Remembering Sepharad: History, Memory, Politics

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 5:15pm
Stitler Hall B26, 208 S. 37th Street

In June 2015, the Spanish government approved legislation granting citizenship to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. This political development, described by Spain’s Justice Minister as a “historic reparation of … the greatest mistake in Spanish history,” has sparked a flurry of interest from Jews of Iberian origin across the globe—from Latin America and the U.S. to Israel and Turkey. Based on the assumption of Sephardic Jews’ continued cultural identification with their one-time homeland, the law promises to reward their “fidelity and special ties to Spain.” Yet, the precise nature of this historic relationship, explains historian Julia Phillips Cohen, is more complex than such characterizations suggest. Using the present debates as a point of departure, her talk probes the evolution of Sephardic Jews’ ties to Spain in the centuries following their expulsion.

Notwithstanding its topical focus Cohen’s exploration of the complex interplay of citizenship and cultural identity has bearing on a related contemporary phenomenon. Seventy years after the end of World War Two, young Israeli and American Jews, descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors, are availing themselves of “legacy” pathways to citizenship in the European Union. In so doing they are joining the many thousands of Sephardic Jews who have already become E.U. citizens on account of the new legislation coming out of Spain.

Julia Phillips Cohen is an Associate Professor in the Program in Jewish Studies and the Department of History at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), which was awarded the 2015 Jordan Schnitzer Award in Modern Jewish History, the 2015 Barbara Jelavich Prize of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for Writing Based on Archival Material, and honorable mention for the 2014 Salo W. Baron Book Prize, the 2014 the National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Culture, and the 2015 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize. Together with Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Cohen is also co-editor of Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), which won the 2014 National Jewish Book Award in the category of “Sephardic Culture." She has received a number of grants to support her work—including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Stanford Humanities Center, the Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Judaic Studies, the American Research Institute in Turkey, and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania.

This is the 30th Annual Joseph Alexander Colloquium, sponsored by the Joseph Alexander Foundation & the Mackler Family. Co-sponsored with the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism.

Jewish Studies Program
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