On the Trail of the Spanish Mirage

More than 500 years after the expulsion of Spain’s Jews, and to everyone’s surprise, the Spanish parliament passed a law in 2015 to repair this “historic error” by allowing descendants of the expelled to apply for naturalization. Upon learning of this, documentary director Juliette Senik decided to set up her camera in the office of the Spanish consulate in Paris and follow the official in charge of processing naturalization applications. Through this singular prism, she takes an original look at Sephardic families troubled by this unprecedented opportunity to return. Like the disappointed hopes that her article recounts, the hoped-for documentary film did not see the light of day. But the recorded sessions gave rise to this article and an episode of the French radio program “Les pieds sur Terre”, a reference to which can be found at the end of this article.

 

Alfonso Iglesias, in charge at the Spanish Consulate in Paris, to receive applicants to the “Law on the issuance of nationality to Sephardics of Spanish origin”[1], 2014 © J. Senik

 

On February 7, 2014, the Spanish government passed the draft of a historic reconciliation law. It stipulates that any Jew who can prove his Sephardic ancestry, that is, from the pre-1492 Kingdom of Castile, can obtain Spanish naturalization, and this without a residency requirement. Five centuries after their expulsion in 1492 by Queen Isabel during the Inquisition, the roots are suddenly reawakened in a community that has kept ties with this country from which it was expelled after the golden age of “Al-Andalus.”

When I read the newspaper blurb in February 2014, the announcement of this law ignited something in me. This time, we Jews would have a select spot where non-Jews were waiting for us, even though we had not asked for anything. And we would have the luxury of asking for a nationality without even needing it, just for the fun of it. With Polish Jewish grandparents, parents born in France, I have no Spanish ties, but I have a Mediterranean mien. In fact, I know that one of my great-grandmothers was named “Manella.” So, I could have part a Sephardic origin. If I wanted to, I could try to get the passport. My son Eliot, who inherited my complexion, was suddenly taken with Spanish pride and became preoccupied this law. He began to learn Spanish on his own.

In order to understand this visceral reaction, I decide to go and see those who have more tangible links with Spain, and to film them. I see this as a chance to capture an extraordinary renationalization in action. The film would also allow us to tell the story of the wanderings of individual Jewish families through the centuries and see what they have become today. A part of European and Mediterranean history would come full circle with this historic law.

Facsimile of the “Decree of the Alhambra”[2] © Wikipedia Commons

With my enthusiastic producers, Julie Guesnon and Justine Henochsberg, we were welcomed at the Spanish Consulate where hundreds of requests were received, and we obtained permission to film there. Located at 65 boulevard Malesherbes, the consulate receives five calls a day on this subject; a special cell, unique in the world, has been created there. The central place is found, “the arena,” as it is called for television series. The pivotal figure is the vital records officer Alfonso Iglesias, a Spanish civil servant barely forty years old, who has obtained from the Consul the right to deal personally with these requests; a Christian and a great connoisseur of Judaism, the new law has become his mission. Alongside this man, who retains a certain aura of mystery, the secondary characters, all of them applicants for the Spanish passport, revolve like satellites around this way-station to their dream, the Spanish consulate in Paris. As a subplot, I imagine Alfonso’s secret consultations with the Consul Francisco Javier Conde y Martínez de Irujo, an elegant character who remains in the background in his plush office adorned with an imposing fireplace.

I begin to attend Alfonso Iglesias’ interviews with the passport applicants, and then to film some of them. I have in mind the documentary film Casting, a montage of Emmanuel Finkiel’s auditions for his film Voyage. In these funny and moving try-outs, we hear old Ashkenazi men and women recounting, in their Yiddish accent, their experiences during the war. Some survived the “death marches.” They only dream of one thing: to act, to dance, in short, to act like marionettes in front of the camera. However, the chosen ones in Finkiel’s cast were not supposed to play in a musical, but to travel by bus to Auschwitz. In the film released in 1999, we can see that they had a good argument, a source of unintentional comedy typical of Ashkenazim. But this time, we would not go to Auschwitz.

