Posted on July 21, 2019
commissioned by Haaretz
At first glance, the 92-year-old man sitting in a Parisian apartment and clutching a book to his chest does not look in the least bit like the hero at the center of a tale of a high-stakes escape.
However, this is exactly who Clement Behar was: The unsung savior of Cairo’s Jews, who risked his own life to rescue members of the community from persecution in the 1940s and 1950s.
Forty-six years later, his story is still emerging from obscurity – Behar, formerly known as Chehata, has published a memoir in which he revealed how he helped release scores of Jews from Cairo’s prisons. The self-published oeuvre, titled “A Story of a Life with a Difference,” came out in 2003.
Born in 1925, Behar grew up in the Egyptian capital at a time when the city was a Jewish, Muslim and Christian cosmopolis. Joining his father’s prospering electrical business at 15, he was propelled to Egypt’s elite social circles. As a teen, he saw anti-colonial movements gain more traction shortly after the British Empire granted nominal independence to his homeland in 1922.
His family, much like many other Egyptian Jews, enjoyed financial and social success. But in 1948 matters took a turn for the worse: Israel was established as an independent state after Jewish militants defeated the British Mandate of Palestine. A day later, on May 15, the War of Independence broke out. The young country survived the invasion of five Arab nations which opposed Jews taking over Arab lands. It even gained control over more territories, sparking a deep anti-Jewish sentiment in the region.
At the time, Egypt was home to 80,000 Jews who resided there for three millennia, with some immigrating from Europe since the late 19th century. Despite their stature, the country’s Jews were put in a precarious position over their alleged loyalty to Israel. Many of them perceived themselves as more Egyptian than Jewish, and rejected calls by Egypt’s growing ethnonationalist circle to leave.
The calls quickly escalated into violence. One infamous incident is the Balfour Day riots, which took place in November 1945. They began as anti-Jewish demonstrations on the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but quickly turned into altercations in which five Egyptian Jews were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1948, the riots worsened. Hundreds were murdered, Jewish synagogues were burned down and Jewish areas in the country were bombed. Many Jews were jailed, often on suspicion that they had spied for Israel.
This is when Behar’s operation was set in motion. “Every day, officers arrested young Jewish people, and their families came to see me and enlist my help,” he wrote in his memoir.
‘Obliged to help the Jews’
In 1953 the Egpytian Republic was born, and gave rise to a national socialist president – Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt was finally freed from the British occupation, but the Jewish community only suffered from these developments. The Pan-Arabist movement continued to grow under Nasser, and Jews were seen as an obstacle to its goal: Uniting all Arab nations into a single state. By 1950, 40 percent of Egyptian Jews fled. “I felt morally obliged to help the Jews,” Behar told Haaretz.
He began to do so, using his close friendship with a high-ranking police officer named El Hamichari. Behar negotiated the release of imprisoned Jews through “gifts and bribes.” Dressed neatly and wearing a traditional fez, the young Behar easily entered and left Cairo’s police stations, where he was often mistaken for an officer thanks to his command of Egyptian Arabic.
The Jewish community continued to shrink. 14,000 Jews had escaped to Israel, while others sought refuge in different countries. Egypt’s chief rabbi also became a target. In his memoir, Behar wrote that in 1954 President Nasser sent Rabbi Nahoum Effendi a “poisoned invitation.”
To mobilize anti-Israel sentiment, Effendi was called on to give a speech publicly denouncing the Jewish state. The rabbi “prayed that he would be spared the ordeal,” Behar wrote, but was powerless to decline the invitation.
Behar decided to save the rabbi. He enlisted the help of a daring Jewish hospital manager, Dr. Bensimmon, who prescribed medication for the rabbi as well as “a very strict diet which made him actually unwell.” The national papers reported that Effendi was very ill and could not attend the event. Behar wrote about the chief rabbi’s gratitude. “May God keep you near me to have you by my side in difficult times,” he told Behar.
The prison escape
Behar continued his operations to aid the Jewish community in its plight, but eventually his luck ran out. Egyptian police caught him smuggling money out of the country for the chief rabbi’s son. As he waited for his trial, Behar wrote a letter to his wife Dorette and their four children. He begged them to flee Egypt immediately. After he was sentenced to six years of hard labor behind bars, Behar “decided to escape there and then.”
In his memoir, Behar wrote that he wore civilian clothing prior to his trial. Exploiting his attire and the prison’s shortage of guards, he made his big escape. “I went downstairs, I walked to the prison gates and just walked out of prison,” he recollected.
From there, Behar bolted to a Christian monastery where he sought cover with the help of a monk he befriended when the latter paid visits to the prison. Behar wrote that for 18 months he was on the run. “I shaved my moustache. I work dark glasses and started running in all directions, incognito, to find a way of escape. I would return to the monastery at night,” he wrote.
After close to two years at large, Behar acquired a false Lebanese identity card under the name Sami Refaat Abdul Hadi. His cover story was that he was Muslim businessman. “I knew Arabic perfectly well. No one would have suspected that I was Jewish,” Behar wrote. Later, he was aided by a high-ranking police officer named Captain Said Nached, who sheltered him in his home until he was finally able to board a flight to Damascus.
Longing for Egypt
In 1956, Behar moved on from Syria to Lebanon. He was able to seek shelter there because Beirut and Cairo were political enemies at the time – then-Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, a Christian Maronite, was seriously opposed to Nasser’s Pan Arabism.
As a political refugee, Behar resided in the magisterial mansion of the president’s secretary for several months. He also managed to obtain a Lebanese passport. “After being sheltered in a monastery, I was familiar with all the prayers and Christian traditions. I was very much in need of that in the circle I was mixing in at that time,” he related in the memoir.
Later, Baher was able to secure a visa from Switzerland and made his way to France, where his wife and sons were living. In 1958 he arrived in a northern suburb of Paris as an illegal refugee, where at long last he reunited with his family. “‘They are all here! In the twinkling of an eye, I had forgotten everything: Jail, my walkabout, my nightmares.”
Speaking to Haaretz decades after his fugitive journey ended, Behar teared up when he talked about Egypt. Asked how he felt about his exile from his native land, Behar responded: “I spent at least 25 years locked up inside myself because of leaving Egypt, my roots and identity. It took me that long to accept that I live in Europe.” Despite the many years he spent in France, Behar said that he still felt more “Egyptian and Arab than Jewish.”
Six months after our interview, Behar passed away in October 2017. He did not hear of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s surprising recent overture in which he offered to build synagogues in Egypt should members of the Jewish community choose to return. Behar himself only went back to Egypt once in 1980. In his memoir he wrote of a walk along Cairo’s Jewish quarter, where he found “the synagogue which had fallen to pieces… All I had was a blow to the heart.” He told Haaretz that his feeling was that he “returned as a tourist.”
Writing the memoir helped Behar accept his journey, but he remained ambivalent about his homeland until his death. His is a tale of triumph; it is also a story of bitterness and longing, which linger with may other Jews who were forced to flee their Middle Eastern homes a century ago.
Posted on April 26, 2019
Published by The New Internationalist
Tanned, muscular men ride stallions across a rural landscape. Plaintive piano plays in the background. Where are these men? The title of Vox’s political campaign video tells you: ‘The Reconquista will begin in the lands of Andalusia’.
This controversial slogan is part of a strategy that helped secure the rising far-right party twelve seats in Andalusia’s regional election last year. Next week, Vox are one of five main contenders in Spain’s general elections, signalling the party’s unanticipated growth. It is expected to receive 29-37 per cent of the vote.
The Reconquista, meaning the ‘reconquering’, draws on the history of the Iberian Christian conquest of Muslim Spain, which ended in 1492. Vox’s proposed political reforms make the relevance of this history clear: if elected, the party claims it will deliver an end to supposed uncurbed migration, placate the ‘threat’ to Spain’s national identity from the growth of Islam, end state-funded abortion and repeal gay marriage laws.
Spectres of the past
The history of medieval Christian-Muslim conflict forms this far-right party’s repertoire of symbolism. For eight centuries, Spain was governed by Islamic rulers, known as the Moors. In 711 CE, the governing Umayyad dynasty travelled from Syria to Spain and eventually conquered the then Visigothic lands, renaming them ‘al-Andalus’. Contemporary Spain is replete with vestiges of this past, from Moorish architecture to the many Arabic-origin words in the Spanish language.
With the end of the Reconquista in 1492, a Spanish national identity began to emerge. The newly reigning Catholic monarchs took violent measures to forge it. Those who were not Catholic would not be considered Spanish in this new social order. This process would eventually lead to the expulsion of the peninsula’s vast Jewish and Muslim populations.
Spanish ethno-nationalism continued well into the 20th century. Spain’s former dictator, General Franco, granted the Catholic Church immense power, prohibited any religion save Catholicism and enforced the standardisation of ‘core’ Spanish culture, from the Castilian language to bullfighting. Francoist Spanish nationalism was defined against the nation’s former Jewish and Muslim subjects, such as through the dictator’s heavy use of Spanish Reconquista symbolism in his propaganda. Francoist rhetoric even blended the myth of the ever-present ‘Moorish threat’ to Spain with the ‘menace’ of Eastern European communism.
With the death of Franco in 1975, Spain officially disbanded its explicitly authoritarian structure. However, its ethno-nationalist past still haunts the public sphere.
Moroccans are Spain’s second largest minority. Many within Spain’s Moroccan community are ancestrally related to Spain’s historic Muslim population. At a market in Cordoba, pejoratively called ‘Morro’s Mercado’ by locals, Tariq, a Moroccan vendor tells me about the strong anti-Muslim prejudice he recognises in Andalusia: ‘They think in Morocco there are only camels and the desert,’ he says. Beyond the perception of Morocco as an excessively ‘backwards’ country, some Spaniards even perceive the influx of Moroccan immigrants to Spain since the 1970s as posing a ‘re-Islamization’ of the country.
