In the 15th century, Spain’s Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand launched the Inquisition that expelled tens of thousands of Jews from their country. Five hundred years later, Spain is making a Jewish Seattle woman a knight in an order named after “Isabella the Catholic,” as the queen was known.

Some have asked: Is this ironic? But Doreen Alhadeff, who will be awarded the knighthood in an October ceremony at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center, doesn’t see it that way.

“Actually, I think it shows unbelievable promise,” said Alhadeff, 72.

Spain has come a long way in acknowledging its storied and painful Jewish history, Alhadeff maintains, including by passing a 2015 law granting descendants of the Inquisition’s victims, those with Sephardic Jewish roots, an opportunity to apply for citizenship.

Approved by Spain’s King Felipe VI, Alhadeff’s knighthood stems in large part from her work helping Sephardic Jews take advantage of the law allowing them to apply for Spanish citizenship before the application window closed last September. Seattle has the third largest Sephardic population in the U.S., numbering about 5,000.

Alhadeff, a real estate agent and member of a prominent Sephardic family, said she viewed becoming a Spanish citizen in 2016 as regaining something taken from her family and a return to a place that feels deeply familiar.

“When I go to Spain, I feel home,” said Alhadeff, who also co-founded a Seattle Sephardic organization and website, and in 2018 was named the U.S. ambassador of a network of Spanish cities with Jewish heritage.

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But the citizenship offer has been frustrating for others. While Spain granted the vast majority of applications it has processed, resulting in roughly 42,600 new citizens (including 1,500 Americans) as of late June, it denied 2,500 and has yet to issue a decision on almost half of the applications.

Some have been waiting more than five years for an answer, said Luis Portero, a lawyer in Spain who specializes in helping Sephardic people obtain citizenship in both his country and Portugal, which passed a similar law in 2015. Portugal also has tens of thousands of unresolved cases, according to Portero, but has denied only about 300 applications and granted about 57,000 as of last December.

In Spain, denials have led to lawsuits against the government, including by Seattle’s Jennifer McCullum.

“It was devastating,” she said of being turned down in 2021, a decision since reversed. “What does this mean if the place that I know my family is from doesn’t want me?”

A bond over language

From the start, the Iberian citizenship laws stirred mixed feelings in Sephardic communities.

Alhadeff knew immediately she wanted to apply. She has felt a keen bond with Spain ever since studying there as a college student and hearing someone utter “mi alma,” my soul, the endearment her grandmother used to call her in Ladino, the once commonly-spoken language of Sephardic Jews, derived from Spanish.

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As Spain’s parliament considered the law, she was in the country helping organize an international conference of Sephardic Jews. Back in the U.S. on the day the law went to a vote, she got up early to see the result.

“When it was passed, I just went into gear,” she said.

Alhadeff set about fulfilling the lengthy eligibility requirements: proving one’s Sephardic heritage, passing Spanish-language and civics tests through the Cervantes Institute (Seattle has one of only four branches in the U.S.) and traveling to Spain to have documents notarized.

She then turned to spreading the word about the citizenship opportunities and how to apply. She guesses she fielded 100 calls from as far away as Hong Kong and Greece. She also walked her synagogue at the time, Ezra Bessaroth, through a certification process allowing it to testify to people’s Sephardic heritage.

Having that heritage, though, did not ensure enthusiasm about Spanish or Portuguese citizenship. Some said they felt a closer connection to countries that took in Sephardic Jews after the Inquisition, such as Greece and Turkey, where many of Seattle’s early Sephardic immigrants came from.

Spain’s tricky application process discouraged others. Dana Behar, a semi-retired real estate developer in Seattle, said he and his wife knew some Spanish but not enough to pass a language test. They became citizens of Portugal, which had no such test, while their two daughters, minors at the time and not required to take the Spanish test, became citizens of Spain.

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This year, after an uproar over a Russian oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin getting Portuguese citizenship, Portugal toughened its eligibility requirements to include proof of a close and ongoing connection to that country.

While it’s unknown exactly how many Seattle-area residents have applied for Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, those familiar with the process guess a couple hundred — “a little disappointing,” Alhadeff said.

Still, the worldwide numbers proved overwhelming for the limited number of people processing applications, said Portero, the lawyer in Spain.Contributing to the surge were worldwide upheavals, including Brexit and Venezuela’s economic and political crisis, that made a European passport attractive.

Luis Fernando Esteban, Spain’s honorary consul in Washington and Oregon, said the country has been doing its best to review applications, given the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed government offices, and the need to weed out fraudulent documentation. While Spain for a time enacted restrictions on entering the country, it made an exception for Sephardic people who needed to have their citizenship applications notarized, he said.

Esteban, who nominated Alhadeff for knighthood, also paid tribute to Spain’s centuries-long Jewish history. “The Sephardim came to Spain with the Romans,” he said.

Existential angst

In her journey to reconnect with her family’s Spanish history, McCullum spent a year gathering documents for her citizenship application, including a 1984 letter from her grandmother on the eve of a cousin’s bat mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual.

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“You have a Spanish grandmother and this is the story,” read the four-page letter, which proceeded to lay out the family’s Sephardic roots. Her father, McCullum’s great-grandfather, was a rabbi who came from Turkey. Her mother, McCullum’s great-grandmother, immigrated to the U.S. from Salonica, Greece (now known as Thessaloniki), once a thriving center of Sephardic life. Many family members who remained died during the Nazi occupation of Greece.

“The language at home in New York City was Ladino,” McCullum’s grandmother continued, adding that she didn’t speak English until she went to kindergarten. “Friday night, was not chicken soup and gefilte fish,” she wrote, referring to traditional foods on the Jewish sabbath of Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors descended from Central and Eastern Europe, “but chicken in tomato sauce, rice and beans.”

With this description of her lineage in hand, McCullum flew to Spain in 2018 to finalize her application, then spent three years waiting for the answer: a denial, which said she needed more proof of her Sephardic ancestry in the form of a certificate from a Spanish Jewish federation. She said she felt not only rejected but also an existential angst.

“It felt like being told I wasn’t who I am,” she said.

McCullum appealed, got no answer for months, and filed a lawsuit in Madrid. Three months later, this past July, Spain’s Ministry of Justice notified her that it had changed its position, entitling her to Spanish citizenship.

McCullum, who recently became assistant director of UW’s Sephardic Studies Program, has taken the decision as a joyous confirmation of her family’s “origin story.” She long hadn’t let herself believe she’d get citizenship and doesn’t yet know how she’ll use her new rights.

She could live in Spain at some point, or try to get Spanish citizenship for her 3-year-old daughter, who might someday want to study or work there.

“It feels like the possibilities are endless,” McCullum said.