Forward Thinking

King Juan Carlos Gone — Can Sephardic Jews Still Return?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

  • Print
  • Share Share

Spain’s King Juan Carlos / Getty Images

If Juan Carlos didn’t entirely reconcile Spain and the Sephardic Jews, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The Spanish king announced his abdication this morning, 39 years into a reign that stands both as an argument for monarchy and an argument against it.

Lionized for shepherding Spain through its democratic transition in the 1970s, Juan Carlos has seen his approval ratings crater as scandals and economic crisis have eroded faith in the Spanish monarchy.

To many Sephardic Jews, the king was not only a symbol of Spain’s resurgent democracy, but of the country’s efforts to atone for the anti-Jewish sins of its past, however ham-fisted some of those efforts turned out to be.

It’s safe to say that, from a Sephardic perspective, Juan Carlos was the best Spanish king in over half a millennium. An heir to the throne of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who expelled Spain’s Jews in 1492, Juan Carlos asserted that their descendants remained a part of Spain. In 1992, the king attended a ceremony at Madrid’s main synagogue, a symbolically weighty moment in a country that actively persecuted hidden Jews for centuries.

In the years following that meeting, tens of thousands of Jews immigrated to Spain from Latin America — not Sephardic descendants of the expelled Spanish Jews, but Ashkenazi Jews fleeing economic and political unrest. Today, 45,000 Jews live in Spain, many multiples of the population when Juan Carlos came to power.

It’s hard not to admire the old king. The grandson of the exiled Alfonso XIII, who backed Franco during the Civil War, Juan Carlos was groomed to rule after Franco’s death. Once on the throne, however, instead of exercising the absolute power he had inherited, Juan Carlos guided Spain through a uniquely peaceful democratic transition. In 1981, the king quashed a coup attempt by reactionary military officers, effectively consolidating Spain’s nascent democracy.

The latter years of Juan Carlos’s reign, however, have been fraught. Spain is in crisis. The king’s abdication came after days of riots in Barcelona, just the latest example of the unrest that has grown increasingly common there. Youth unemployment in Spain is over 50%. The Catalonian independence movement threatens the integrity of the Spanish state.

The monarch’s behavior in the face of these crises has, at times, been aloof. In one oft-cited debacle, the king traveled to Botswana for a hugely expensive elephant hunting trip in 2012, a trip that was meant to be secret until he broke his hip and had to be flown home on a private jet.

Meanwhile, the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, was accused of corruption in 2011. That embarrassing case has remained in Spanish headlines for years.

Though the king intends to hand off the crown to his son, left-wing Spanish political parties immediately called for a referendum on the future of the monarchy. City halls across Spain raised the historical flag of the Second Spanish Republic, and protesters launched demonstrations throughout the country. Hashtags calling for a referendum, and even for a Third Spanish Republic, are trending in Spain. As one columnist in the Spanish daily El Pais put it, this transition will not be tranquil.

It’s unclear how all this might impact the proposed citizenship law for Sephardic Jews, which ministers from Spain’s right-wing ruling party have been supporting since 2012. The bill must still be approved by Spain’s parliament, and it seems unlikely that it will remain a priority.

As Spain ponders its future, Sephardic Jews worldwide will be paying close attention. What’s best for Spain will be best for the Sephardim — both those few who live there, and the many who care about Spain’s future.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: citizenship, Spain, Sephardic, Juan Carlos

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.