Outside more blatantly Islamophobic cases, there are Spanish traditions which revisit this Christian-Muslim schism. Each year on 2 January, individuals across Spain dress as either ‘Moros’ or ‘Christianos’ and re-enact the last battle of the Reconquista, where the medieval stereotypes of the Moors as violent and religiously fanatic are inflated through carnivalesque caricatures.
Although these cultural rituals are thought to commemorate a strife from a by-gone past, Vox’s dogwhistle calls for a new Reconquista casts these cultural rituals in an even darker light, further entrenching the idea of Muslims as antithetical to ‘Spanishness’.
Acceptable in the mainstream
Appeals to the Reconquista are not a new development in Spanish politics. In an attempt to drum up support for the Iraq War, José Aznar, Spain’s former Conservative prime minister, explicitly linked the medieval Moors to al-Qaeda. He stated in 2004 that ‘the problem of Spain with al-Qaeda began with the invasion of the Moors’, who were repelled thanks to the ‘successful Reconquista’.
Vox is building on this rhetoric. The party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, petitioned for Andalusia’s regional day to celebrate the conclusion of the Reconquista in 1492. At a meeting in Seville, Abascal stated that he wanted the ‘Andalusia of the Catholic Monarchs against that of Blas Infante’. Infante was a libertarian socialist writer known as the father of Andalusian nationalism. In the early 20th century, he strived to turn Spain’s legacy of medieval Jewish, Muslim and Christian co-existence into a contemporary reality.
The language used in the party’s political speeches is rife with Islamophobia. Vox’s secretary general, Javier Ortega Smith, stated in 2016 that ‘the enemy of Europe is called the Islamist invasion’. Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, rejoined Smith by stating that Spain’s Muslim community will become a ‘problem’ in an interview last year. The party’s proposed political reforms include banning both Islamic education and halal food in Spanish state schools.
This is all part of a Europe-wide phenomenon. In the week following the New Zealand/Aotearoa mosque shootings on 15 March, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by 593 per cent. These attacked are fuelled by continent-wide stereotypes, from the perception of Muslims as jihadists to perceiving Muslim immigrants as an unassailable threat to Western values.
Vox’s anti-Muslim stance have helped win the party favour with Europe’s largest far-right political groups. In 2017, Abascal claimed an affinity with France’s ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen for their mutual protection of ‘Christian Europe’. Le Pen, along with the Netherland’s far-right Geert Wilders, have openly supported Vox through expressing hopes that the party will gain seats in May’s European parliamentary elections. The growing coordination between Europe’s far-right parties only threatens to strengthen the institutional legs of a continent-wide Islamophobia.
Posted on January 11, 2018
Published for Jewish Renaissance Journal
After a 400-year vacuum, Judaism has reappeared on the Iberian Peninsula in unexpected ways. Spanish institutions have proudly united medieval Sephardi identity with a modern Spanish identity. Meanwhile, Catalan institutions recently asserted that their medieval Jewish communities had a separate Catalan identity.
In the 1990s the Spanish government revived an interest in Sephardi history and formed La Red de Juderias, a multi-million-euro Jewish tourism network. Spain’s Jewish archaeological sites were renovated and archives digitised to rediscover this unknown legacy. ‘Spanish’ and ‘Sephardi’ became interchangeable terms in the Red’s publications.
The pluralism of the medieval La Convivencia – an era of intellectual symbiosis between Muslims, Jews and Christians – was reimagined as being the foundation of Spain’s current progressive identity. The act of connecting modern Spain with the past was a precursor to the 2015 Law of Return for Sephardi Jews. The introduction of the law can be seen as an attempt to diversify Spain’s national image.
But which Spain? Medieval Spain was built by Jews, Muslims and Christians who coexisted under La Convivencia. The Catholic, Castilian Spain that followed, whose foundations support today’s nation, has little to do with this history. The Law of Return requires proof of the applicant’s ‘special connection’ to Spain through a Spanish language and culture test. Most Right of Return laws, such as those of Germany or Poland, do not require this.
Alfons Aragoneses, head of law at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, questions the historical accuracy of Spain’s identification with Sephardi Jews: “Spain did not exist before 1492, but the law supposes that the Sephardim were conscious of belonging to Spain and that they were always nostalgic for Spain. Spain did not exist until the 19th century!” At least, the Spain that formed after the 1492 union of the Castilian and Aragonese Crown did not exist when the Sephardim lived on the Peninsula.
Catalonia too has been weaving nationalistic threads into its Jewish past. Tessa Calders, the daughter of the renowned Republican exile Pere Calders, has been calling for the current interpretation of Jewish medieval history to be revised and the adapted version to be recognised in any representation of Jewish history. “The Jews were kicked out of Spain and lost memory of their Catalan identity. Now Spain has reinvented their past,” says Calders, who is a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of Barcelona. She believes the Jews living in northern Spain before the expulsion were not Sephardi but were Catalonian.
This pro-Catalan understanding of history has been embraced by Catalonia’s regional governments: in 2016, five municipalities split from the Red de Juderias to create a new tourism network, the Xarxa de Calls. Jusep Boya is the head of Museums for Catalonia and the manager of this new organisation. In his office off Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, he envisaged the new network as a vehicle for Catalonia’s reconnection with its Jewish history. “We cannot comprehend Catalonia without the Jewish culture which is attached to the very soul of Catalonia,” he said.
Pancracio Celdrán, a former professor of medieval history at Haifa University, disputes that there was a conscious 15th-century Catalan identity. “These medieval ‘Catalan Jewries’ were really the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon, not of Catalonia.” Others say that Catalonian nationhood only developed in the 19th century.
With only 40,000 Jews in Spain today, the groups who should have a platform to challenge these revisions of history have no representational power. Most of those involved in the departments for Jewish tourism in both governments are not Jewish and have little specialisation in the history of Jews living in Spain. The situation needs addressing: Spain was ranked the third most antisemitic country in Europe in a 2014 survey. Instead of politicising Sephardi identity for their own narratives, isn’t it time for both sides to let the Sephardim delineate their own ancestral past?
Posted on December 4, 2017
Published by Mozaika journal
part 1 of 6
Prologue: Locating Sepharad in Spain’s Law of Return
“Berlin’s Jewish population goes back to about 1670.
Some of these Jews had Sephardic roots, but they’re hard to trace.
I charge US$80/hr, 10 hours minimum.”
Roger, a specialist in German Jewish genealogy, responds to my inquiry about tracing matrilineal surnames. Trying to chart my family’s genealogical path back 500 years to Sepharad was proving expensive, if not impossible.
To prove my ancestral origins in Spain before the Inquisition of 1492 means being nationalised under Spain’s Law of Return for Sephardim.
This law, as stated by the then Minister of Justice Rafael Catalá in 2015, was the ‘correction of a historical error’. Not any error within the 20th Century, but that of the 15th Century’s mass Inquisition.
As is the case with the Spanish government’s relationship with their Sephardic community, the law appears at first glance to be more progressive than it in fact is.
These relations materialise in the succession of initiatives set up since the 1990s in the name of Spain’s Sephardism. For nearly a year, I have been deconstructing these initiatives, from the law to the Jewish tourism industry.
This series (link to index) of articles for Mozaika will challenge their altruistic facades, by exploring how these serve the government’s diplomatic, economic and political interests, and the negative impacts on the Jewish community, and on historical validity itself.
The confusion and frustration thrown up by my attempts to pass the law stand as a prologue to the fraught understanding between the wider Jewish community and Government.
Since 2015, thousands of Sephardim have embarked on a tenuous mission to prove their ancestry, eager to leave violence in Venezuela and Turkey, or trying to get into the EU.
The first form of proof for many, is their last name.
‘Absche’ did not sound Sephardic, the earliest my grandmother could go back, but the world of jewishgeneaology.coms charged a subscription fee. The Spanish Ministry, not providing their own list, at least intervened to denounce a hoax-list of Sephardic names that spread faster than Trump’s twitter through the Israeli web.
Family documents, related to Sephardic tradition, were the next option.
The law stated that I could present:
‘The “Ketubah” stating that the marriage took place following Castilian traditions’
Jewish papers are a more slippery prey than last names. My grandmother couldn’t even find her birth certificate. Things were lost in the 1939 move from Nazi Berlin.
Secularism became the next barrier. My great-grandparents, who felt ‘German above Jewish’ had followed thousands of Sephardic Jews through their assimilation to secular, diaspora cultures.
Lost Sephardic surname; vernacular proof; documentless, and a non-observant family for at least 3 generations. Regardless, my position did not feel unique for the 21st Century.
Portugal’s Law of Return had relativised their requirements to include the oral genealogy of Jewish families and communities as a form of proof. They accept:
‘Testimonial evidence, i.e, reputable witnesses who can attest to a family’s oral tradition’
So how were other Sephardim managing to prove their identity?
Legal advice would be a common route for the many dissuaded to risk attempting the process alone.
‘It would be 4,000 euros’, Reve, an Israeli entrepreneur, told me bluntly. The cost to use his pop-up company to accompany prospective-Spaniards through the law’s processes. Does this law also have an economic filter?
The trial does not end at your proof of Sephardism. The law also requires evidence of your ‘special connection to Spain’.
The Spain in which my ancestors had lived, or the Spain which was formed following the mass expulsion of Jews and Muslims?
The former, Medieval Spain existed 500 years ago, and was built by the Jews, Muslims and Christians who had co-existed there for 9 centuries under La Convivencia. The Catholic, Castilian Spain which came after, whose foundations support the present day nation, have little to do with this history. The Spanish Inquisition ensured there was no overlap.
The ‘connection’ the Spanish government wanted was to Modern Spain, and they required a Spanish language and contemporary culture test to show this. I would have to complete this in a Cervantes Institute center –– what if my country didn’t have one?
