Jews in Spain

The walled city of Toledo was one of the great centers of Jewish culture on the Iberian Peninsula. More than half a millennium later, the Jews who flock to its two medieval synagogues are tourists, not worshipers. (Gerard Julien, AFP/Getty Images / February 27, 2014)

TOLEDO, Spain — The Jews who flock to the two medieval synagogues in this walled city are tourists, not worshipers. No one of their faith has practiced it in the temples' exquisitely decorated precincts since 1492.

That was the year King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, besides dispatching Christopher Columbus to look for a passage to India, decreed that the Jews of Spain had to either convert to Christianity or quit the country. Many fled — and were robbed, beaten or raped on the way out. Those who stayed faced possible torture and a gruesome death in the Spanish Inquisition.

More than half a millennium later, Spain says it is intent on rectifying its "historic mistake." Under a government proposal still to be voted on by lawmakers, descendants of Spanish Jews would be offered citizenship and welcomed back to the land that drove out their ancestors.

Up to 3.5 million Jews worldwide trace their lineage to Spain, although it's not clear how or when their forebears made their way there in the first place. Known as Sephardic Jews after the Hebrew word for Spain, they scattered across Europe, North Africa and farther afield. Nowadays, the highest concentration of Sephardim is in Israel.

Spanish embassies around the globe have fielded inquiries from Jews who view the proposal as a poignant gesture of contrition and reconciliation and others who see it as an opportunity to receive a European Union passport and the right to settle in any of the EU's 28 nations.

For Amit Ben-Aroya, it's both.

"It is genuinely moving, a symbolic act of reconnecting with old and curious roots, and equally exciting in terms of the opportunities this might harbor, like access to the European market," said the 40-year-old lawyer, who lives outside Tel Aviv. "And generally speaking, being able to travel with a passport that is not Israeli is certainly an advantage."

His surname derives from the Spanish word arroyo and possibly a town of that name. A man called Abou Isaac Benarroyo is documented to have lived in Toledo in the 12th century, according to Beit Hatfutsot, a museum of the Jewish diaspora in Tel Aviv.

Ben-Aroya said that after his ancestors' expulsion, they wound up in Turkey, migrated to Bulgaria and finally settled in Palestine in the early 20th century.

His grandparents, father and aunt are fluent in Ladino, a version of Spanish that many exiled Jews passed down and is readily understandable to a modern-day Spanish speaker. The family Bible, printed in Turkey in 1873, is a two-volume set in both Hebrew and Ladino.

But exactly what the Spanish government would consider sufficient proof of Spanish heritage — and what is producible so many centuries later — is not yet clear. Possible evidence includes fluency in Ladino or a surname that clearly originated in Spain, such as Toledano, meaning a person from Toledo.

"We have no physical evidence that survived 500 years, and I am not certain anyone else has," said Ben-Aroya.

For Spain, the move to embrace the heirs of those it once disowned (or worse) offers a chance to shine a light on a dark and dusty corner of its past.

"There was a veil of silence over this part of our history, and we want to pull back this veil and give voice to those Jews," said Santiago Palomero, director of the state-run Sephardic Museum in Toledo. "This forms part of the collective memory."

The museum is housed in the spacious 14th century Synagogue of El Transito, which became a church and a hospital. With intricately carved plaster, arched windows and inscriptions in both Hebrew and Arabic, it's now one of the city's most visited heritage sites.

The other, even older synagogue, now called Synagogue of St. Mary the White, was also used as a church and is now a popular tourist stop for Jewish and other tourists who come to admire its crumbling columns and imagine the people who once worshiped there.

During the temples' heyday, Toledo was one of the great centers of Jewish culture on the Iberian Peninsula. Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in an often uneasy but largely peaceful atmosphere of religious tolerance.

Toward the end of the 15th century, however, Spain's Catholic rulers grew more insistent on Christian conformity. The Inquisition began in Sevilla in 1481; then, on March 31, 1492, the Alhambra Decree, was issued, alleging that Jews were trying to turn Christians "to their own wicked belief and conviction"; they were ordered to convert or leave.

Those who stayed and adopted Christianity, with varying degrees of sincerity, were known as conversos. Some descendants remain in Spain, but after half a millennium of intermarriage and Catholic domination, many are unaware of their Jewish antecedents.

"Here in Spain we have, like in America, very mixed blood," said Maria Royo, spokeswoman for the Madrid-based Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain.