After 500 years, Spain wants Jews back

Bloomberg NewsApril 4, 2014 

There’s a whiff of desperation in Spain’s latest plan to naturalize descendants of the Jews the country’s rulers expelled back in 1492.

The initiative – advertised as righting a historic wrong – began seven years ago, and since then Spain has granted citizenship to 746 Sephardic Jews, mostly from Venezuela and Turkey. A proposed bill is meant to ease the citizenship process for 3.5 million descendants, many of them living in Latin America and Israel.

The question is why now? Spain is barely clawing its way back from the deepest economic crisis in almost half a century. Unemployment hovers around 26 percent – youth joblessness is an eye-watering 50 percent – and the state has cut health, education and other entitlements. Plus, frustrated, unemployed Spaniards aren’t too welcoming of foreigners.

In reality, Spain’s immigration bill is the latest attempt to attract talent, ideas and money to an economy in need of all three. It’s almost poetic justice. After all, what is worse: kicking out Jewish people because of their faith, or calling them back more than 500 years later because of the notion – prevalent in Spain – that Jews are educated, industrious and excel at business? Spanish politicians would do well to explain why such a spirit of historic justice doesn’t extend to the descendants of the almost 300,000 Muslims Spain cast out in 1609.

In fairness, the bill is well-intentioned. For starters, it means Spain recognizes the need to shake up things and bring in new blood. The bill would also allow Jewish beneficiaries to keep other citizenships instead of asking them to renounce them. This suggests Spanish politicians are finally grasping that openness to national diversity makes countries such as the United States powerful magnets for international talent. Moreover, immigrants tend to have a solid work ethic; Spain’s Chinese community, for example, has thrived amid the country’s economic woes.

The immigration bill also helps account for why many Brazilians seem eager these days to explore their Jewish ancestry and obtain a Spanish passport even though Brazil’s economic troubles are arguably more manageable than Spain’s. It is no secret that immigration has flowed the other way in recent years, with a generation of young Spaniards heading to the U.S. and Latin America looking for a better life.

If Spain wants immigrants to help overcome its economic difficulties it could do much more. True, Spain already began cutting taxes to stimulate growth. But it should tailor and promote more attractive tax advantages for those who create companies and generate new jobs. Spain might also learn something from Chile – it’s former colony – where the government has offered money and tax breaks to technology startups willing to set up shop in Santiago.

Getting a country back on its feet takes more than a passport, a handshake and talk of redemption. If Spain is really so intent on making amends for the wrongs it committed so long ago, there’s a whole region called Latin America that wants its gold back.

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