Germany, Poland and Portugal’s Law of Returns seem more sensitive to the fact that Jewish returnees may wish to begin reconnecting with the country that expelled their ancestors on their own terms.
As the Spanish law states, I would have to show this connection through carrying out ‘cultural or economic activities in favor of Spanish people or institutions or in Spanish territory’.
This connection to Modern day Spain, according to the Minister of Justice, can be applied to the broad diaspora of Sephardim, extending from Amsterdam to Cairo. In the hyperbolic Preample, the introductory statement to a law, the Minister writes:
‘The love for a conscious Spain at the end of the historic and sentimental baggage of the Sephardi’s palpitates.’
Sephardic identity’s presumptuous reduction, merged with the economic filter, were features to be traced across the Government’s other initiatives.
Beyond the 2015 Law of Return, there is La Red de Juderias, set up in 1995; a Jewish tourism network, and a cultural and diplomatic El Centro Sepharad Israel, set up in 2006.
The stated purpose of such initiatives is to rediscover the Sephardic legacy, make amends for historical persecution of Sephardim and spread knowledge of Sephardic culture through Spanish society.
Although some of these aims have been part-realised through these initiatives, the benefit to Sephardic Judaism following their fulfilment has been sorely missed.
On the contrary, their negative effects cover a wide spectrum, from offended and silenced Sephardim, to the distortion of historical accuracy.
The actuality of being Jewish in Spain prefaces the need the community has for institutional support.
There is little open integration of the 40,000 Jews in Spanish society, with synagogues mainly hidden and guarded by national police and Judaism only being legal since 1978. Doubt and curiosity lead many to hide their identity, while the atmosphere of university campuses often tips into anti-semitism. Jewish academic and culture movements exist, but without any wide platform.
With Spain still the third most anti-Semitic country in Europe, change must come through public, institutional representation.
Spain’s False Restoration of Jewish History
commissioned by Mozaika Journal
The Spanish Government has allegedly, after five centuries, situated their Jewish legacy within their national history. In fact, the history which they present as complete, has been reduced, and narcissistically conflated with Spain’s present national identity.
This is the most subtle way in which the Government has not lived up to their stated intentions towards the Jewish community.
Not only do Spain’s government-owned institutions present a biased version of the past, but the act of historicisation has been framed as evidence of the country’s progressive national identity today.
In part one of this series, I set out to explore the motivations the Spanish Government have for emotively reclaiming “their” Jewish history, before seeing how this history has been misshapen.
The process of ‘re-discovering’ Jewish history enabled Spain to appear closer to its post-Shoah European neighbours. The symbolic gesture distanced the nation from its un-democratic image during Franco’s regime.
After the natural death of Franco in 1975 marked the end of Spain’s forty year isolationist stance, the country’s modernisation was crucial for its absorption into the EU community.
I met Lucia Aguilar, a lecturer in Sephardic history, in her office in the university of Pompeu Fabra, to discuss the effects of Spain’s delayed entry to the EU.
Some knickers were hanging over the side of a crumbling balcony opposite her window; they belong to one of the residents of the buildings used as army barracks during Franco’s dictatorship, who refuses to move out to make way for a bigger university campus. The past can be stubborn.
‘I have grown up in a context in which one can understand this complex of inferiority. Because of Francoism,’ Lucia explains, ‘It is in our social or cultural imaginarium from the 19th Century that we are behind somehow.’
On top of Spain’s late entry into democracy, they also bypassed the international war trials which followed the collapse of other European countries’ dictatorships. For Germany or France, the compliance with a collectively decided set of ethical standards helped to move the political order on from the past, to shape a democratic, modern identity.
In the year following Franco’s death, this legal process would be avoided to prevent a relapse of fighting. The legislative application of this was 1977’s Pact of Forgetting, which prohibited those in power from holding Franco’s officials to account for crimes against humanity, or from reversing the court rulings of those persecuting under the regime.
The country’s uncommonly quick shift into democracy was mythologised as seamless, and used in official rhetoric to evidence Spain’s return to its rightful position alongside Europe’s other progressive countries.
Today the myth of the transition endures, and is mainly upheld by Conservative political parties. Spain’s official Government website is the first to perpetuate this narrative:
‘The transition brought about a genuine national reconciliation… demonstrating the degree to which the Spanish had overcome the wounds of the Civil War’.
The corruption scandals permeating the right and left constantly evoke images of Spain’s un-processed past. Rising separatist movements have culminated in the raids and arrests of Catalonian officials under the Spanish police in the run up to their October referendum.
The words from Catalonia’s leader, Carles Puigdemont resound across headlines: ‘We will not accept a return to the darkest times. The government is in favour of liberty and democracy’.
Without threatening the myths of the 20th Century, and delving into this recent history, the nation must to find new ways to fully reform its national brand.
One such door, in my view, is Medieval Jewish history.
What better way to courageously self-reflect, than through returning to the 15th century ?
As Jeff Juris, an academic writing on Spain’s Jewish tourist network, states, this initiative was the embodied act of Spain’s restoration of a progressive nation:
‘The act of studying and ‘recovering’ the Jewish past is itself being employed as a mark of modernity. After decades of censorship under Franco, Spanish officials are eager to demonstrate their willingness to engage in legitimate historical inquiry’.
This ‘mark’ can be seen from the official ‘correction of a historical error’ in the Law, to the ‘recovery of the Sephardic legacy’ in La Red de Juderias and El Centro Sepharad.
Alfons Argoneses, the head of Historical Law at Pompeu Fabra, has written extensively about Spain’s relation to its past. He discusses the ‘culture’ of remembering the Holocaust that expanded in the 1960s, when Spain was still in a dictatorship, as we sit outside his faculty’s building:
‘There is a clear desire on the part of the Spanish Government to participate in this global culture and to integrate Spain in this emerging European culture of remembrance.’
The weight of the Government’s symbolic ‘remembrance’ of the past is through the Medieval era, partly because no relevant, and thus unflattering, continuities can be drawn between the current Government and with the persecution of 5 centuries ago.
Paths of Sepharad, a publication from the Red, sums up how the institution wishes to frame the profundity of Spain’s cultural initiatives:
‘This (Jewish) heritage has remained eclipsed, diluted and in some aspects, proscribed for a long time…until very recently we have agreed to live with a certain mutilation of our own history’.
However, the inauthenticity of this nation’s delve into its own unflattering past, culminating in an apology through the Law, is shown through a number of ways.
Firstly, the history which has been selected to be revised to form the Sephardic legacy, has been reduced and idealised and absorbed into the fabric of Spain’s “progressive” national identity, whether this be in laying claim to the inheritance of the diversity of convivencia or Sephardim’s love for Spain.
This historical revision can not be traced back to an isolated, centralised decision. Rather, it has accumulated into official history after 3 decades of Government affiliated figures have controlled the excavation and exhibiting of this past.
Secondly, The apology from the government, which is the culmination of this act of historical inquiry, is incomplete through its avoidance of the most recent history of such persecution, which is in the 20th Century.
At best, Franco’s role within the persecution of Jews can be called ‘passive’. Not only did Spain provide a whole devision of fighters to aid the Nazi’s against the USSR, but they enabled German intelligence services to operate on Spanish soil. Thousands of Jewish refugees were also turned away from Spain’s border, which effectively sent them to concentration camps. Spanish Jews and Republicans were also deported to the Nazi’s camps.
Convivencia’s Golden Phoenix
La Red de Juderias is the most widely known, and publicly criticised, of Spain’s Jewish endeavours.
The Red was the main apparatus through which this revision could take place.
In 1995, the Spanish government matched the emotive ‘rediscovery’ of their Sephardic legacy with the formation of a highly lucrative nationwide tourism industry.
Its launch accompanied the digitalisation of archives from the 15th Century, the restoration of crumbled Jewish sites, and the return of a form of Jewish presence through towns and cities for the first time in five centuries. The positives of this endeavour should not be denied.
However, the way that Medieval history has been revised indicates the inauthenticity of this historical excavation.
Lucia Aquilar, who has also worked within the Red, sees the industry’s account of the past as repetitive and framed in a positive light:
‘Well normally the museums exhibit the convivencia story – another time? – C’mon’ Lucia continues to critique the over-use of convivencia, ‘through this period they construct a myth of the three cultures’ co-existence – to make a nice story, projecting a positive image of Spain’.
Her view is echoed by Alfons Argoneses, who has conducted pioneering archival research into the historic treatment of Sephardic Jews under the Spanish Government.
Alfons disputes this popularised revision of Convivencia:
‘Do we idealise Convivencia? Yes of course, this is taking place now. I mean the word ‘Convivencia’ is full of content –– for long periods of time these were communities of violence’. The archival evidence showing that Jewish communities often fared better under Muslim than Christian rule is ignored, which would be an interesting counter-narrative for today’s territorial conflicts.
Not only is this past reduced to an idealised coexistence, but it is deemed as something uniquely ‘Spanish’.
Within the process of a nation constructing their official account of history, periods are chosen to embody the desired ‘spirit’ of the nation and are idealised and reduced in the process. These selected pasts, are anachronistically made continuous with the present day identity, ignoring the intermediate history that pulls such a past and the present apart in all aspects.
‘Spain did not properly exist until the 19th century!’ Alfons fumes. The irony of this reclamation of convivencia, and Sepharad into a core part of Spain’s identity, is that it was the formation of modern day Spain which lead to the Jews and Muslims’ expulsion from the Peninsula.
The academic Jeffrey Juris notices this tonal shift in a book published through the Red, which continues this inconsistency:
‘The rhetoric in Paths of Sepharad represent a striking discursive shift. Far from excluded, the Jewish past is claimed as a central pillar of “Spanish” heritage and Sephardis are symbolically redefined as “Spaniards”’.
