Return to Sepharad

In 1492, the Catholic Kings expelled the Jews from Spain. Now, thousands of Venezuelans seek a Sephardic origin to emigrate to. A new milestone of Jewish history in Venezuela

Image: Sofia Jaimes Barreto

A Spanish version of this piece was originally published in Cinco8.

These days, people are obsessed with identity and the Venezuelan crisis has been quite the catalyst. Children and grandchildren of Spanish, Italian, Argentinian, Chilean and other immigrants have done everything for their foreign passports and a way out this “socialist paradise.” 

One of the most interesting cases, though, is the thousands of Venezuelans researching into their Sephardic roots, meaning, their kinship with the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. 

See, the Spanish government recently approved the Law of Spanish Citizenship for Sephardic People, very relevant to Venezulans who, up until this moment, had a vague idea of their Jewish origins or weren’t aware of their possible Sephardic ancestry. The goal here is obvious: Obtaining another citizenship that would allow for freedom of movement and a way out of Venezuela, if necessary. 

Although Spanish law sets the steps to prove the solicitor’s Sephardic origin, truth is that you don’t need to be Jewish by birth or conversion to obtain the Spanish citizenship; anyone wishing to become a citizen has to provide evidence for one of their ancestors, proving descendance of a Sephardic Jew through genealogy (the familial bond) or history (legal documents.) The law has opened the door for Venezuelans to “acquire” the Sephardic condition by holding an identity perspective that doesn’t correspond very much to traditional categories, whether etnic or religious. 

The Discovery

Different sources have told me about the emotional impact of this research on people who didn’t even know what a Jew or a Sephardi were. They’ve discovered, for instance, the religious persecution, the exile and double lives of enforced Catholicism to hide Jewish origins (converted Jews were derogatorily called marranos, “pigs”.) 

A new historical paradox was thus born: The citizenship law for Sephardic people has reverted the logic behind the “blood purity” statutes installed in Spain during the Inquisition to discriminate Jews that had converted, and their descendants. There are people now who, unlike those hiding from the Inquisition to save their lives, want to prove that Sephardic blood runs through their veins. 

When the law was approved in 2015, I got several calls from Venezuelans who wanted to know about the Sephardic residence, and tried to find their last name in lists online. Interest increased further, not only because of a deteriorating Venezuelan crisis, but because there’s a  deadline: Applications will be accepted only until October. 

Another phenomenon making headlines in both the Venezuelan and Israeli press is Venezuelans immigration to Israel, composed of Chistians converted to Judaism. This immigration process is particularly hard, because there’s no Israeli Embassy in Venezuela since 2009.

Broken Bridge

It’s not the first time that Jewish and Sephardic affairs play a part in Venezuelan reality. During the Civil Republic started in 1958, the Jewish links of a public figure were rarely an issue of debate. There were anti-semite comments in the press, but they were never promoted from the government or people close to power. In fact, Venezuelan governments always maintained a balanced policy regarding the Middle East and Israel, knowing how to handle their interests as OPEC members (close to Arab countries) and their relation with the Jewish State (the Venezuelan government voted in favor of the UN Participation Plan in 1947.) 

This changed when the chavista regime got closer to pro-Palestinian policies and governments like Bashir El-Assad’s in Syria, or Hasán Rouhaní’s in Iran. The tipping point in this turn of foreign policy happened in 2009, when the Venezuelan government broke diplomatic relations with Israel, heightening a trend in regime-controlled and pro-chavismo media, where openly anti-Semitic comments were displayed.

One of the targets against Judaism was the main opposition leader back then, Henrique Capriles Radonski, of Jewish origins from both his mother’s and father’s sides. The Capriles family is of Sephardic origins, from those who settled in Coro from Curacao in the 19th century; Capriles’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors (the Radonskis) who found refuge in Venezuela. Capriles has spoken in the media of his grandparents’ Ashkenazi origins and their fight for survival during World War II, identifying it as his motivation for fighting for democracy. 

Nicolás Maduro has also talked about the alleged Sephardic origins of his father’s family. They would coincide with Capriles’, Curacao Jews who settled in Venezuela, and Maduro uses this card to deny his regime’s anti-semitism, or justify his rhetoric against Israel. In meetings with leaders of the Venezuelan Jewish community, Maduro has expressed interest in finding out more about his Sephardic ancestry, even mentioning it in public interventions. 

The Venezuelan Jewish community has been small but well settled, contributing to the country’s development, but the phenomenon generated from Spain’s historical memory and Venezuela’s devastation brings to mind the 1995 study of Jewish Venezuelan historian Ariel Segal, on Sephardic Jews’ descendants who settled in Iquitos, the Peruvian Amazon, talking about “marginal identity”: An intense reconstruction of the Jewish condition from a minority that, because of very specific factors, arrived in a place that didn’t fit them. 

These Sephardic descendants of Northern Africa that Segal found in Iquitos were revising their past to reestablish bonds with the Jewish diaspora around the world, in a similar way to Venezuelans who, in order to emigrate, had to discover a lineage they didn’t know they had. 

And all of this happens during the political, economical and social turmoil of the past 20 years in Venezuela, that has altered conventions and has introduced new factors to describe Venezuelans’ identity. 

We definitely aren’t what we once were.