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Spain turns back on citizen applications

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Bernardo Pulido spent more than $29 000 (R440 630) on genealogical documentation, Jewish heritage certificates, attorney fees, and trips to Spain to prove his Sephardic heritage.

But last month, like so many others attempting to gain Spanish citizenship through a 2015 law promising to right the wrongs of the Spanish Inquisition that expelled Jews, Pulido received a rejection letter from the Spanish government.

Pulido, a 61-year-old engineer from Caracas, Venezuela, drew a parallel between the decision and the Inquisition, which forced many of his ancestors to flee in 1492, fearing for their lives. For Venezuelans, a Spanish passport represents a way out of a country in the midst of a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. He plans to appeal the rejection.

“It hurts me a lot because we have complied with all the requirements and followed the law. Many lawyers have told me that how the law is being applied to us now is illegal,” he said.

Newly published citizenship data from Spain’s justice ministry reveals that just in the past quarter alone, 2 276 applications were turned down, compared to a total of three before this year.

Of the 150 000 total applications that have been submitted since 2015, 33 485 people have been granted citizenship to date. Only about 6 000 have been accepted in the past quarter. Applicants from Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico have been severely affected.

The sudden shift, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned, is driven by a fear of fraud and is the product of what some experts say are retroactively implemented bureaucratic standards for applications. The Spanish government denies any changes in the application process.

To be eligible for a Spanish passport, applicants have to put forward evidence of medieval Sephardi ancestry through heritage certificates and family trees. They also have to demonstrate special links to Spain and Spanish language skills through tests.

An internal notice issued by Spain’s General Directorate of Legal Safety and Public Trust indicates that a change in the interpretation of the law took effect last October. Previously, government notaries were the first intermediary for applicants, sending applications along to government officials or directing applicants to gather more materials. Since October, government officials have stepped in, rejecting applications previously approved by the notaries and not giving applicants a chance to submit further documentation before issuing a rejection letter.

Additionally, Spain’s justice ministry had previously approved many applications with Sephardic heritage certificates from organisations such as the Union Sefaradi Mundial and the Jewish Federation of New Mexico. Today, the ministry is accepting only certificates issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which ceased issuing them on 31 July so that it could get through a backlog of applications. (The federation is, for the time being, still issuing certificates to Sephardim who have been living in Spain for at least two years and wish to apply for Spanish citizenship on the basis of residence, but that’s something it has done since the 1990s.)

“The government was previously approving lots of cases with the very same certificates and documentation that are being denied now,” said David Arevalillo de la Torre, a lawyer from Madrid who is currently handling hundreds of rejection cases.

The Spanish “Law of Return” as it is sometimes nicknamed, has also closed its new application window entirely for the near future. It will need parliamentary approval to be reopened.

In a statement to JTA, the ministry denied any change in the way the law is being interpreted but said that it was cracking down on suspected fraud perpetrated by some applicants. According to a recent article in El Pais daily, a police report sent to the ministry at the end of 2018 alerted it to the existence of a criminal organisation behind alleged fraud.

“The grounds for denial may be varied and different in each case,” the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain wrote in an email to JTA. “There is no common typology through which the files are denied. What we can assure is that, after six years of collaboration with the ministry of justice, the work carried out has been rigorous and professional at all times.”

Sometimes the federation certificate isn’t enough, as in the case of Carlos Rizzo of Venezuela, whose mother and aunt, both senior citizens, had their federation-backed applications denied last month. Rizzo is one of a significant number of applicants now appealing rejections for themselves and for family members.

“I have no choice but to appeal until the very end. This is an injustice in every sense of the word,” Rizzo said.

Applicants have one month to appeal after receiving a rejection letter. After that, the Spanish government has up to 90 days to give an official reply. But several attorneys involved in the process said that appeals often tend to go completely unanswered.

If their appeal is answered and rejected, applicants can sue the government as a last-ditch effort to gain citizenship. The appeal process leads to additional lawyer fees, since individuals cannot legally file the appeals by themselves.

“It’s only after an administrative appeal that the applicant can go to litigation before the Supreme Court,” Arevalillo de la Torre said.

There is another option for those fleeing desperate situations: Portugal passed a similar bill in 2015, granting citizenship to Sephardic descendants. Data from last year shows that 23 000 people have obtained a Portuguese passport through the law.

But the Portuguese law is more restrictive because it requires applicants to prove ties with a specifically Portuguese Sephardic community. The smaller Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto are the only organisations that can approve applications, which must show ties to one of them.

Officials in Washington and Spain have expressed outrage over the wave of Spanish rejections. United States House Representative Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat from New Mexico, raised the issue with the White House and the state department.

