Morocco’s Jews welcome landmark Spanish law

Friday 31/07/2015
Former Chief Rabbi of Morocco, Chalom Messas (L) and Grand Rabbi of Meknes (R)

CASABLANCA - Lea Benhamou is busy talking to her friend about the birth certificate she needs as one of the numerous documents to apply for Spanish citizen­ship.
Benhamou is a descendant of Sephardic Jews, who were expelled by the thousands from Spain five centuries ago. Spain’s lower house of parliament in June passed a law that grants citizenship to descend­ants of Jews who were forced to flee the country in 1492 during the Inqui­sition.
Benhamou, who counts Spanish among the five languages she speaks, welcomed the law, which grants dual citizenship to Jews of Spanish ances­try, who are known as Sephardic Jews.
Under a 1924 law, the Spanish gov­ernment had discretionary power to award Sephardic Jews nationality but candidates had to give up their previous citizenship to become residents of Spain.
“It’s a landmark reconciliation that is heart-warming. There are a lot of emotions as my father had some kind of strong bond with Spain. Spain was his favourite destination whenever we used to go on holiday,” Benhamou said.
“If Spain decided to do it, it means that it has admitted its historic mis­takes more than anything else,” said Benhamou, who lives in Casablanca’s Gauthier area, an up-market, mixed district of Muslims and Jews.
Dr Isaac Cohen, whose deported ancestors originated from Seville, also praised the new law.
“I think it’s a great tribute to Sephar­dim if Spain decides today to recon­cile with its dark past,” said Cohen. The parents of both Benhamou and Cohen originate from Debdou, a small town in eastern Morocco.
Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula experienced serious prob­lems in the 14th and 15th centuries after the Reconquista by the Catho­lic Monarchs. Persecutions began in 1391, especially in Catalonia, Aragon and Majorca prompting Jews to seek refuge in North Africa. Many of them settled in Debdou and Fez in Morocco.
In 1492, following the Alhambra Decree, a large community of Sephardic Jews migrated to Morocco, spreading across its major cities including Tetouan, Tangier, Meknes, Mogador and Rabat.
The Megorashim — “the deported” — gradually had their religious institutions and traditions accepted by indigenous Jews. In the region of Tetouan, they developed a Judeo-Spanish dialect called Hake­tia.
According to the Spanish law, applicants must have their Jewish heritage vetted by the Spanish Fed­eration of Jewish Communities or by rabbis where they live. They are required to pass tests on Spanish language and culture.
They must travel to Spain at their own expense to apply. Benhamou passed a Spanish language test at the Cervantes Institute in Casablanca and has to take a test about Spanish culture in September as part a string of documentation required for her application to obtain Spanish citi­zenship.
“It is very hectic as I have to legal­ise so many documents in various administrations including the tribu­nal and the ministry of foreign affairs. Once all the documents are legalised, they had to be translated into Span­ish and then legalised in the Spanish consulate,” said Benhamou, who works for the Council of Israelite Communities of Morocco.
“It is time and money-consuming but worth it as it will allow me to travel freely to Europe and the rest of the world,” she added.
Spanish law is likely to deter many Sephardic Jews from applying for citizenship due to the lengthy and bureaucratic procedures.
The Spanish government estimates that about 90,000 people will apply for citizenship, although there are an estimated 3.5 million Sephardic Jews around the world.
The law is to expire after three years but could be prolonged by a year, if Madrid deems it necessary.
“Whatever the calculations of the Spanish government, whether they are ideological, financial, economic, political or diplomatic, the fact is that their successive governments have attempted since the early 20th century, to ‘normalise’ relations with the Jewish world and Israel. Even Franco is attached to it after the end of the civil war,” said Mohamed Ken­bib, a leading researcher of the his­tory of Jews in Morocco.