A century ago, Marcelo Benveniste’s four Jewish grandparents emigrated from the Greek island of Rhodes to Argentina. Unlike many new arrivals on far-flung shores, they had little difficulty navigating their way through the challenges of a foreign tongue as as they already spoke Ladino, a language also known as Judaeo-Spanish that had been passed down through the generations since their ancestors fled Spain as part of the mass expulsion of Jews in 1492.
Hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews left as a result of the Granada Edict - which offered them the choice of either leaving the country, converting to Christianity or being sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition - dispersing across the length and breadth of southern Europe and North Africa.
Now Spain's parliament has passed a law aimed at righting this historical wrong, making it possible for the descendants of those Jews to regain Spanish nationality more than 500 years after being expelled from Sefarad, the Hebrew word for the Iberian peninsula.
"The Spanish government’s law helps Sephardic Jews to close a circle, healing a wound that was opened 523 years ago. It helps me feel that my life forms part of history itself," said Mr Benveniste over the telephone from Buenos Aires.
The 57-year-old who, together with his wife Liliana, runs a cultural website called eSefarad.com, is enthusiastic about applying for Spanish citizenship, even though he does not intend to move to Spain and has already been able to visit the country.
"I see it as symbolic, a recognition of the barbarity which is persecution of a people for the form in which they profess their faith," Mr Benveniste explained...
But while Jews are happy about the Spanish government’s gesture, many Muslims connected with the country feel that the law represents a selective take on history. As well as the Jews, the Catholic monarchs who united the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, also persecuted Muslims, especially after the 1492 fall of Granada, the last stronghold of Islam in Spain.
Those who stayed were forced to convert to Christianity and their descendants, known as Moriscos, were themselves subjected to a mass expulsion in the early 17th century.
“It is inexplicable that the Sephardic Jews receive this treatment and the Moriscos do not,” said Isabel Romero, president of the Junta Islámica (Muslim Council) association which defends Muslims’ rights in today’s Spain. “We would like to see a gesture of asking for forgiveness to give restitution to these Spaniards who were also expelled,” she explained.
Mrs Romero said her association will continue to demand redress for the injustice suffered by the Moriscos. “It is a question of Spanish identity and we are Spanish Muslims, even though a lot of people seem to think that Spanish nationality and Islam are somehow incompatible."
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