This merging of Sephardic and Spanish enables the Red to reclaim an inherent part of Spanish nationalism.
However, we can see that the Government only reclaims a historic group as ‘Spanish’ when it suits it in the present.
If Sepharad can be deemed as ‘Spanish’, what about the Moors and Muslims that also lived within Spain for centuries? The Law of Return, however, does not extend to this group, which was also expelled through violent inquisitions.
Bayi Loubaris, the president of The Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double standard: “The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those (Muslims) who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist”.
Spain’s cosmetic promotion of its resurrected convivencia-esque cosmopolitanism, is shown through the country’s statistics. Spain is the eighth most Islamophobic country in Europe, as well as the third most anti-Semitic.
However, the media’s promotion of Spain’s efforts may lead many to think otherwise. It is revealing, that on the press section of the Red’s website, this centre recently promoted a series of articles written for Mexico’s Diario Judio by Daniel Ajzen.
Ajzen’s slightly surreal articles follow Government rhetoric in their outlining of Spain’s reclamation of an integral part of their character:
‘Today, this same Spain rises like a phoenix to reclaim the privileged place that it had…A country that tries to recover the best of its character, to return to be an integral part of the world and therefore has today a dynamic, multifaceted, Jewish community’.
Colonialism in Morocco ?
Within Spain’s selection of the more flattering periods of Jewish history, they have scrambled linearity and avoided the legally repressed 20th Century. Un-scrutinised and accounted for history, is simply sidestepped.
The centre’s stated purpose is to ‘further the understanding of Sephardic Jews in Spanish society’, which any honest exploration of recent history would have achieved.
As 60% of the 40,000 Jews in Spain are Sephardic, and the majority of these came over from Morocco in the 1950s when Independence was gained, exploring Spain’s colonial presence in the region may help familiarise the presence of this demographic in Spanish society today. For many, the idea of Sephardim returning after the Inquisition is a foreign concept.
However, when the website discusses Sephardim in Morocco, there is no mention of Spain’s colonial presence in North Africa. This is not just an anomaly on a government homepage, but is a silence felt in the lack of funding and exhibiting of this crucial historical era.
The website states that:
‘The Sephardim of Morocco developed an important economic and commercial activity’ and they served as a link between Morocco and ‘Western European countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, France, England and Spain itself.’ (my italics).
The author vaguely mentions the ‘colonial appetites of Western European countries over North Africa’. However, the website alleviates any culpability by framing this as a benign force: ‘settlers encountering depressed and impoverished Jewish communities, who often saw colonization as an opportunity to improve their material and cultural situation’.
There is no mention that colonial presence raised resentment and mistrust of Jewish communities, and this presence, along with the formation of Israel, lead to their often forced expulsion in the 1900s.
Indeed, the majority of Spain’s Sephardim moved over from Morocco in the 1950s and ‘60s, to come to a Spanish dictatorship where it was illegal to practise Judaism publicly until 1978.
Speaking to a Moroccan Sephardi, Aaron Azagury, about his arrival to Spain in 1968, I found his experience helpful in accounting for the lack of knowledge of Jews in Spain today. His hearing aid battles with the loud music of the Eixample cafe he chose to meet at, but his story perseveres through a 2-hour interview:
‘Even today people do not know what a Jew is, but if you go 40 years ago – and you said ‘Jew,’’ [He acts out a conversation, gesticulating with his hands], you don’t have horns, you don’t have a tail? You’re not a Jew!
…When I was at school in Tangiers, some of the boys called me ‘dirty Jew’, but I have friends from that time still today. There was anti-semitism, but they knew Jews! we were together – we went as boy scouts together – here that was non-existent’
With Spain still possessing Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco today, the potential discomfort of researching and exhibiting this part of Jewish history is avoided. Government institutions stick to promoting more neutral periods, Jewish history is trapped in the Medieval era.
This is also the case with Franco’s treatment of the Jews, as can be seen on the website:
‘The role of Spain during the Holocaust remains a chapter still underdeveloped. To date, most research and publications have focused on the humanitarian work of a few Spanish diplomats.’
Alfons Argoneses, writing on the way that Spain remembers the Holocaust, explains that: ‘the Spanish Government proposes a version of history that obscures…Franco’s support of Hitler during World War II and his complicity in the deportation of Spanish Jews and Republicans to Nazi camps’.
Silence can be louder than words, and the unexhibited parts of the 20th Century tell us about the past characteristics which the government do not want to inform their present identity today.
The Law’s New Identities
The Law unifies the two main ways the Government has addressed Jewish history. Not only does it present a version of Sephardic past, and present identity which is in line with their revisionist account, but it frames the law as the culmination of the nation’s ‘correction of a historical error’.
The Law steps off the page of history through projecting this revision of the past onto present Sephardic identity.
Given that the Sephardim bear a ‘love for Spain’, as the preamble states, there is apparently nothing wrong with asking them to demonstrate their ‘special connection’ through taking a Spanish language and contemporary culture test.
The notion that Spain still possesses the qualities which Sephardim would be nostalgic for, and can identity their Sephardism with, is shown through the Preamble of the Law as the ‘The children of Sefardi…maintained a flood of nostalgia immune to languages and generations’.
Lucia Aquilar, explains how the Government’s fabrication of this nostalgia in Sephardic Jews could be relocated in Modern day Spain:
‘They make a narrative of continuity since 1491. The Spanish state is creating an artificial identity of Sephardic Jews as a whole group – being nostalgic of Spain – having been frozen from 1492.’
This bears close echoes to Primo Rivera’s Right of Return law from 1924, where in the Royal Decree the Sephardim were described as having ‘feelings rooted in love for Spain’.
Both accounts take the Medieval age and place it within the framework of Modern Spain’s identity, as if the diversity and cultural symbiosis of convivencia had been maintained throughout the inquisitions that expelled Muslims and Jews.
Victor Sorrenson expands on this constructed identity. In his view, not only is Spain different from Sepharad, but the reason many came to Spain was out of necessity, not choice. This is unsurprising, considering that only in 1968 were they allowed to practise Judaism in the open:
‘When the people came here, it was not for sentimental reasons, it was because they were trying to escape from Morocco when Morocco won Independence. They were trying to escape from Nazism in Central Europe, as well as from Latin America in a time when there were military dictatorships there. They did not come for emotional reasons, it was not part of our identity.’
On a purely practical level, this ‘correction’ may lead more to feelings of frustration than atonement. The amount of restrictions on the law mean that the 250,000 Spanish Jews, who are estimated to pass the law in the future, will be dramatically less.
Spain’s avoidance of a process of self-scrutiny, which many of its European neighbours have undergone, means whole swathes of Sephardic and Jewish history are not known, and Spanish society has no consciousness of their government’s complicity with Shoah: two manifestations of anti-semitism.
It is revealing that Catalonia, a nation which fights for the legal freedom to process the persecution of the 20th Century, is also pioneering research into this more recent persecution.
I spoke to Jusep Boya, Catalonia’s Head of Heritage, on why the nation was funding research into this period of history. We sat in an office behind the proud ballrooms of Palau Moja, where none of the embroidered benches had red ropes cordoning them off:
‘We have to talk about this nowadays. I want to make you see that we have a didactic approach to tolerance. We want to make people conscious of the injustice, the errors’.
Boya speaks for a nation who are more authentically progressive through their actions, not because of their rhetoric and symbolic gestures, and whose Jewish community will benefit through this.
Spain, Israel and The Jewish Pawn
Spain’s Cultural Diplomat
‘I think its a political thing – you need it to have some kind of excuse to be friend of Israel. With this law, you repair the hard feelings of people.’
Laura Kolesnicov, the director of Barcelona’s Reform synagogue ATID, offers her view as we sit in the office in Gracia. This is her reasoning for why Spain passed the Law of Return. The synagogue is minimalist, and from the outside appears to be a block of flats.
What about the ‘correction of a historical error’, I ask. This possibility is deflected by a knowing smile.
Laura’s theory, echoed by journalists, forms another side of the Spanish Government’s inability to fulfil the altruistic claims of their institutions, which I have been exploring through this series (hyperlink to index) of articles.
Since the 1990’s the government has politicised Sephardic identity through using this as a diplomatic negotiator within its relations with Israel. Such a tactic further prevents Sephardim from building an independent, diasporic identity understood in wider society and contextualised in Spain’s recent history.
Judaism, almost as a default, is conflated with Israel.
Although over the last century, the Spanish government has used Jews to forge links with a diverse range of countries, from the Western Axies to Egypt, today their focus is on Israel.
Spain’s recognition of Israel as a state came later than other European countries; their approval was a prerequisite to their joining the EU’s Economic Council in 1986. Within the last decade, mainly under the PP, diplomatic relations have been growing primarily through business.
Although it is not surprising, nor necessarily bad, that Spain is connecting to Israel over their mutual Jewish past and present, it may be accused of instrumentalising Spanish Sephardic culture in order to build a union with Israel.
Because of this partnership, the government institutions which represent Sephardim have become sensitive to shifts in the sociopolitical climate.
The first of such institutions was seen in 2006, with the formation of El Centro Sepharad Israel. Their stated aim is to ‘foster greater knowledge of Jewish culture within Spanish society and to promote the development of ties of friendship and cooperation between Spanish society and Israeli society’.
However, this cultural initiative will potentially be as unstable as relations with Israel.
With the polarisation of the left and right peaking during the nation’s recent recession, the Left being pro-boycott and the Right being pro-trade, we see that promotion of Sephardic Jews has become a factor within this fight.
Through political discourse of the Left and Right, “Jews” has come to represent diplomacy with Israel. Their identity is subject to the unceasing intensification of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the power play of political parties.
I interviewed Isaac Quereb from his office in Madrid this May, the leader of the only politically affiliated group in Spain, the FCJE. Quereb forecasts the centre’s political instability: ‘If an extreme Left party got in, we can’t be sure whether or not the Government would leave the Centro de Sepharad’.
