Last month, Spain launched an extraordinary initiative: its Justice Minister announced a new law granting the right of return to Spain with Spanish (and, therefore, European) citizenship to anyone able to demonstrate blood connections to the Sephardic Jewish community expelled in 1492. The new version of the law, unlike the version trailed in 2012, does not require applicants to renounce their existing nationality. It has been enthusiastically received: one Israeli lawyer specialising in European citizenship applications reports around 1,000 enquiries. Spain’s Justice Ministry has received 3,000 applications so far.
In a mean and jealous world, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative shines like a light in the darkness. Burma’s reforming government should waste no time in laying out the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians thrown out by the dictator General Ne Win in the 1960s.
Greece should do the same for the Turks expelled after the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution – and Turkey should welcome back its ethnic Greeks. As all these communities are characterised by enterprise, economic dynamism and familiarity with risk-taking, such a policy would have a singularly dynamic impact on the struggling economies of the countries to which they returned.
The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would find no surer way of convincing the world of its good intentions than by inducing the huge Tamil diaspora to head home.
Exiled Palestinians are more of a challenge, given that their homes, towns and lands have been very substantially expropriated. A really imaginative general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party would even now be thrashing out the minimum necessary to lure Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, back to Tibet.
Diasporas are a terrible menace, as the Chinese, the Sinhalese and the Israelis know to their cost. Being wrenched away from your home is a trauma that never heals. Of course, merely to list these cases of mass exile and to name the obvious remedy – repatriation – is to appreciate how unlikely such policies are to be pursued. And to be impressed all over again by Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s political boldness.
Critics say that his real reason is not the marvellous culture to which Sephardic Jews contributed, nor their persistent attachment to “their country, their language and their traditions”, as the minister put it, but the economic vitality they would bring to stagnant Spain. But that doesn’t negate the moral dimension.
And how about extending the gesture to the Muslims, booted out of Spain about 100 years after the Jews?
It is argued that the cases are different: the Jews were merely persecuted, while the Muslims were conquerors and invaders whose invasion was eventually repelled. Inviting them back would be like inviting the Germans back into Poland, the Italians into Albania, the British back into Bengal.
Yet if we are talking about culture, Islam was just as much a part of the old Iberian culture as the Jews were – arguably more so.
It could be said that Mr Ruiz-Gallardon would receive scant domestic applause for throwing down the welcome mat to people whose co-religionists brought bloody mayhem into the heart of Madrid in 2004, and whose growing presence is a political issue in many parts of Europe.
But if the problem with the Muslims is that many of them in the Middle East have shown little aptitude for co-existing peacefully with other communities, Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians opens them to the same objection. Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative is a bright light in a nasty world. But he is going to have a debate on his hands before it’s all over.