The Office of Dreams

The tag-line of my project could be that of a comic film: “They were expelled five centuries ago from Spain because they were Jews: today, to return, they will have to prove it!”

I see couples in their sixties, single people in their thirties, grandfathers with their fifty-year-old daughters, single men and women. People who speak Spanish, Judeo-Spanish, Ladino (the language of Sephardic liturgy), Haketia, Arabic. Young people in their twenties make the approach because they have not been told anything about Algeria, so they want to dig deeper into their origins. Some of them are descendants of Italian Jews from Livorno, including a very elegant woman dressed in Prada. In these families, it is said, the women sometimes carried a key, the key to the house of Cordoba, in a small lace pocket hanging from their belt.

There is not always a precise reason for undertaking this procedure. It is spontaneous. All are well-integrated into French society, prosperous. But suddenly a country opens its arms to them. As a literature teacher from Sidi Bel Abes in Algeria says, it is an event that is both “significant and banal”: They open the door and say: “Come, you are welcome. Then you say to yourself: ‘It’s good, I’m going home. This is my home, here and there.’”

I realize that for many French Jews, this link with Spain represents a comfort, a possible escape, letters of nobility, finally. And then, didn’t Spain protect Spanish Jews from deportation to Nazi camps? After a chaotic past, it is a way to return to the castle, to one’s quarters, with head held high. A beautiful story that we want to tell ourselves, a reconciliation with the past. Despite their different motivations, they all evoke the climate that pushed them to make this request. To obtain recognition of a state other than Israel precisely because one is Jewish is an unexpected gift. Some claim it as a political act. It is a way of regaining pride for oneself, for one’s children. The question of belonging to a country is often raised by pieds-noirs who have kept their nationality from the colonial era: do they feel more French than Tunisian? And why not more Spanish in the end? How to untangle all the threads between the country where one was born, the one where one lived, and the one where one claims to be from today?

“Spanish Nationality Law for Sephardics. The reconquest of a historical right”
Alfonso

I listen to the soft voice of Mr. Iglesias, the civil registry official in charge of applications, at the café on Boulevard Malherbes, next to the consulate under construction. His accent is Spanish but his French is sophisticated. “When I was twenty, I studied to become a Jesuit. In the end, I didn’t enter the orders. I left Spain to study the trilingual Bible in Leuven: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. I wanted to perfect my religious knowledge. The hazards of life landed me in Paris.” At home, in his small apartment in the Marais neighborhood, he writes in Spanish. “I am from the place where I can think,” say the Jesuits. “I have no special expectations. When I’m in Paris, I don’t hang out with Spaniards. But I found a mission there, by chance.” My gaze is drawn to his silver ring, on which is engraved an inscription in Hebrew. This inscription is “Adonai e cha” (God is one).

At the time I met him, when he was not working at the consulate, he was pursuing a writing a dissertation on “prayers in the Hittite Empire.” Alfonso Iglesias had been a simple employee of the Civil Registry, a job that he did to make ends meet because his studies did not feed him. When the law was put to a vote by the Spanish government, he immediately proposed to the Consul to take charge of the file and receive the candidates. His colleagues never used to call passport applicants to their office, they just sent them back to the phone and complained. They look a bit sideways at the person they call “the priest,” exasperated by the privileges he is granted for a mission they do not see the point of. They are also jealous of his relationship with Consul Francisco Javier Conde y Martínez de Irujo, now Spain’s ambassador to Tokyo.

