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Jewish history caught in independence tug-of-war

 

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?

A Rejection of Spain’s Sepharad (pt.3)

Part 3/5

commissioned by Mozaika Journal 

 

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.