The Centro’s lack of concern for the reality of Spain’s Sephardim, is suggested by Irit Green, an ex-Politician of the Israeli Government and a Sephardi local to Madrid who I interviewed over the phone:
‘It is a Government business you can say. For instance – a very sensitive thing – they made a conference on anti-Semitism on the same day that we have Shavuot, the celebration when we receive the Torah. Sometimes we have a big event in the community, while they choose to hold an event at the same time.’
In a similar model to El Centro Sepharad Israel, the PP have just announced the opening of a Ladino language center in Israel this year. Ladino is the original language of Sephardim, and is seldom learnt by the young Sephardic generations of today. Although this is positive in terms of the preservation of Ladino, the nine academics hired from Israel could have helped to stimulate more academic presence within Spain’s universities.
The Guardian reported that when Isaac Quereb was asked what he thought of Spain’s new language center in Israel, ‘he would prefer the institute to be based in Spain rather than Israel’.
Although Darío Villanueva, the RAE director, earnestly told El País concerning the center, ‘We must pay this historic debt’, it is dubious why this would manifest in Israel, not Spain.
The Law, however, is the best example of the repercussions of Judaism’s mercurial nature in the political realm today.
The Law’s Eye in Lebanon
Sitting in Bet Shalom, a reform synagogue on a sloping street off Barcelona’s Gracia, I speak to Jaim Cassim, the synagogue’s president. Additionally, he is the president of the committee set up to make the law, as he is also a lawyer.
When inquiring why the law was not easier to pass, Jaim admitted that:
‘In the moment that it was signed, there was a conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel. The IDF fired a missile in Lebanon and killed a Spanish soldier, and a minister [of foreign affairs], started to harden the conditions of this law.’
Laura’s theory that the law was primarily gestural diplomacy came into focus.
If the law’s stated aim of wishing to correct a historical error were true, and the Government had a genuine concern for the ancestors of the expelled Sephardim, its rubric would not be altered by diplomatic blows.
The law’s practical difficulties further support the theory that it was passed for more self-interested motives. Diplomatic relations and appearing historically progressive, have been prioritised over any sincere desire to ‘correct’ a historical error.
Hannah Zohar, a Venezuelan Lawyer, outlines the practical impediments that affect those groups most in need of citizenship in her office in Barcelona’s Poblenou area.
She argues that the law ‘should be more flexible… We are talking about a time in history from 500 years ago and there are cases in which people are not (religiously) Jewish’.
The law claims not to discriminate against those who are no longer religious, although without evidence of Sephardic traditions within recent family past, proving one’s Iberian origins is a temporal feat. Unlike Portugal’s Law of Return, Spain does not accept testimonial evidence of one’s Sephardism.
Even with all the required evidence gathered, the requirements for the Spanish culture test go further in complicating this process. As mentioned in the prologue of this series (link to prologue), the test must be passed in a Cervantes Institute center, although:
‘Not all countries have centres. I have a client from the Dominican Republic where there is no center for this exam.’
In Venezuela, there was no center until January, despite the law’s issuing two years ago.
The tight window of the law also dissuades applicants, as it is only validated for three years. As Zohar explains, ‘many people were not informed in time… You are leaving out the people who want to apply’.
Jaim Cassim sheds light on how many Jews have been able to pass the law: ‘you know the truth? Very few Jews have passed that law. At the beginning they thought many Jewish people from all around the world are going to become Spanish because of this law, in matter of fact – very very few went on to win citizenship rights’.
Building an Independent Diasporic Identity
Although the Spanish Government is not able to control the immediate association of Jews with Israel, and in many ways this is a correct assumption, it should be sensitive to the negative effects of this reductive identification. Part of this sensitivity would be not focusing on promoting this link in one of the rare institutions Jews have to represent their identity in Spain.
The history of the public conception of Jewish identity cannot be understood outside of the institutions and government’s which have reduced and misrepresented the group. Spain is working within such a tradition.
Although many Jews within Spain support Israel, it is their lack of choice about how they are perceived in relation to this nation that becomes a difficulty.
Laura expands on this problem:
‘In the street, people don’t know anything about Jewish people, while they know even less about the difference between being Jewish and being Israeli.’
Her voice is raised as she imitates these questions, her words are embedded with frustration:
‘How come you’re not from Israel? And if you are Jewish why are you not living in Israel?’
The repercussions of this are felt in Spain and Catalonia.
In May of last year, a Catalan lawmaker requested that the head of Barcelona’s Jewish community would leave the local government’s parliament because he was a “foreign agent”. The American singer Matisyahu, in 2015, was not allowed to perform in Spain until he declared his views on Israel.
In 2015, the most affirmed question that the ADL gave to Spanish society was ‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than the countries they live in’ –– a stereotype which grew within Spain during the beginning of Franco’s reign.
Isaac Levvy, the founder of LICRA, a new association set up to tackle anti-Semitism in Catalonia, told me that he wants to disentangle these immediate presumptions:
‘Number one is to show that Jewish people are separate from Israel. What’s bad is that every time something happens in Israel it means Jews here are vulnerable.’
The Left already struggle to see Jews and Israel as not interchangeable, but the Right are institutionalising this lack of distinction for economic gains.
It cannot be denied that the majority of Jews identify with Israel, although this connection is formed in a variety of matrixes. However, the majority of Spain’s Sephardim are from Morocco, and they may have more connections and ancestral memory of Arabic than Israeli culture. Likewise, many of the country’s Ashkenazi Jews came from Argentina’s dictatorship.
These historical contexts inform their identity today, as well as premising their existence within Spain –– in short, they are not conduits from Israel. They have sociocultural roots within Spanish soil, which have never been dug up and examined independently from Israel.
Spain’s Lucrative Sephardic History
When Spain shows an interest in its Jewish history, as well as its present Jewish community, it is often attached to a money-making scheme.
A cursory glance at the articles and figures criticising the law implies this economic framing.
The Gatestone Institute determines that the law could ‘exceed €5,000 per individual’, based on the ‘gathering of documents, having them translated and certified, making travel arrangements to take the exams, and submitting the paperwork to the proper authorities’, and the need to hire legal advice.
A congressman from the Basque country, discussing the law, stated that with the combinations of the practical impediments and the cost:
“The government has the clear intention that the fewer the number of applicants, the better. And the economic filter ensures that only people with high purchasing power can apply.”
However, the more long-lasting effects of the Spanish government’s profiteering, is in the way Jewish culture has been reduced within the process of its alleged ‘rediscovery’. The Red was an instrument through which Spain could diversify its national history and enhance its tourism industry.
This institution was built on the prospect of profits, not intellectual integrity.
The promotion of the industry was lofty, as the vacuum of Jewish knowledge in Spain ‘led us to a profound conviction as to the necessity of incorporating this piece of our past history in our total history’. This statement, spoken by the former Minister of Commerce and Tourism, Javier Gomez Navarro, comes in the introduction to the network’s guidebook.
However, the way the industry was set up ensured this could not be done properly.
Each town with a Jewish Quarter is invited to be represented by, and be part funded by, the Red. With a steep annual membership fee, each town has to ensure that they can attract tourists to make up for their annual payment.
Yet many of these towns and cities were not previously tourist destinations, nor do they possess any substantial amount of place-specific Jewish history. Instead of hiring researchers to enrich their limited museum collections or so-called ‘interpretation centres’, they have pumped money into Jewish-themed vineyards, restaurants and cultural events with vague sounding historical connections.
An economic report for Tarazona’s Jewish Quarter reveals the kind of investments which are intended to complement a Jewish Quarter: ‘Sizeable groups of American Jews [are] eager to leave their dollars in the city’s stores, restaurants and hotels’.
This has often led to culturally-insensitive tourist traps, ranging from the sobering to the farcical — you can go and witness a re-enactment of a Jewish wedding in Catalonia, conducted by a real Rabbi!
Josh Nathan-Kazis went on a journalistic odyssey around the Spanish Jewish quatres to assess these sites. He describes being shown around Lucena’s Jewish Quater by Manuel Lara Cantizani, the municipal’s head of tourism:
“He pulled out a poster for a half-marathon he’s organised… The run is sponsored by McDonald’s; the M in “Marathon” is in the shape of the golden arches. The poster has silhouettes of two runners on it. Behind each of them are photos of Jewish gravestones recovered from the graveyard. The runners, Lara said, are supposed to be Jews. “As if two Jews, with the stone, they are running, finding their future patrimony.”
The economic filter, as well as avoiding the task of investigating politically tense history, has lead to the most relevant parts of the Sephardic heritage remaining ‘undiscovered’.
From Spain’s colonial presence in North Africa, to Franco’s civil war and 40-year dictatorship, to the Jews from Palestine and Germany who marched on the streets with anti-fascists.
It’s harder to tell Jewish persecution through 20th Century buildings, or to re-enact asylum seeking from Morocco to Spain. With no more presentable – and thus lucrative – Jewish sites being built within Spain following 1492, it is in this year that Sephardic history uniformly stops.
The tourism industry doubles up as the official Government restoration of this past. However, their stopping of history in the Medieval era is counter-productive to the advancing of the way Jews are perceived in Spanish society today.
Lucia Aguilar discuss how with the expulsion of Jews 500 years ago being the nearest reference many have to Judaism, the perception of a Jewish person is often trapped in a Medieval context. The use-value of school children being shown the Jewish life cycle is limited.
‘For me it is the route of current Spanish anti-semitism – people still express Medieval stereotypes!’ Lucia finishes.
It is difficult to shift such rusted pre-conceptions of Jews, from them being money-zealots to selfish. The idea that Jews returned after the inquisition might be a novelty to many. However, those with the most specialist knowledge of how the retelling of this past could improve are barred from collaboration.
