MADRID: 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 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 during the Spanish Inquisition. Those who chose to leave were dispersed 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 name 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. The 57-year-old who, 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. "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, although he admitted that he has received "some inquiries from people whose main interest is to acquire a European passport".
For Rafael Catala, the justice minister in Spain's conservative Popular Party government, the new law is meant to "open the door once again to those who were so unjustly expelled".
"This rule says a lot about who we were, who we are and who we want to carry on being: an open, diverse and tolerant Spain," Mr Catala said on June 11, the day parliament passed the law. It allows Sephardic Jews around the world to add Spanish nationality to their existing citizenship, as long as they can demonstrate good knowledge of Ladino or modern Spanish and have surnames that demonstrate a link to the Jewish communities who once lived in Spain.
But while Jews are happy about the Spanish government's gesture, many Muslims connected to 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 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, the president of the Junta Islamica (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 would 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," she said.
How many Sephardic Jews like Mr Benveniste might be taking up the offer of citizenship remains unclear. Jose Benarroch, who was brought up in Spain but who now lives in Israel where he is the president of the Worldwide Sephardic Union, told the newspaper El Pais that between 100,000 and half a million people could theoretically apply for Spanish citizenship under the legislation. But he said he expects the actual number of applications to be no more than 100,000, which, however, is still more than a symbolic figure given that Spain's current Jewish population stands at just 40,000.