Conversion, Citizenship, and the Pragmatics of Jewish Inclusion in Contemporary Spain

What does it mean to return to a people, place, or time? In the third lecture of the Modern Mediterranean Societies Series on November 14, Charles McDonald (Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology and History, The New School for Social Research) took up this question in relation to Spain’s recent citizenship legislation and the return of Sephardic Jews. He discussed the disparate actors and motivations for a return, drawing from over eighteen months of fieldwork in his paper “Conversion, Citizenship, and the Pragmatics of Jewish Inclusion in Contemporary Spain.” Marcy Brink-Danan (Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) responded to McDonald’s paper before opening the floor for questions.

In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg asked, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” McDonald opened his lecture with Goldberg’s question, noting the tendency of scholars to focus on European Jews through frameworks of exclusion such as anti-Semitism and exodus. Instead of contributing to the discussion in terms of exclusion, McDonald suggested examining Europe’s trajectory through the idea of inclusion. He called attention to Spain in particular, which he characterized by “the promise of return.” He focused on issues of Jewish citizenship and, more specifically, the return of Sephardic Jews. For Spain, McDonald argued, such a return meant a chance at regenerating and modernizing the country by providing citizenship to those of Sephardic heritage. To illustrate this point, McDonald quoted King Juan Carlos’ 1992 speech, “Sepharad is no longer nostalgia, but a home.” However, McDonald explained, despite these efforts and sentiments, Spain’s attempt at reincorporating Sepharad proved to be more complex than anticipated. The Spanish government expected more than 200,000 applications for repatriation under the law, but ultimately, only “a handful of people” applied for citizenship. As one example of the kind of mindset that might have led to this outcome, McDonald told the story of woman who was concerned that taking advantage of the new legislation might mean absolving Spain for past wrongs. McDonald concluded with an exploration of how alternate conceptions of return function in this complicated context, such as looking at new converts or the refusal to be included under Spain’s citizenship law as modes of “return.”

Following McDonald’s presentation, Marcy Brink-Danan raised further questions. How are people making sense of these shifting categories to which they might belong? And at what point does a category—in this case the identity of Sepharad—become meaningful to the individual or community? After Brink-Danan’s response, the moderator allowed the thoughtful audience an opportunity to ask questions of either McDonald or Brink-Danan regarding the current state of Jewish identity and inclusion in Spain. The lecture, response, and interactive section of the event provided an illuminating and poignant perspective on the current state of Jewish identity and inclusion in Spain.