sephardic Genealogical Society is that only applications of proven or highly probable (some records from around the Mediterranean have been destroyed over the centuries) should go forwards. Professionals who have given clearly wrong advice should refund their clients.

Reportedly 300 people have had their Spanish citizenship revoked. This strikes me as cruel, assuming the individuals concerned were not knowingly committing fraud. 

Who is to blame for this mess? Spain was naïve not to clearly define either who qualifies under the law or to set governing evidential standards. I am disappointed if some synagogues may have taken a transactional position rather than properly reviewing evidence, as I would understand it. A certain type of lawyer was always going to game the system. I do not know the standards governing Spanish notaries, of whom I believe the Minister of Justice is Chief Notary. Do they have a responsibility to merely confirm the authenticity of documents, or the veracity too? Given the law’s Spanish language requirement, and that most Sephardim do not speak Spanish and most Hispanics do, one wonders what percentage of applicants are Sephardic or have proven Sephardic ancestry.

The nationality schemes in Spain and Portugal had the potential to revive Sephardic culture, which is on life-support. It could have positively changed attitudes towards Jews in Spain, a country with an unfortunate history of antisemitism. Instead, it can feel that Sephardim have been shoved aside by the ideological and financial goals of others. The people of Spain may share this sentiment.

About the Author
David Mendoza is a genealogist living in London. He is president of the Sephardic Genealogical Society and co-hosts the weekly Sephardic World lectures on Sephardic history and genealogy.
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