commissioned by Mozaika journal
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.