Sephardic Jews call for right of return to Spain
By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
20 October 2002
Sephardic Jews from around the world assembled in Barcelona last week to campaign for the right to return to their Spanish homeland which they call Sefarad from which their ancestors were expelled by Catholic monarchs in 1492.
"I hope Spain will take up the challenge and restore nationality to those Spaniards who were expelled, and I hope this will take months, rather than years," said Giaco Ventura, president of the World Sephardic Congress Foundation and a Barcelona businessman.
"We want to recover our nationality by right: our people did not leave because they wanted to, but because they were forced," said Albert Levy Oved, head of the Latin American Sephardic community.
The historic meeting of some 200 representatives from Turkey, Hungary, South Africa and Latin America was only the second gathering of the Sephardi diaspora, and the first ever on Spanish soil. The other was in Vienna in 1932.
Despite the passing of five centuries since some 200,000 Jews were driven out of Spain, many of their 4.5 million descendants still speak Ladino, a form of medieval Spanish. Some even claim to own the ancient keys to Spanish homes, handed down successive generations in the symbolic hope that one day they might return.
The congress sought to overcome Spain's ignorance of the contribution made by Jewish scholars, philosophers and scientists before their expulsion. "If Spaniards were taught how their Sephardi brethren contributed to so many positive aspects of their culture, they would learn to understand and respect us," Mr Ventura said. "For many years our history books have had chapters missing."
Medieval Spanish Jews, Christians and Muslims formed a community of scholars who translated into Latin or other languages the philosophical, religious and scientific works written in Arabic and Hebrew. They created a golden age of culture, science and craftsmanship that permeated Europe until, in 1492, the Jews were given two months to leave, and Spain was stripped of its intellectual and artistic elite.
Spain has made gestures of remorse for the cruelty and injustice inflicted. King Juan Carlos recently confessed that he "never understood" why Spain's monarchs took such drastic action. Madrid's government representative in Catalonia, Julia Garcia Valdecasas, told the conference they were "welcome" in a Spain that was today more open and tolerant.
But she made no commitment, and the Sephardi community is pondering how to move from words to actions. Some say links with Spain have over time become symbolic rather than real, that they have sunk roots in countries that welcomed them. But others fought to keep alive their Spanish identity and traditions, especially their language, and some of them want to come home.
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