Meira Odina sits tensely in a cafe in Barcelona’s Eixample.
She gesticulates, re-enacting her conversation with the former president of La Red de Juderias: ‘If you want to take advantage of this heritage, at least provide the real part of this heritage, which is education’.
With twenty years experience in cultural management, and a recent MA in the field from Barcelona, she has been consistently denied the chance to volunteer in one of the Spanish’s government’s cultural institutions. Meira would be one of the few Jewish people working there, if not the only.
Isaac Quereb, the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, explains the Federation’s relation to the Red:
‘There is no Jewish presence. Now, we are starting to claim it. But! We have a very important weakness, we don’t have money’.
The industry’s executive control by tourism officials and government-affiliated groups, leaves no room for those with the most knowledge of how Jewish culture could help combat anti-Semitism.
Although the PP, following pressure form the FCJE, have now made it obligatory to teach the Holocaust in the school system, this process has not been put into practise as of yet and is doubted by many of my interviewees.
Outside of this, there is no research center to explore the less well-known history of Spain’s intervention or of making this learning experience more accessible to the general public through proper museums, such as in Paris or Berlin.
Furthermore, Victor Sorrenson tells me that although the Hebrew Chairs are:
‘Amongst the oldest in the universities, such as Salamanca, Granada and Barcelona, these faculties are about to close due to a lack of students and budgets – it is a matter of time.’
The government’s self-interest within the Red’s formation, whether through making a profit or the public reclamation of history, has again led to the initiative being counter-reproductive in helping develop the knowledge and understanding of Judaism within Spain today.
commissioned by Mozaika journal
Conclusion: Spain’s Dual Movements Lead to an Impassé
Spain has an awkward relationship with its past. The lamentable restoration of Cadiz’s Castello de Matrea is no exception.
A stupefied journalist from the Guardian explains the reconstruction process of the tower ‘in which new materials have been used to protect older stones’. The writer quotes the project analysis from locals: “They’ve cocked it up.”
Although the institutions set up in the name of Spain’s Jewish community are presented as testaments to the government’s reformed approach to the group, they go like the Castello de Matrea: new facades, protecting and disguising old social dynamics.
To answer the question of why the Spanish Government’s approach to its Jewish community has remained ineffective despite the vision outlined by its stated purpose, two wider historical contexts should be grappled with.
The first views the present-day relationship between the Government and Judaism in Spain, as perpetuating the problems that have existed for over 300 years.
Sephardic Jews have habitually popped up in the viewfinder of the Spanish government, but only when they could be put to use.
Alfons Argoneses’s paper, following his pioneering archival research, outlines how Spain’s Law of Return was rife with motifs of this timeworn relationship.
Political structures accustomed to profiting from minority groups are difficult to dismantle, especially with steadfast anti-Semitism and a lack of vocal Jewish opposition.
The more recent context within which Spain’s current approach of Judaism can be understood, begins in 1975 with the death of Franco.
The way the nation has processed their Francoist past, is analogous to their tackling of their Jewish history.
The method of dealing with the past in question, has endured across the course of Spain’s democracy, and is largely practised by Conservative leaders.
If it begins with stating the nation’s seamless progression to a democracy in 1975, then it transitions to refuting that the devisions from the regime are still alive and ends by denying that the lack of accounting for such unsolved problems affects emerging groups in the present.
Today, PP officials will deny any request for trials of the past due to the equal guilt of both sides of the fight, while separatist regions only distract from Spain’s true identity as a unified nation.
This version of the past is actively protected. ‘The Pact of Forgetting’ prevents trials addressing crimes under Franco, while school history textbooks are censored from telling a unified vision of history and Independence referendums are blocked.
Such an approach, all in the name of Spain’s liberal democracy, presents an obvious conflict with the fulfilment of this identity. Spain’s national identity is pestered by a past withheld a burial.
The inauthenticity of this progression from the past is shown through the continuities that linger on in the present, which in turn re-enflames historic problems.
Right and left parties still likened to the political functioning of Franco’s regime.
During the recession of 2008, Podemos was quick to draw parallels between Francoist politicians and the corruption scandals which permeated the PP.
The historian Jaume Muñoz Jofre embeds ‘the incessant rhythm with which corruption cases are uncovered in recent years’ within a history of autocratic political ruling which extends even beyond Franco. These deeply embedded power dynamics had not been publicly vilified.
Furthermore, with the PP’s monolithic imposition of Spain’s national unity, younger generations petition for the same Independence fought for under Franco.
This October, Spanish tanks have been promised on the streets to prevent Catalonians from voting. What, one may ask, are the recent raids and arrests of Catalonian officials by the Spanish police reminded the press of?
The parallels of the Government’s approach to their Jewish history, and the problems this creates in the present are many.
First, the official approach to recent history denies Spain’s complicity with the Holocaust, and wrongly positions Franco as supporting Jewish survival.
The lack of official archival research into this period, and the continual emitting of recently unfavourable parts of history, including the immigration of Jews from Morocco following Independence, must be addressed for any official progression from the past to take place.
These parts of history need institutional representation, and will help contextualise the presence of Spain’s 40,000 Jews in a more relatable history than the Medieval Era.
Spain’s national historiographic machine cannot continue to incorporate chosen epochs of the past into the current national identity.
A progression from the past that is truly authentic must be earned through action – it is not purely symbolic.
The Government’s, and especially the PP’s, utilisation of the nation’s Jewish history to suit their diplomatic and economic ends is a clear evocation of the past. Such practises have stilted the development of the position and understanding of Jews within society.
The government institutions, deconstructed through this series (link to main index) of articles, should be the first site of reform: From a cultural centre built with an independent identity from Israel, to more Jewish and specialist collaboration, to museums that promote the parts of history which have not yet been told to a wider audience.
With the continuance of these systemic problems, Spain will be continuously dragged into the past.
The shocked reaction from the media when the list of the 6,000 names of Jews which Franco intended to send to Hitler in 1942, which was only discovered last year, is a good example.
With multiple platforms for alternative voices existing outside of Government institutions, it is not difficult for the distance between the reality, and the presented reality, to grow. The PP’s asserts that the wounds of the ‘civil war are healed’, grating against the reality of Spain’s rising nationalist movements.
It’s embarrassing. Spain gets pulled back into the past, in the act of “moving forward”.
The fight against anti-Semitism, and the furthering of the understanding of Jewish people and their history in Spain, can no longer be left to Jewish communities.
This is a national problem, not just a Jewish problem. It needs a solution on a parallel scale, with the visibility and support of government-backed institutions.
Posted on September 19, 2017
A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.
A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.
A political pero in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain (Pro-Spanish unity march)
A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.
Posted on September 1, 2017
Published by Jewdas
Re-published by the Jewish Renaissance
The Israeli Times was the site of a less-public conflict in the aftermath of Barcelona’s attack last week. Its pages perpetuated a time-worn pattern: In times of conflict, Jewish communities’ relations to their diaspora are challenged un-constructively by Jewish leaders.
After a van plunged into the teeming Las Ramblas, killing 16 and injuring 100, two pillars of the community clashed in their public response to the attack, amplified by the paper.
Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Ben-Har, portended Europe’s ‘doom’ and asserted that ‘Jews are not here permanently’. The Rabbi called for Spain’s 40,000 Jews to ‘buy property in Israel’, as their home was a ‘hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe’.
After The Israel Times published the Rabbi’s statement, Victor Sorrenson, a spokesman for the Jewish community, sent a loaded email to the paper’s inbox.
‘Barcelona is not afraid, its Jews join them in this stance’. His definitive message was ‘social action’ from Barcelona’s community, not departure.
I spoke to Victor from his office in Barcelona, to find out how two community figures can have such a polarised reaction to the event, and his view on the future of the diaspora in Europe.
Victor opened by explaining that the Rabbi’s view was not ‘representative’ of the community, unfortunate considering that the newspaper had jumped to publish his response:
‘The Rabbi should not have attended the media the same day of the attack. Beyond the fact that the media may have exaggerated their position, I think it is a mistake for a religious leader to take sides that way. He has been in Barcelona for six years, the community, one hundred’
Victor expanded on the logistics of the post-attack community response, as there had been a an elected ‘crisis committee’, and Victor was appointed as the ‘spokesperson’:
‘The message was very clear: Condemn the terrorist attacks, give all our support for the authorities and participate in the social fabric of Barcelona to show our commitment to the city’.
The Rabbi’s response, siting the imperative for the community to move away from the diaspora as opposed to solidarity, is a tired motif. Such soothsaying undermine the diasporas’ efforts, and success, in re-inscribing their identity into Europe.
European leaders heaped critique on the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, following his response after the Paris Kosher-supermarket and Copenhagen attacks last year. His message was clear: ‘Israel is waiting for you with open arms’.
Accusations of Netanyahu’s strategically-timed damning of the future of Europe rippled across the media’s international waters.
Chief Rabbi Bar-Hen, echoing the view of many vocal zionist Jewish leaders, claimed that the community in Barcelona was ‘not permanent’. Victor counter-acted this pessimism:
‘There is a growing interest in the general Catalan population in Jewish matters, an interest that we see translating into spiritual, historical and intellectual curiosity. In short, there is a vibrancy to Jewish life in Barcelona. This will be the trend for the future. I do not know anyone, either before or after the attack, to consider leaving for security reasons’
The Rabbi, ignoring Spain’s sociocultural specificity, had warned Jews not to ‘repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late’. Outside of drawing parallels with other continents, he claimed that ‘Europe is lost’.
Victor, when this was re-sited to him, argued that: ‘Each country has a different history. To encompass all on the same label “Europe”, is reductionistic and shows an ignorance of the reality that is being lived politically’.
