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.
Spain is now home to about 50,000 observant Jews. (It is also home to about 1 million Muslims, some of whom have asked why the government is not moving to extend the same right of return to descendants of those expelled in the early 1600s.)
Although outright anti-Semitism in Spain is rare these days, Royo said, unthinking prejudice remains embedded in expressions such as mercado de judios, or “market of Jews,” meaning, roughly, “every man for himself.” In February, the governor of the Extremadura region apologized for using the phrase at a news conference.
Spain’s attempt to atone goes back to 1992, when King Juan Carlos visited a synagogue in Madrid with Israeli President Chaim Herzog and pledged that “never again will hate and intolerance provoke desolation and exile.”
The push to offer Spanish citizenship is being led by Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, whose great-grandfather is credited with saving dozens of Jews from being sent to concentration camps during World War II while he served as ambassador to Romania.
The Spanish government previously has allowed some Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship but required them to give up their current nationalities. The new proposal does not include that condition.
Although lawmakers have yet to vote on the bill, the ruling Popular Party’s majority is so large that it is almost certain to pass. Moreover, the proposal has drawn virtually no opposition.
But it has triggered debate in Israel, where about half the Jewish population is Sephardic. Some rabbis have denounced Madrid’s move as a cynical bid to buy an undeserved pardon. Others credit the Spanish government with earnestly trying to make amends and note that some Israelis have accepted reparation payments from Germany and even German citizenship (available since 1949) if their families had been forced to flee by the Nazis.
Tamar Alexander, a professor at Ben-Gurion University’s center of Ladino culture, told the newspaper Haaretz that there was a “new wind blowing in Spain.” and lauded Madrid for moving to give Sephardic Jews like her the chance to return to the “bosom of our mother and country of origin.”
How many would actually take up the offer remains to be seen. The Spanish economy is struggling to regain its footing after a deep and painful recession; 1 in 4 workers — including half those younger than 25 — is out of a job.
Ben-Aroya, the Israeli lawyer, wonders whether that might figure into the Spanish government’s move.
“Beyond providing historic closure, I can only guess this is partly related to the economic situation in Spain and the thought of Israeli high-tech and other fields that could offer superb growth engines for the economy,” he said.
Palomero, the museum director in Toledo, holds loftier ideals. Helping Spain recover part of its past and opening its arms to the heirs of those who contributed to its history could point the way to a more tolerant, more inclusive future.
“Spain is an example of a place where we all once lived together in harmony,” he said. “Democracy is quite new in Spain, and this period of democracy is a time for us to discover our multicultural roots. We can be an example to the world in this.”
Times staff writer Chu reported from Toledo and Times Jerusalem bureau news assistant Sobelman reported from Jerusalem.