In Alfonso’s office a real theater is played out, of which he is the director. Part psychoanalyst, part priest, part uncle of the family, he plays the game with those who come to him. He goes from smoothness to irony, knows how to bring back calm when tears arise at the evocation of a painful past like the deportation of all the Jews of Salonika. Not without humor: “Don’t cry, Spain will heal your wounds.” “Don’t die until you get your passport.” Alfonso is on informal terms with his visitors, in the Spanish style, and gives a warm, intimate touch to the talks. He has found the ideal interlocutors in these applicants. They don’t claim anything, they are ready to take any steps, even the most absurd ones. Behind his seriousness, he practices irony. “How much does a certificate of Jewishness cost?” Alfonso’s answer: “60 euros. But I know a rabbi who gives it to you for free.” Alfonso’s question: “Are you sure you are a Sephardic Jew? That’s what’s important to us.” The response: “But how can you prove it, it was five hundred years ago!” “Alfonso,” one asks him, “Are you Jewish?” “No, but nobody is perfect.” A lady to Alfonso: “You are the new Moses, you are going to lead us beyond the desert; can I take you by the arm?” “If there is nothing carnal, okay!,” he replies.

Looking for evidences

The first meeting looks like a strange psychoanalysis session. This is the moment when you explain where you come from, who you are, and why this sudden need to apply for Spanish naturalization. During the interview, colleagues, mostly women, walk through the office where Alfonso receives his strange flock, go to the photocopier, and cast bored looks at the visitors. The applicants have begun to gather the evidence that they unpack on Alfonso’s desk: family tree, marriage certificate, certificate of Jewishness, conversion certificate found in a Spanish church, postcards written in the Spanish language by grandparents, photographs, prayer books in Ladino. They unspool the stories, sing songs in Spanish to him. Men start crying as they pull out their parents’ marriage certificate, women take his hand, parents and their children bicker in front of him.

Sometimes Alfonso goes down to the basement of the consulate where the archives are kept. There he pulls out a file, a card, and finds the papers of a parent of a person in his office. For example, he found a Spanish passport dating from 1948, which is proof of a father’s passage to France, for a son who is now elderly, seized with emotion at the sight of the photo of the father he did not know: “I had never seen my father in profile!”

Alfonso Iglesias © J. Senik

In the course of the interviews, I discovered the diversity of the Sephardic people: an illegal immigrant of Brazilian origin who has been living for forty years in Paris where he teaches physics at the university, a young Mexican woman who says she feels her hidden origins running “in her blood,” a Turk from Istanbul who has to hide his religion, a father whose son, a professional rugby player, wants to join the Spanish team, a sixty-year-old man of Tunisian origin who wishes to obtain Spanish nationality in memory of his first girlfriend, an entire family from Salonika who discusses cooking recipes, a trio over several generations of women “of character” who have decided to adopt Alfonso…

Regularly, a thundering rabbi measuring nearly two meters comes into the office, in his energetic fifties. He opens a suitcase full of photographs, family trees, old parchments, objects of worship in front of Alfonso. Alfonso comments on the objects one by one, as if it were an unspoken ritual. The rabbi has a library of six thousand books on Sephardic history in his house in the Paris suburbs. From Morocco to Portugal, he collects all the documents, traces and objects related to the Sephardic Jewish world. He is, as they say, a “Judaica antiquarian.” His mother, still alive, speaks Ladino and Spanish. Alfonso often recommends him to people who come to see him, to help them find traces of their family’s time in Spain. He also gives them certificates of Jewishness for free! (while the French Consistory charges…)

Alfonso, who is so close to this culture, is not shy about teasing his visitors, always giving a humorous twist to the talks. Because most of the applicants for the passport are not or no longer practicing. Some people even learn from Alfonso the meaning of the word “ketubah,” which means religious marriage certificate, a document proving a person’s Jewish origin and ancestry. With this law, Alfonso Iglesias seems to have finally found his place, what he was looking for without knowing it. His great religious erudition finds a practical application. For he knows the history of the Sephardim, the origin of their name, where they can find documents. Alfonso Iglesias has become, at least in France, the instrument of the reconciliation wanted by the Spanish government. He will centralize all the requests from the four corners of France, because the Spanish consulates in Marseille or Lyon, for example, do not have an equivalent employee. Once the files have been compiled by the applicants, he will go back and forth to the Ministry of Justice in Madrid to sit on the five-member commission that will decide who will get the passport and who is not worthy of receiving it. Who is a Sephardic Jew, who is not. Alfonso has gone from being a simple employee of the Civil Registry to taking on a role that is beyond him with this political mission.