Despite its pervasive anti-semitism, Spain has not had a violent attack against Jews for years, unlike France. Victor suggests that in the face of new terror threats rising in Spain, the Jewish community feels supported:
‘What I can say is that our relationship with the security forces is excellent. We work with them on a regular basis, since as in so many other places, Jewish spaces had been targeted before the terrorist threat.’
The disregarding of Barcelona’s place-specific security-levels forms part of a mind set that undermines diasporic identity by homogenising it within Europe. The diasporas’ sociocultural idiosyncrasies are a distraction to Israel, seen as the only true Jewish homeland.
The Rabbi seemed impervious to the irony that thousands of Israeli’s had been trying to pass Spain’s Law of Return of 2015. If an applicant can prove their ancestor’s Sephardic origins they can be nationalised as Spanish. A writer from Haaretz evokes the reaction in Israel:
‘Normal countries, with normal people, don’t go crazy just because an economically-challenged country offered them citizenship. But Israel did’
The Chaplin-esque image of these paradoxical movements sites the insecurity of Jewish life, where is safe? Israel certainly isn’t.
However, expanding on the future of the diaspora within Europe as a whole, Victor has a restless energy:
‘One of the projects I coordinate is the European Days of Jewish Culture, where 324 cities from all over Europe participated simultaneously last year. I think it is representative that Judaism in Europe goes beyond anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
We Jews are an active part of European society, we are not a museum object.’
Victor’s vision for the role of the diaspora within Europe is one of social activism and building more presence for Jews in public spaces.
He co-runs the Berlin-born initiative Salaam-Shalom in Barcelona, organising workshops between the cities’ Jews and Muslims. Victor also founded Mozaika, a journal publishing academic papers and pioneering archival research on Jewish history and culture in Catalonia.
What one sees as an offering of support, others see as a strategically placed call to Israel when a community is vulnerable. The reconstruction of the diaspora’s identity into post-Shoah Europe is advanced by their show of solidarity in events such as the Barcelona attacks. Such responses ensure a reciprocation from their neighbours in the likely event of their own targeting.
Posted on November 8, 2016
Culture Cuts: Sri Lankan Tamils
*All names have been changed, and photos obscured, to secure the subjects’ anonymity. There are no facial photos of the interviewees. Place names and specific information are included to the degree that the interviewee was comfortable with..
Published by Novara Media
“I want to show you a cemetery”, an unexpected endnote to an interview about teaching the Tamil language in the borough of Newham. Lashani pushes open the door of a disused room, three flights up. Light enters from a window yawning over a communal space, encased by a block of houses. Our viewpoint is through the back of the London Tamil Sangam of which Lashani is the head teacher.
“Its a disused Jewish cemetery from before the 2nd world war, you can only see it from these houses,” Lashani tells me. She points to the dignified epitaphs and faded Hebrew script. The cemetery’s gates have been closed to the public since 2003, after 386 of its tombstones were defaced. Their crumbling facades recall the bombs that swept across London.
. The Sangam center, founded in 1936, is one of the oldest Tamil organisations in London.
The centre teaches the Tamil language to second-generation Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, many of which are Newham residents. A small proportion of Lashini’s student’s parents came to the UK during the course of Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war. The economic reasons for immigration in the 70’s became the seeking of asylum in the 80’s following the country’s growing instability.
Today, there are close to 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in England, with the majority living in London.
Although Sri Lankan Tamils have found employment in financial and medical fields since the 70s, many refugee and asylum seekers from Sri Lanka seek emotional and practical support from community centres. Offering financial advice, legal aid, free meals, English lessons and counselling, these centres are fuelled by donations, volunteers and council grant schemes.
However, councils across London are drastically reducing their funding to the centres that support this diasporic group, despite growing demands for their services under the last five years of the Conservative’s austerity measures. In London’s most deprived communities, social care has fallen by £65 per head since 2010, while charities have lost over £3.8 bn from Government funding over the last decade.
Before travelling to Newham to find out about how local government cuts are affecting London’s Tamil community, I went to Murugan Temple in Highgate to learn about Sri Lanka’s past.
26 Years of Civil War
Bali sighs. This conversation is at best recycled. New revelations are not unearthed. He treads with expert feet along the timeline of Sri Lanka’s past violence. He is a Tamil, and left Sri Lanka in 1976 following the country’s civil unrest.
Nearing his 80’s, he tends to circumvent political discussion, volunteering every weekend at Highgate’s Murugan Temple. “As long as your heart is clear you can come to this temple. We ingrain no politics – God can punish those who are bad, that is my philosophy.”
We walk along the 12 inward facing shrines of the temple’s body. Worshipers perform parikrama: making circles around the statues of Gods. “We bought the deities over from Southern India”, he whispers, not to disturb the Sanskrit chants emerging from the temple’s inner sanctum. He ushers me to the ticket office, our conversation interrupted when he gives me a placard displaying the Tamil alphabet.
The Tamil language is spoken from Southern India to Malaysia, and by Tamil diasporic communities across the globe. Online forums contest whether the language is older than Sanskrit.
In 1948, Britain’s colonial rule of Sri Lanka ended. During their regime, ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil population emerged, exacerbated by Britain’s unfair advantaging of the Tamil minority. The Sinhalese, mainly Buddhist and Sinhala speaking, make up roughly 75% of Sri Lanka’s population, while the Tamils, mainly Hindu and Tamil speaking, make up just under 12%.
“The Tamils were in the top posts during Britain’s rule. When the Sinhalese came into power following Independence, they wanted to stop the Tamils from going to university”, explains Bali.
Over the course of the following few decades, a series of reforms were implemented by the Sinhalese to disadvantage the Tamils, beginning with education. “The Tamil’s entrance marks were made higher than theirs, making it very difficult for them to get into higher education”. In 1956, Sinhalese was made the country’s only official language.
After nearly three decades of Tamil oppression under Sinhalese rule, 1976 saw the formation of the Tamil Tigers. Prabakaran, who led and founded the military group, became the unfiltered microphone that amplified thousands of disillusioned Tamil voices. The group’s main objective was to secure a separatist state for the Tamils, within Sri Lanka’s borders.
A few months following the Tiger’s formation, The Tamil United Liberation Front, a Pro-Tamil rights parties, entered their first general election. Bali started to cry as he told me about the democratic party, holding its biography. With 70% of the electorate being Sinhalese, the party stood little chance of instigating reforms.
With the chances of peaceful political reform for the Tamils minimal, the Tigers became the vanguards of Independence. They attacked both Sinhalese and Tamils to secure this title. Freedom fighters quickly morphed into terrorists on the international podium.
“They slipped a letter warning that they would kill my father if he remained in Northern Sri Lanka in 1985. He was a District Chairman for the government. While he was sleeping, they came and shot him in the head. They didn’t have a plan, they just shot”.
.Hindu Priests are traditionally Brahmins, the highest caste within the Hindu System. The Tamil Tigers fought to dissolve the caste system, advocating for an egalitarian and Communistic mode of governance.
.The main duty of the Pujari is to act as an intermediate between the worshiper and God. They traditionally wear a Janaeu, or white thread around the body. The knot symbolises the priests’ pledge to to be pious.
The Tigers’ Separatist nation was gradually secured in the North and East of the country, with its own functioning government, bank and television station.
The perfecting of the suicide bomber. Massacres of Sinhalese Civilians. The utilisation of child soldiers. The murder of Tamil defectors. It was not easy for the Tiger’s to retain the core ideals of their manifesto while preventing the government’s forces from defeating their de facto state.
Sri Lanka’s majority-Sinhalese military were guilty of numerous human right’s abuses during their combat with the Tigers. Notorious for their high levels of sexual assault of woman civilians and Tiger fighters, this problem has far from disappeared. During the war, thousands of Tamil civilians disappeared. White vans would remove suspected Tiger sympathisers to faceless detention centres.
The civil war clawed itself into the 21st century. The fighting picked up speed, and international recognition, until its culmination in 2009. In the last year of fighting, the accusatory fingers of foreign governments pointed at Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former president:
During the defeat of the Tamil Tiger’s in 2009, thousands of Tamil civilians were shelled in “safe zones”. These zones had been allocated by the Sri Lankan government in the final phase of the war. The casualties proliferated on both sides. Up to 20,000 Sinhalese and Tamils were killed in the last 4 months of combat.
Ethnic cleansing! Genocide! Protests in Parliament Square surged. Calls for foreign intervention were unanswered. The final surrender of the Tigers came a day before Prabakaran’s body was found floating in mangroves.
Today, Sri Lanka’s recovery from the war is slow. Improvements of Tamil rights under the new president Sirisena lack momentum. Military camps and detentions centres are still rooted on Northern Sri Lanka’s soil. War crime allegations have not been assessed by an external judiciary. The newly elected army chief lead a key division of the military during the last two months of the war.
The Temple’s priests, or pujaris, conduct the daily puja, a Sanskrit word for worship. There are up to 16 main steps in the worship, from washing the deity’s feet to offering them a seat.
Bali traces invisible lines over his open palm. At the end of our conversation, he returns to the 80s:
“They burnt our library in Jaffna in 1981. There were Tamil scriptures, manuscripts. They were written on Palmera leaves – they are all gone..the whole collection was kept in the library”. Jaffna library was burnt during civilian riots. A similar dent was felt in the cultural archives of Mao’s China and Nazi Germany – the burning of books always ignites a greater fire.
The Tamil Language – Culture Cuts
Bali’s regret of the offensive against Tamil cultural artefacts, reverberates in Selvan’s concerns about the state of the Tamil culture under the current Sri Lankan government. I met Selvan, a Tamil refugee of the 80’s, in a Hare Krishna temple in East Croyden.
He promotes the teaching of the Tamil language in London, fuelled through his fears of its increasingly marginalised status in Sri Lanka. FreedomHouse reports that ‘the status of Sinhala as the official language puts Tamils and other non-Sinhala speakers at a disadvantage’.
