Spain and Portugal embrace Jews, but not Arabs

Spain and Portugal are now offering citizenship to the descendants of families expelled from their countries in 1492 and 1493.

At first glance, you would assume this to be a magnanimous gesture. Think again.

The expulsion from Spain forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to run to and seek refuge in Portugal. Eight months later, they were expelled again. From Portugal, many Jews escaped to North Africa, while the rest scattered around the world. Those who stayed in Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity.

There were no options for the Jews remaining in Spain or Portugal. It was a “convert or die” policy. If you did not flee during the expulsion, you were forced to convert. Many Jews, we do not know how many, converted publicly and practiced their Judaism in secrecy.

The Inquisition was established to investigate those who converted and make certain that they were truly practicing Christianity and not, as so many were, secretly remaining Jewish. Those identified as still practicing Jews were tortured, even burned at the stake. Tens of thousands of Jews were immolated.

This offer to restore citizenship by Spain and Portugal, in 2014, is extremely troubling. Three interesting elements are missing from this citizenship invitation. There never was and still is no apology to the Jews by either Spain of Portugal. There never was and still is no attempt to pay compensation. And the deal is for Jews only; it is not being offered to Muslims who were expelled from Spain in 1609.

There are essential steps that are taken when a country acknowledges mistakes committed in their past, even ancient past, and hopes to make amends. That is how a historical wrong is, if not made right, at least corrected. Neither Spain nor Portugal is engaging in any of those steps. They do not care about their past; only about their present. The invitation to restore citizenship is purely economically driven.

Neither Spain nor Portugal has yet to see the wrong that was done and the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of keeping their countries Christian. Today, with their warped and biased perceptions of Jews, they are trying to entice those same people who were deemed not good enough to live in their countries to come to Spain and Portugal to help energize their terrible economies.

There is no way to say it politely. They refuse to actually see how wrong it was. In history classes taught in Spain and Portugal today, the period of the expulsion and the Inquisition is neither shunned nor taught as a historical error. There is no way to explain why, other than that they do not consider it a mistake. The precedent has been set for them. In German schools today, the Holocaust is taught, and it is presented as a cataclysmal mistake. But not in Spain and Portugal.

All Spain wants now is a quick fix to its economic problems. That, in and of itself, is a horrific canard. Invite the Jews back. They are good with money. They will help our economy.

This is not an attempt at contrition. This is not an attempt at justice. This is a decision based on economic need. And that is why no invitation was extended to Muslims. The return of Muslims would mean that tens of millions of people could claim citizenship but they would not be bringing in money.

Unfortunately, Spain and Portugal do not stand alone as nations unwilling or incapable of taking responsibility for past mistakes.

While today’s nations and governments are not truly responsible for past mistakes, they should at least be willing to grapple and come to terms with them just as they take in the pride in the contributions that earlier generations made.

The United States is trying to do just that regarding slavery. Germany is trying to do it regarding the Holocaust. Less successful have been Austria and Russia, who both see themselves as victims of Hitlerism. While that is true, both Austria and Russia often conveniently forget that at specific times they were allied with Hitler and they, too, perpetrated horrific atrocities against civilians.

Countries need to come clean and teach about the great moments and the not so great moments in their history. History is complex and recognizing historical mistakes makes a country stronger, not weaker.

But when it comes to Spain and Portugal of today, I know this falls on deaf ears, just as the cries of those being tortured fell on deaf ears all those years ago. All they can hear is the clinking of money.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder.” This commentary is published in collaboration with Featurewell (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2014, on page 7.




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