As a bill to offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews awaits a parliamentary vote, 60 leaders of top Jewish-American organizations met with King Juan Carlos I at Zarzuela Palace on Thursday as part of a trip dedicated to strengthening ties between Spain, Israel, and the US.
The meeting aims to “break down barriers of the past and build bridges for the future,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The delegation, coordinated by the Conference and headed by Hoenlein and Chairman Robert Sugarman, was received warmly by the king, who referenced historic Jewish contributions to science, philosophy, culture and arts in Spain.
The representatives thanked the king for the proposed Spanish right of return that would facilitate requests for citizenship for the descendants of 1492 expellees.
“Spain’s doors are open to you now and always,” the king said.
News of the bill prompted a flurry of excited responses from the Sephardic Jewish community. Maya Weiss-Tamir, an attorney who handles citizenship requests in Israel, told Channel 2 she had received 150 applications since the bill approval announcement on February 8.
“The motives vary,” she said. “There are those who are interested in citizenship for sentimental reasons; the connection to their Spanish roots and the symbolism in receiving Spanish citizenship. And there are those who are looking at the practical reasons — like the option to work and study in Europe.”
However, some Orthodox Israeli rabbis, including Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, a Sephardic rabbi, denounced it.
“There is an ancient [rabbinic] ban against returning to Spain,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Spain and Portugal during the 15th and 16th centuries, when they were persecuted by the Catholic church and the royal houses of both countries.
JTA contributed to this report.