In Spain, two members of parliament, Valentina Martinez and Pablo Hispan of the conservative People’s Party, have also asked the government for further explanation, the El Mundo daily reported. If the current trend continues, experts predict that tens of thousands of applications will be rejected in the coming quarter.

Pulido plans to sue the government if his appeal is neglected or overturned.

“In my family, we are very disappointed by these decisions. Our intention is to return to Spain and contribute with our skills and knowledge to their society,” he said. “I don’t understand how there is so much lack of appreciation on the part of the Spanish government.”

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Stories from hell: SA Jews remember 9/11

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September 11 2001 was 20 years ago and seemingly a million miles away, but for some South African Jews who were eye witness to the events, it remains close to home.

“I still have nightmares,” says Jonathan “Jonty” Kantor, who was meant to meet a friend at the World Trade Center (WTC) that day. He slept late, and woke to news of the attack, which profoundly changed his life.

“We didn’t know what was going on, and we honestly thought the world was coming to an end,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other South African Jews who were there. With all communication cut off, those who witnessed the chaos and horror had reason to believe it.

Kantor now lives in Johannesburg, but he was a student at Yeshiva Somayach Monsey at the time. He remembers that when he woke up, “everything was so quiet. Then I saw other students in a panic. They believed we were all about to die. They told me that planes had hit the WTC. I had always wanted to go there, and had arranged to meet a friend there that morning, but we both thankfully survived.”

He was also teaching a class whose students all had parents working at the WTC. By some miracle, all the parents survived. He also remembers that there were two brisses that day, which delayed people from going to work.

In the weeks that followed, “it was the same heaviness in the whole city that you see in a dead body. The only light was seeing Hatzolah rushing in to help. And you couldn’t walk more than a block without people hugging you.” This was in complete contrast to the city he had arrived in at the end of 2000, where he found people to be incredibly unfriendly.

Soon afterwards, he decided to return to South Africa. “I realised that nothing was more important than being with the people I love. 9/11 taught me that we shouldn’t take for granted the life we have. We complain about the small things, but they’re actually not important. Here in South Africa, we have a really good life, even with the difficulties. If we focused more on the positives, we could be happier.”

Port Elizabeth-born Grant Gochin, who now lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to be on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into Tower Two. “Our friends Dan, Ron, and their three-year-old son David had been on vacation in Rhode Island. We were in Manhattan. We were supposed to meet up and fly home together. My son, Bryce, was only about five months old. He was as cranky as hell. I was so frustrated that I said to [my husband], Russell, ‘Let’s just go home.’”

“We came home on the Monday. On the Tuesday morning we had the television on. The first plane hit, and I thought it had been an accident. Then United 175 hit, and I asked Russell, ‘Wasn’t that the flight we were supposed to be on?’ We realised that Dan, Ron, and David were dead.”

American born and bred Stacie Hasson now lives in Cape Town, and has some unsettling links to 9/11. Her close friend lived next door to lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, who lived and trained in South Florida in the months before the attack. “We would spend so much time at my friend’s house, and Atta would be around. He was always wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses,” she says.

Not only that, but she also lost a friend in the attack. “I remember exactly where I was at just 21 years old, learning that my childhood neighbour, Michelle Goldstein, lost her life in Tower Two shortly after calling her mother to say she was okay after Tower One was hit. She got married six months to the day before it happened. Finding Michelle’s name at the memorial was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for.”

“I saw people jumping out of the towers,” says Elise Barron Jankelowitz, who was visiting New York with her brother after attending her other brother’s wedding in Chicago. They were going to stay at a friend, but landed up staying at the Marriott Hotel that linked the Twin Towers.

“We arrived the night before, and woke up to a blast. The hotel’s alarm was going off. Our windows were starting to crack, and we saw smoke and debris.” At first they were told to stay in their rooms. If they had, they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

“Eventually, they told us to get out. We got dressed, grabbed passports and travellers cheques, and started walking down the stairs from the 15th floor,” she says. “The lifts weren’t working. We heard people shout, ‘A body hit my [hotel] window!’ Lots of people were in pyjamas. As we were ushered out, policemen said, ‘Cover your head and run.’ As we were crossing the road, we heard this insane noise of a jet engine, and then the second plane hit.”

That was when they saw people jump. It was also when her brother told her “these buildings are coming down – we need to get away”. He also said they should stay near water in case they needed to jump in.

That was when the first building fell. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A man appeared and it looked like his eyes were bleeding. He was covered in ash. I gave him a bottle of water, and as he washed his face, he said, ‘I’ve just come from hell.’”

They were waiting by the Staten Island Ferry when the second tower fell. “We hid under a truck. Everyone thought bombs might fall, or another plane might hit.” Eventually, they made their way to Staten Island where they bought essentials and got hold of family. They lost everything they left in the hotel, but were grateful to be alive. “As we flew out of New York six days later, there were fighter jets on either side of us. I’m so grateful my brother thought so smartly. We went back a year later to retrace our steps.”

