Over 500 years after their descendants were expelled from Spain in 1492, more than 132,000 Jews have applied for Spanish nationality under a limited-term offer that expired in early October

The Spanish parliament passed a law in October 2015 that sought to address a what it called a “historic mistake” by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who in 1492 ordered Spain’s centuries-old Jewish community to either convert to Catholicism, be burned at the stake for heresy, or be permanently deported from Spain.

Historians believe there were at least 200,000 Jews living in Spain at the time, who today are known as Sephardim — the Hebrew term for Jews of Spanish origin. In the decades and centuries before Isabella and Ferdinand’s decree, Spain’s Jewish community was one of the largest in the world. Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula for more than 1,700 years, producing philosophers, poets, diplomats, mathematicians, physicians, scholars, translators, and merchants. Their numbers had diminished due to a series of massacres and mass conversions in the decades leading up to their eventual expulsion at the hands of the infamous Spanish Inquisition.

The 12th-century Congregrational Synagogue in Toledo, Spain. Built in Mudejar-style by Moorish artisans, the synagogue is one of the oldest in Europe and was later converted into a Catholic church known as Santa Maria la Blanca before becoming a museum dedicated to Spain’s Jews.

An estimated 100,000 or more were expelled to Italy, North Africa, the Netherlands, and parts of the Ottoman Empire. Many continued to speak Ladino, a variant of 15th-century Spanish, and preserved elements of Iberian culture. The tens of thousands who stayed in both Spain and Portugal converted, but were routinely persecuted by the Inquisition. 

Hoping to make amends, the Spanish Parliament passed legislation that offered citizenship to anyone who could prove “their Jewish heritage and their special connection” to Spain.

Today Spain has one of the smallest Jewish populations in Europe — about 15,000 people in a country of more than 46 million. The number of Sephardic Jews in the world is estimated at just under 4 million, with the overwhelming majority living in Israel.

According to the justice ministry, 132,226 people of Sephardic descent applied for Spanish citizenship before the deadline, with a huge rise in applications in the past month.

“In September alone, almost 72,000 were received”, most of from those who claim either full or partial Sephardic descent in Latin American countries like Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

Although the process does not require applicants to be practicing Jews or to be resident in Spain, it is long, complicated and expensive process. As well as taking tests in Spanish language and culture, applicants needed to prove their Sephardic heritage, establish or prove a special connection with Spain, and then pay a designated notary to certify their documents.

At the time that the legislation expired, only 6,000 people have been granted citizenship, given the long and complex process involved.

A similar law was approved in Portugal in 2015 to atone for the expulsions that took place under the Portuguese branch of the Inquisition in the late 15th-century.

The Jewish Community of Porto in northern Portugal – which, along with the Lisbon Jewish community, certifies applicants – has received just 400 applications, thus far.

This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition