Most current events are entirely, often depressingly, self-explanatory. We know who the players are and the hackneyed script they are following. They may be heroes or villains. They may seem reasonable or lunatic, but we’ve seen the play before.
Every once in a while, however, something weirdly unexpected comes along. A few weeks ago The Wall Street Journal carried a story by Patricia Kowsmann abut an initiative in Iberia that did not compute by any of the familiar algorithms of public policy.
The Portuguese, following a similar move by neighboring Spain, have invited Jews with Sephardic ancestry to return to their ancestral homeland and be granted the citizenship their forebears were denied.
The first thoughts on hearing this are obvious. About time. In fact, laughably, absurdly overdue since the Jews of Iberia were forced to either convert to Catholicism or vacate the country, forfeiting most of their worldly possessions five and a quarter centuries ago. A long time. Suleiman the Magnificent was being born, a Borgia was Pope, Martin Luther and Copernicus were in school, Botticelli and Bosch were painting masterpieces and Vasco de Gama was heading for India.
On second thought one wonders if this invitation is simply a species of political correctness – a nice public relations gesture that is unlikely to produce an avalanche of applications by prospective returnees. After all, to take advantage of the offer descendants have to complete paperwork demonstrating descent from an evicted ancestor. Records from a period so distant in time are scantly and unreliable, though DNA testing may change the equation slightly. Yet Portugal has already fielded inquiries from 1,300 potential returnees.
This version of the Jewish diaspora sent people from Iberia east to Venice and Turkey and the Levant, later west to South America. Some might now considering returning because they live in places as inhospitable to Jews today as Spain and Portugal were then. Of course, the anti-Semitism of Iberia 500 years ago may not yet be entirely extinguished either. And the Iberian economies are presently in less than robust health. There’s also an ongoing influx of illegal Islamic migrants from North African shores. You would think that would be unlikely to act as a lure to Jewish immigrants.
Which leaves the most interesting question of all unanswered. What’s in it for Spain and Portugal? As noted, it seems like a no-cost, reputation burnishing gesture, but what else? Maybe it is really only a sincere attempt to right an ancient wrong, but the cynic in me raises an eyebrow at that explanation.
It may be that, since Jews are often rightly esteemed for their commitment to learning, their entrepreneurial spirit and ambition, they seem like a cohort worth welcoming as immigrants compared to the wretched illegals now washing ashore. But that doesn’t quite ring true as a policy rationale a government would pursue.
In short, a 500-year-overdue invitation to come home remains odd, unexpected and unaccountable. That in itself, in a world of monotonously predictable and crass motivations, makes this attempt to stage a homecoming after a half a millennium intriguing. Why? What are they thinking? Why now?