Rabbi Levi Avtzon, now rabbi of Linksfield Shul, was a 17-year-old yeshiva student when he saw the second plane hit. “In the corner of the large study hall, which was on the fourth floor of a large building in Brooklyn, there was a fire escape. If you stood there, you had a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.” He heard that smoke was coming out of the towers, so he and others went to look. Some drifted away, but he stayed. “A plane suddenly showed up. I was sure it was from the fire department coming to spray water. A split second later, the top half of the south tower blew up. It looked like a 50-story fire – like a bubble of fire.”

Later, visiting Ground Zero, “I remember the stench. It was all-encompassing. The whole experience made me feel unsafe. I would stand at the same fire escape and check that the Empire State Building was still there. Twenty years later, I still struggle to make sense of the events of the day.”

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Abraham Accords, one year on

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This week a year ago, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo switched on his television set and like the rest of the world, heard the surprise announcement that Bahrain, a tiny country of 33 islands situated between the Qatari peninsula and the north eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, was making peace with Israel.

Nonoo was stunned. As head of the Bahraini Jewish community that comprises only 36 Jews, he had no idea what had been happening behind closed doors.

“For me it came out of the blue,” he says while we walk through the local souk (marketplace) where his grandfather sold spices after arriving from Iraq in the early 1900s. The tiny shops on the cobbled streets all advertise the same clothing, spices, and antiques, regardless of what the pushy merchants claim as we walk past.

“We knew the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was signing peace with Israel and that was a huge step forward,” smiles Nonoo.

“We were thinking, ‘Oh G-d, is it going to be us next?’ But we didn’t know. And then, of course, after it was announced, all the newspapers wanted to know more details and I went to the foreign minister and said to him, ‘Listen, they’re all asking us to give information. So what do you want us to do?’ He said, ‘Well, just tell them whatever you want.’”

Just two days after the announcement, a signing ceremony was held at the White House.

Israel, the United States (US), the UAE, and Bahrain signed the historic Abraham Accords in which the latter two recognised, for the first time, the state of Israel and set about normalising diplomatic relations with her.

Later, two other Arab nations, Sudan and Morocco, followed suit and joined the Accords, raising the number of Arab states with formal diplomatic ties to Israel from two to six.

The Abraham Accords weren’t just a diplomatic victory. They opened up  collaboration on tourism, trade, technology, and more. But because they were a foreign policy win for former American president, Donald Trump, his successor, Joe Biden, didn’t exactly call attention to this year’s anniversary. In fact, the current US administration’s spokesperson has never used the term “Abraham Accords”.

Trump predicted at this time last year that about five more Gulf countries would sign similar normalisation agreements with Israel in the ensuing months. Although this hasn’t happened – nor is it expected to any time soon – the good news is that experts agree the inked deals, at least, are here to stay.

“For more than 70 years we have been in a state of no war, no peace, stagnation,” says Dr Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the chairperson of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence in Bahrain. We meet in his air-conditioned office where he regales me with stories about his first visit to Israel at the end of last year.

“This is a historic moment for us. My generation has wasted time with hatred, wars, and violence, as everyone knows. People in Bahrain have changed in recent years. If you mentioned Israelis 20 years ago, it would evoke war, violence, and hatred. Today it’s different.”

Al Khalifa insists most Bahrainis support the deal in spite of the Palestinians claiming to feel betrayed.

“We really have to end it. There’s no way that we can continue living in a state where we aren’t really in a war with Israel and we aren’t at peace. It should have been done years ago, especially as we in Bahrain have no enmity with Judaism as a religion. For us, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are one,” says Al Khalifa.

Bahrain’s Jewish community is one of the smallest in the world although its origins date back more than a century. Arabic sources record Jews living in the area at the time of the Islamic conquest in 630 CE.

Nonoo, sporting a black yarmulke, meets me at the souk at midday. It’s the worst time to visit as the temperature has climbed to 45 degrees Celsius and most prospective shoppers have gone home to return later in the evening. But as soon as they notice Nonoo, there’s a lot of “Salaam alaikum” and back-slapping.

“This is where commerce started in Bahrain,” he tells me, pausing to sip some dark Arabic coffee. “All these little shops sold mostly materials and Jews were very good at that. Many of the first Jews who came here, came from Iraq looking for opportunities. They had an edge because they were able to transact with suppliers from across Europe. They would take container loads of goods and sell them and pay the suppliers back later. There was so much Jewish participation in the market that on Saturdays, everything closed here for Shabbat. Even the local Bahrainis, the Muslims and Christians, used to close.”