Sinhala is spoken predominantly in the South, the region with the most economic growth and governmental departments, while the North, with high levels of poverty and unemployment, is majority Tamil speaking.
In the North today, efforts to improve an economy failing through the infrastructural damages of the war are minimal. Sirisena’s lack of initiative is felt by Selvan: The school of his Tamil-majority village was bombed 7 years ago. Today, the rubble has been cleared, but there are no efforts to reconstruct the building.
After negotiating with locals MPs and gaining approval from the region’s military commander, Selvan’s charity, Sinnathurai Children Foundation was registered. “We built the old school again and now it’s an afternoon school for children. When it rains they are living in huts still!” (pictured above).
Selvan sees London’s community centres as crucial for fostering Tamil culture outside of Sri Lanka’s borders. “We are distributed everywhere now, all over the world. We have to show our children what our culture is, our religion – to teach them the language…A lot of things have been lost but even if we move to another country we still have our culture”.
However, Lashani, from the London Tamil Sangam, has had to start charging a small fee for lessons following local government cuts.
Lashani prepares her students for the Tamil language GCSE, enabling many 2nd generation refugees to speak to family members in Sri Lankan that do not speak English.
The Sangam centre’s library houses current Sri Lankan and Southern Indian Tamil newspapers, as well as poems originating from 300 BCE.
“Many of the elder generation are lonely and can only speak Tamil here,” Lashani explains. “People are suffering in silence.. I lost my husband a couple of months ago..I can share my sorrow with people, and speak about them in my own language”. With a further £20m cuts this year to resources teaching the English language, the center works to prevent language barriers from isolating refugees.
The cuts faced by the Sangam center are marginal in comparison to the nearby Upton and Hartley centres. Following a withdrawal of fundings from NewHam’s shrinking grant scheme, both centres closed last year. The charities hosted lessons in Hindu culture, English classes and events for the elderly.
Newham council, despite being the 6 most deprived area in England, will receive £284 less for every home in the borough as of 2017, while Richmond, a substantially wealthier area, will have its grants cuts by just £57 per home.
The effects of these cuts reverberate in North London, with New Barnet’s Sangam Centre’s facing depleting council funds, a charity providing advice to Sri Lankan Tamil women. With charity grants predicted to have disappeared by the next 4 years, this decline in funding can only sharpen.
London’s Community spaces – Frontiers to Censorship
“The Tigers are freedom fighters”, Ravi asserts. ‘Ravi’, a fake name, agreed to talk to me after I assured him that the interview would be anonymous. Community spaces encourage the sharing of sorrow, the dispersion of loneliness. They also become places where frustration can be shared without fear of censorship.
Ravi taps his hand on his knee. His gold chains vibrate with the movement. The emblems are obscured as they disappear into his white t-shirt. We sit on a soft carpet in a temple in Wembley. He is a second-generation refugee. “I know nothing, only what my Mum tells me”. His proviso dissolves as we begin talking about censorship in Sri Lanka.
“I have friends here with bullet wounds, I can give you their number”. The offer was never followed up. What’s in it for him? To publicly discuss or protest for Tamil rights in London could place yourself on Sri Lanka’s watch list:
Under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, suspected Tiger sympathisers are detained on return to the capital’s airport. This can result in interrogation and torture without trial.
“If you put my name or my picture in a magazine, then I can’t go back to Sri Lanka..I protested in 2009 during the civil war, there were photos of me in Parliament Square – there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be caught if I went back”.
“It is not a catch-penny book, with life like that of a mushroom”. An excerpt from the Preface of the Bhavitha Gita, the main text of the Hindu and Hare Krishna faith.
The Home Office’s August Report on Sri Lanka disclosed that family members have been questioned in Sri Lanka, following the participation of relatives in anti-government protests abroad.
Ravi has family in Sri Lanka. For many in the same position, it is fear for their protection that dictates how politically active they are in their places of asylum, meaning community centres and temples often become substitutions for street protests.
Wembley’s Hindu temples will have to shoulder increasing council tax following Brent’s growing cuts, despite the fact that many of them relieve the pressure of food banks by providing free meals on a daily basis. The council recognises this financial reality as a pattern spanning across the UK’s borroughs: ‘We are not alone, as around 86 per cent of councils are planning to increase council tax’, their website states.
The UK’s Closing Borders
Beyond the shrinking resources that help the Sri Lankan’s who have been granted asylum in the UK, it is also the routes for potential refugees that are threatened under the UK’s tightening borders.
Newham’s Tamil Welfare Association has been supporting asylum seekers coming to the UK from Sri Lanka since 1985. The center is a 10 minute walk from the Sangam Tamil Language School. Along High Street North, connecting the two centres, the walk of Hindus to their daily puja (worship) is soundtracked by the sound of saluhs (prayers) in the borough’s local mosques.
The centre’s building is small, its outreach extensive: Asylum seekers with no legal representation and stuck in detention centres while their claim is reviewed, or refugees seeking legal advice, often call Pradeep, one of the founders.
A woman in her 50’s cries in the centre’s waiting room, she is handed a letter by one of the volunteers. I question whether I should be there, taking up an hour of Pradeep’s time. The center has about 30 walk-ins a day. During our interview, he would run to retrieve a yellow legal file and deposit it on the desk of his colleagues, talking on the phone in Tamil.
The UK’s toughening asylum seeking process highlights the importance of the center. Since 2005, the majority of refugees are granted access to the UK for only 5 years, while over a half of asylum seekers are detained during their application review.
Pradeep knows the UK’s border control process intimately – he was part of the surge of Tamil refugees seeking asylum in England in the 1980’s during the build-up to the civil war.
He’s laughing. Pradeep’s response to my question of whether he thought conditions for asylum seekers had improved significantly since his arrival, which he recounts to me:
“I left on my own. Afterwards my family came here, one by one. Actually my father was shot by the Sinhalese and he survived. When I arrived here, I was detained with 58 other Tamils in the Ashford Remand center in 1985, but we started to fight. With the help of Jeremy Corbyn, the detainees were released. We initially formed this organisation as a self-help group, with a group of refugees putting money in”.
Pradeep is not overawed with Jacques Audiard’s recent film Dheepan, depicting the struggles of a Tamil refugee following his arrival in Europe. The film ends with an angelic choir. They infuse a shot of Dheepan, the protagonist, as a black-cab driver parking in his suburban driveway.
He see’s the blockbuster as symptomatic of a lack of understanding surrounding the reality facing many refugees on arrival to their places of asylum. Perhaps the recent Ken Loach film I am Daniel Blake, with its benefit freezes and food banks, is a more accurate depiction of life following the granting of refugee status.
The UK’s shrinking support for incoming asylum seekers and refugees, renders the future of Pradeep’s charity unstable. Despite the centre’s popularity, it increasingly relies on volunteers, and donations from local residents.
After its near collapse in 1994 following a withdrawal of government funding, its continuation is testament to the associations’s importance in alleviating the suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, and asylum seekers, that reach out to it from across the UK. However, Pradeep, remains concerned for his centre’s future:
“There is bad media coverage of the situation and funders are withdrawing. Policy wise the government is not giving grants for asylum seekers.. the general public is a bit scared of refugees. It’s very hard to run a refugee charity..normal charities don’t face hatred”.
Refugee centres provided advice to Sri Lankan Tamils in South-East London are also facing cuts. An employee from Lewisham’s Refugee and Migrant Network reports that ‘our charity has had to absorb the clients affected by centres that have closed down due to funding cuts’.
These centres, supporting London’s multiple diasporic communities, have experienced increasing demand: the Red Cross reports that over 3,000 asylum seekers have been living in ‘destitution’ this year.
After an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, the government grants them 28 days before their financial support is cut, despite the fact that finding a job often extends far beyond a month. As a direct result of this law, the Red Cross measured a 10% rise in refugees seeking food parcels or emergency cash from them since 2015.
In 2013, David Cameron broke official protocol by visiting a camp for displaced Tamils in Northern Sri Lanka. His cameo appearance intending to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s lack of investigation into alleged war crimes. Cameron left, the news moved on but the cutting of resources that support Sri Lankan refugees in the UK continued.
Cameron’s stunt echoes Theresa May’s first series of speeches as Prime Minister, broadcasting solidarity with the ‘working’ families of England. Encouraging words, often unsubstantiated.
Change, however, is forthcoming in the Home Office. As of 2016, only 14 out of 147 asylum applications were accepted from Sri Lanka. This is a distinct fall from 2015’s 45% acceptance rate of appeals.
The decrease in asylum granting is not so much a reaction to some of the ‘improvements’ marked in Sri Lanka, but to the influx of refugees to European and UK borders. With the UK gaining more control over its borders in the wake of Brexit, this decrease is set to continue.
The futures’ of Sri Lankan Tamils with rejected asylum applications are unstable – they are sent back to a country they initially left over concerns for their safety. Jasmine Pilbrow, a student who refused to sit down on a flight instrumental in the deportation of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Melbourne last year, draws media attention to a process seldom reported on.
The ongoing problems in Sri Lanka should make the obstacles faced by Tamils refugees harder to ignore: the censors on freedom of speech, the difficulty of Tamils resettling in the North following their removal during the war and the threat of torture and detention are proving slow to improve.
Once asylum seekers arrive to the UK’s borders, the support of these community centres are crucial. Many asylum seekers’ visa applications are stretched from months to years, with the UK having the longest wait for a work permit in Europe. With social welfare continuously decreasing, the practical and emotional support of these centres for Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees grow in importance.
The livelihoods of these centres will be measured in Phillip Hammond’s upcoming autumn statement. As it stands, the UK’s austerity measures are set to continue into the 2020s, although Hammond has hinted at a divergence from Osborne’s long-term budget. However, the new Chancellor’s recent assurance that ‘we remain committed to fiscal discipline’ renders any substantial reversal of the Conservative’s ongoing cuts doubtful.