Ancestry, Genealogy, and Restorative Citizenship
Oral Histories of Sephardi Descendants Reclaiming Spanish and Portuguese Nationality
The 2015 Spanish and Portuguese nationality laws for descendants of Sephardi Jews are unusual in their motivation to redress wrongs committed more than half a millennium ago. Both have enabled descendants of those Sephardi Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, or forced to convert to Christianity, to claim citizenship status through naturalization. The laws have elicited ancestral and contemporary stories that speak to the personal and social meanings applicants give to these citizenships. Through extensive oral histories with fifty-five applicants across four continents, we examine our narrators’ views on the laws’ deep roots in a genealogical concept of belonging, based on familial and biological heritage and the persistent criterion of the bloodline. We argue that the responses of Sephardi applicants complicate traditional notions of genealogical inclusion, unveiling instead a multiplicity of meanings attached to identity, belonging, and contemporary citizenship. While Spain and Portugal’s offer of what we call “restorative citizenship” requires the demonstration of biological and genealogical certainties, we argue that those seeking Spanish or Portuguese nationality complicate, expand, and sometimes subvert state constructions of citizenship as well as transform their own identities and belonging. More than recuperating a lost Spanish or Portuguese identity, many Sephardi descendants are discovering or deepening their ties to ancestral history and culture. Sephardi genealogy is also being mobilized in a contemporary global and European context in which citizenship and belonging are no longer defined exclusively by nation state territoriality, but rather through claims to new hybrid, multiple, and flexible identities.