Since the 2000s, Bahrain has had quiet relations with Israel and especially the local pro-Israel community didn’t need a lot of convincing to buy into the Accords. But several Bahrainis I talk to, off record, and who ask not to be named, say they are still suspicious of Israel and any peace agreement.

“You can’t expect us to change our views overnight,” one university student proclaims. “There’s still the occupation and Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian land!”

But while there might be anti-Israel sentiment in some quarters, albeit the minority, Nonoo insists that antisemitism has never been a problem in the country. It’s a view echoed by everyone I meet. And Nonoo’s grandfather?

“If he was alive today, he wouldn’t believe that something like the Abraham Accords could happen. It’s absolutely amazing,” his grandson declares!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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Mangoes and the Queen Mum: new book documents Jews of Kampala

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Janice Masur is keeping alive the memory of one of many Jewish communities that disappeared in the past century – the Jews of Uganda.

The history of Eastern European Jewry in Kampala had all but died out when Masur recently brought out a book believed to be the only one devoted to the Jewish community in the capital city of Uganda.

Titled Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, the well-researched book begins with a historical overview of Jews in Africa, and goes on to tell Masur’s story of living in a little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala from 1949 to 1961.

Although this tiny and remote community had no rabbi or synagogue, its 23 families formed a cohesive group that celebrated all Jewish festivals together and upheld their Jewish identity. Sadly, while Kampala Jewry made every effort to survive, the community eventually withered under the hot African sun, leaving few traces of its existence.

However, Masur’s desire to bear witness to the place where she spent her childhood has resulted in its history being preserved in this compelling memoir, supported by interviews, photographs, and in-depth research.

The idea for the book originated in a modern East African history class she attended at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She began writing in 2005, travelling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians who had arrived in Kampala earlier in their lives.

Masur herself was born in Eritrea, where her parents chose to move from Palestine in 1942, presumably for better job and financial opportunities. They settled in Uganda in 1949 after Masur’s father, Helmut, was hired to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork Company.

“I am a second-generation Jewish woman and have only one cousin who joined us in Kampala with his family,” Masur told the SA Jewish Report from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “We visited South Africa in 1961 when travelling by car from Uganda to Durban – and stayed in a Jewish hotel – to board a cargo ship which deposited us in New Zealand [where she attended university].”

Today, she is strongly rooted in her Jewish community in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband.

“I visited South Africa again in 2001, meeting a childhood friend in Cape Town,” Masur said. “I visited Namibia in 2010 – not really South Africa.”

In one of the anecdotes as a nine-year-old in Kampala, Masur writes in her book that “a rabbi was imported from South Africa for Yom Kippur” in 1953. He stayed with her family, and held the service in their house. Her parents told her to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would be unaware of her not fasting.

“Many years later, I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law wasn’t fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered,” she writes.

Masur shares another experience in her book, the significance of which she discovered only later in life. While living in a single-level house that had an avocado tree and a badminton court, she often saw her family’s “houseboy”, Odera, dancing and singing around the house.

“My mother spent a lot of time screaming at the houseboy in frustration at his supposed inability to follow instructions, which I later learned was a passive tactic of rebellion against British rule,” she writes.

From 1957 to 1960, she attended the government (semi-private) Highlands School in Eldoret, Kenya, and noticed that post-war antisemitism was endemic. “Unkind girls in Eldoret would sometimes bully me by telling me that I was a misfit because my nationality was Jewish, not British, although I was naturalised British and my religion was Jewish!” she writes.

On several occasions, Masur stood with her mother in the driveway outside the gates of Government House in Entebbe with a crowd of other people to watch the arrival or departure of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother.

In preparation for the visit of the latter in 1959, all the shops on the main street were scrubbed and painted, the road islands were dolled up, and flags and bunting feverishly bought. To meet the dress requirements, Masur’s mother and aunty had to borrow gloves and hats from friends. Soon, the duo laughed to see their picture shown on the front page of the Uganda Argus newspaper with the Queen Mum.

Masur hasn’t returned to Uganda since leaving Kampala for New Zealand as she thinks that “perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance”.

That said, her formative years in the country have left a lasting imprint. “To this day, I love mangoes, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups,” Masur recently told the Canadian website Jewish Independent.

Today, Uganda has about 2 000 observant Jews known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. Having converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule in 1921, the Abayudaya is a now-thriving, self-sufficient black Jewish community in Mbale, boasting synagogues, Jewish schools, a mikvah, and a cemetery.

However, there isn’t even a cemetery to mark the existence of Masur’s family and 22 others who managed to create an Eastern European Jewish community in Kampala. Masur hopes that her book will document and honour what she describes as “an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy”.

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