SEATTLE — When Doreen Alhadeff signed her Spanish citizenship papers in Toremmolinos, Spain, a few weeks ago, she became the first Jewish American to officially embrace Spain’s unusual 2015 law. For the first time since Jews were expelled from the country more than 500 years ago, the new legislation, and a similar law in Portugal, allows descendants of Sephardic Jews the option of applying for national rights.
After months of gathering documents and going through numerous legal hoops, Alhadeff, a 65-year-old grandmother from Seattle, knew she was making history.
“I felt a bit as if I were walking in the footsteps of my grandmother who was the first Sephardic woman to arrive in Seattle,” said Alhadeff after the signing ceremony. “At that moment, I thought of her, and of course, my parents who would have been proud of the achievement.”
Alhadeff’s husband, Joseph, who travelled with her, is also planning to apply once he learns Spanish, a skill his wife picked up during her college years studying in Spain in the late ’60s and ’70s.
“The language requirement holds me and many others back from taking advantage of this unique and wonderful opportunity,” said Joseph Alhadeff. “I feel very proud of my wife and happy for Sephardics around the world to have this opportunity.”
Today, Doreen Alhadeff is only one of six Americans to complete the citizenship process and earn dual citizenship. She has already opened application files for her grandchildren.
“This is becoming a global world,” she said. “With that [Spanish passport], you don’t need a work visa in the entire EU. To me, this is one of the greatest gifts I can give my grandchildren.”
‘I felt a bit as if I were walking in the footsteps of my grandmother’
Applying for Spanish citizenship is no easy task, however. Once would-be citizens open a digital application file online and upload copies of a passport, a birth certificate and proof of an FBI background check, they need two signed documents, usually from a rabbi or synagogue congregation president, who will vouch for the applicants historic Sephardic connections.
They must also pass a basic Spanish language test, along with a Spanish culture and values test.
As of January 13, 2016, Spain’s Ministry of Justice reported that 1,016 applicants from many countries have started the process, said Luis Portero, counsel for the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, known as the FCJE by its Spanish acronym.
Portero, who travelled to the US states of Washington and Oregon to meet with the Sephardic communities, answered questions about the Spanish “right of return” law. He was also one of the people who helped Alhadeff through the application process.
Because of the complexity of the process, it took the concerted efforts of the FCJE and the honorary consul of Spain for the Pacific Northwest, Luis Estaban, to make sure all of the legal requirements were met.
Estaban is well-acquainted with the Northwest’s Sephardic communities and is the liaison between the Spanish parliament and a majority of the Sephardic population in the two states. According to Estaban, there are about 5,000 Sephardic Jews in Washington and maybe 200 in Oregon.
“Generally, there are, maybe, 40 or 50 others who are calling in for more information about Spanish citizenship,” he said.
The Spanish government believes that more than two million applicants could potentially apply for citizenship under the new law, but expects to receive between 90,000 and 190,000 applications. The FCJE, however, estimates that between 40,000 and 50,000 Sephardim will apply for a Spanish passport.
The number of Sephardim in the Diaspora that could possibly qualify for citizenship under a similar Portuguese law passed in January 2015 is nearly 150,000, the FCJE noted.
‘Some of my clients wish to get this citizenship based on sentimental reasons, and some for more practical reasons’
To date, there are 16 countries represented in the applicant pool that have started the process online. In the United States, 59 applicants opened online files, according to data from Spain’s Ministry of Justice. Ecuador has the highest number with 167 followed by Argentina with 107. Israel has the third-largest group, with 73 applicants.
“This makes it a unique opportunity for the Israelis who never thought they could obtain a European citizenship because their parents or grandparents were not born in Europe,” said attorney Maya Weiss-Tamir, the founder of a law firm that is helping its clients with Spanish citizenship applications in Israel.
“I can say that some of my clients wish to get this citizenship based on sentimental reasons, and some for more practical reasons,” said Weiss-Tamir.
According to Alhadeff, while in Madrid, a Jewish man from Colombia who was also there to sign citizenship papers remarked that a Spanish passport gives every Jew another place to go “just in case” and also felt it was important for his children and grandchildren.
Once the Spanish government has given its written approval for granting citizenship, an applicant has one year within which to return to Spain and formally apply for the passport.
“I think citizenship is very important and that it’s a gift forever,” said Alhadeff. “It’s generational, and the descendency goes on forever.”
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