Department of Anthropology

Guest Speaker: Charles McDonald

"The ‘Return’ That Wasn’t: Reason, Sentiment, and Spain’s 2015 Sephardic Citizenship Law"

Mon, October 7, 2019 | WCP 5.118

12:00 PM - 1:00 PM

Guest Speaker: Charles McDonald

In 2015, the Spanish government passed a so-called “Law of Return” offering citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492, which it predicted would attract several hundred thousand applicants. After the law’s passage, a powerful narrative that took shape was of a state atoning for the past by finally establishing a right of return, which the descendants of those it had injured had long been eager to claim. Four years later, a different story is emerging. With the law set to expire in October of this year, fewer than ten thousand people have obtained citizenship under the “Law of Return,” which offers one of the few remaining routes to E.U. citizenship in a time of hardening borders. As I show, this “new” law belongs to a much older political genealogy than is commonly assumed, one in which Sephardic Jews have been imagined as racial kin whose “return” might usher in a deferred Spanish modernity. Drawing on four years of fieldwork with Sephardic descendants and the state and religious authorities, this talk considers the quandaries that the “gift” of Spanish citizenship occasions and the opportunities it provides. In particular, I examine how the law disrupted, rather than confirmed, the racial logics that imagine Sephardic Jews as “naturally” attached to Spain by blood and sentiment. Many of my interlocutors describe the law as inciting them to think and feel differently about the proper attachments between people and places marked as Jewish. The law thus galvanized affective responses and ethical deliberations, not only among those “Sephardic” collectives presumed by the Spanish state, but by unanticipated ones as well. I suggest that the “failure” of Spain’s Sephardic citizenship legislation nevertheless offers insight into the limits and possibilities of liberal inclusion at a time when renewed forms of exclusion are globally ascendant.

Dr. McDonald is the Samuel W. and Goldye Marian Spain Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program in Jewish Studies at Rice University, where he is currently working on a book manuscript provisionally titled, Return to Sepharad: Jews, Spain, and Europe’s Moral Order. His research addresses questions of race, religion, and citizenship and has been supported by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Wenner-Gren Foundation, and Center for Jewish History, among others. He received his PhD in anthropology and historical studies from the New School for Social Research, where he is the Managing Director of the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry (ICSI).

Sponsored by: Center for European Studies, Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies

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