2015

Time is running out… the production of our film is still on hold. In the meantime, the law has moved forward: on June 6, 2014, the final bill was passed in the Council of Ministers; in September 2014, the law was passed before the parliament. In January 2015, the decree of application of the law finally appeared. With my producers, we were waiting for the vote of the decree like an “open sesame.” But our film project still can’t find funding from TV channels, because it doesn’t fit into a box: history, portrait, society? On the other hand, private Jewish funding does not respond favorably to our requests. Would they be reluctant to sponsor a film that would advocate for a “descent” into Spain rather than an Aliyah in Israel, as we think? We have echoes of the position of the Consistory through our accomplice rabbi, who claims to help the applicants unofficially so as not to offend his hierarchy. Finally, the procedure has been tightened, and applicants must now go to Spain to take a Spanish test. Alfonso has lost his initial optimism. Politics…

Sonia Kronlund suggested that I make a radio documentary about it for the France Culture radio program “Les Pieds sur terre.” I want to leave a trace of this experience, I accept with joy. Along the way, I discovered that a short film with a similar title to mine, “Castles in Spain,” had been directed by Pauline Horovitz. We follow the director’s journey with her father, driven by the dream of going further and further west to escape history, in a fantasy, papier-mache Spain.

2021

It seems that reconciliation with Spain is a dream, a horizon that is never reached. I could quote data from the Spanish government: out of more than 130,000 applications, it has extended citizenship to 34,000 people since the 2015 law was advanced. While only one applicant was denied citizenship before this year, 3,000 applications were suddenly rejected between May and July 2021, and another 17,000 received no response. However, in September 2021, the law will cease to be effective and the legal processes for obtaining the passport will be stopped.

For my part, in the summer of 2021, I am surveying the few people who have passed through the consulate whose phone numbers I had kept. The Rabbi I ran into at the consulate picks up his phone and gently yells at me that of the 20 or so applications he has handled, none have been successful. Why? He doesn’t know exactly, but mentions a sudden brake from the Spanish government, the fact that “the King preferred to hunt elephants,” the fact that those who didn’t have a ketubah were asked for certificates of religious commitment to prove their Jewishness, whereas “if I want to eat pork on Yom Kippur, I don’t have to answer to anyone!” Dr. Alain Eskenazi, who insists that I quote him, did not pursue the matter because of the deadline of the law which “poses an intellectual problem for him.” Why does the Spanish government only give two to three years to return, after five centuries? Another, a non-practicing Jew, had to go through two years of religious courses, another was too old and was discouraged by the papers to be provided; finally, the ultimate paradox, this practicing Jew had to go and take a Spanish test at the Cervantes Institute on a Saturday… Around me, I don’t know of anyone who has had the perseverance to make his steps succeed.

It turns out that those who went through with the application did so for more prosaic than symbolic reasons. They are Venezuelans, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, even Israelis in search of a European passport. This law has really served those who are forced into exile and who prefer Europe, which is no small thing. But it can be said that it has been emptied of its symbolic meaning, with regard to European Jews. Finally, what is a symbolic law? Symbolic takes on a diminutive, devaluing meaning here, which makes me think that I will not be caught again dreaming of castles in Spain.


Juliette Senik

Translated by Daniel Solomon

Notes

1 “Ley de concesión de nacionalidad a sefardíes originarios de España”
2 Edict of expulsion of the Jews, signed on March 31, 1492 by Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon

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