A Rejection of Spain’s Sepharad (pt.2)


commissioned by Mozaika Journal 

Part 2/5


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.

As with the Red, which stops its history at 1492, El Centro Sepharad Israel omits Franco’s persecution of Jews, to Colonialism in Morocco.

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.

Gauchos and Uruguayan Politics

(To read about the History of the Uruguayan Gaucho go here, and to see photographs of Juan’s estancia go here)

Juan Morales was born on the ranch he now runs, Panagea Estancia. As a boy, he rode two hours on horse back everyday to a one-room school house overlooking acres of grassland. His two daughters might start riding there as well, if he and his partner Suzanne decide to send them there instead of the local town’s boarding school. Juan was taught in a class of thirty pupils, but four decades later, there are only three pupils. With one class for different age groups, Juan and Suzanne decide between the quality of their daughters’ education and sustaining a school that allows the children of neighbouring Gauchos to remain at home. Since the 1950’s, there has been a migration of rural workers to over-crowded cities and the school is testament to their stories

Uruguay, on the map, is a fish swimming peacefully between two sharks, Argentina and Brazil. With a population of under three and half million, change could be wrought quickly. José Alberto, Uruguay’s previous president, fought with left-wing urban guerrilla group Tupamaros in the 60’s – robbing banks to give money to Montevideo’s poorest. You wouldn’t see him in the Legislative Palace wearing a three-piece suit because he donated 90% of his monthly wage to charity. In his last presidential term, he passed the experimental legalisation of Marijuana to combat the street drug Pasta Base, a by-product of Cocaine. With the effects of this law yielding mixed opinions, the new leftist president Tabaré Vázquez is radically developing Uruguay’s environmental footprint, and as of 2015, 95% of the country’s energy is supplied by renewable sources.

However, in the less developed North, the working conditions of many Gauchos resemble their distant ancestors’. Juan becomes impassioned when discussing Gaucho’s lack of a fridge in the summer, or their lack of running water. A Gaucho all his life, he began accepting travellers to his Estancia fifteen years ago with the intent of sharing a manner of life he fears is depleting. Gauchos figure less than 3% of the population. Without a growth in rural workers, there is little Government incentive to extend electrical grids to the most isolated parts of the North. Above all Juan hopes for the modernisation and expansion of rural work, even if this threatens the preservation of the traditional Gaucho lifestyle he has grown up with. He feels that Vázquez overlooks the potential of rural work as a mode to tackle poverty, unemployment and drug abuse within Uruguay’s cities. I interviewed Juan last August to find out more about his concerns:

Would you say Gauchos in Uruguay have similar political views to one another?

I would say that most Gauchos share the same philosophy and attitude regarding everything in life and this includes politics, yes. In Uruguay, under 5% of the population live in the countryside. Out of this percentage, around 3% are Gauchos. We are in 2015 now, and you go to visit any ranch in the North of Uruguay and people are still living like they are living half a century ago – exactly the same. If you go to the ranches in Northern Uruguay, no one has electricity – no one has running water. I am lucky, I have a generator and a fridge. I just complain about the Gauchos that live in the darkness. I am speaking for the Gauchos that do not have a voice.

Near the Brazilian border?

Uruguay is split in two, by the Rio Negro (black river). You have the South – quite developed, and you have the North, where we are. Since most owners of the land do not live in their farms, they live in the cities. They go to their ranches in the weekend – we call them ‘weekend Gauchos’ they go to take a look and then come back to the city.

Do they have workers there?

Yes, living there. They do not care at all about the conditions of the Gauchos living there. That is why there are Gauchos living in 2015 – they live with candles and no running water and no decent roads and no mobile coverage. The thing is that most of them have been living like this for their whole life – they do not know any different.

And there’s not resentment from them towards Uruguay’s urbanisation?

The thing is that, the Gaucho life is so hard and tough – and demanding, that there is not a place for resentment. They do not have time or energy to go to these feelings. They have to survive in a very harsh, hard environment all of the time.

Do you think rural work is a viable solution to the abuse of Pasta Base in the cities?

It would be a huge step. As the book of Martin Fierro says; “muchos vicios nacen del ocio” (many vices arise during leisure). But you need to create a new mentality with programs that try to integrate the rural population with the urban one. In Uruguay the rural and urban population do not know each other – they are pulling in different directions.

If a higher percentage of the countryside was electrified, would be a growth of new Estancias?

Absolutely! We need people in the countryside, For God’s sake! 2015 without electricity! It is amazing. And our government claims that Uruguay is the most electrified country in Latin America. They say that 95% of the people have electricity. Yes, correct, 95% have electricity. But if you consider the countryside, I would say that 75% of the countryside does not have electricity. The government’s percentage is about size, not about numbers of people. This small percentage does not matter to politicians.

Does rural work offer better economic prospects than lower paid jobs in the city? Do you think the government should encourage more Uruguayans to work in the rural sector?

Correct. Uruguay is a rural based economy, and needs more people working in rural areas – every day it is more difficult to find hands. All those people living on the favelas outskirts of Uruguayan cities are a “waste” of human resources, in a country with a chronic shortage of them.

Do Gauchos get a proper education in your opinion?

Everybody has been to school, state school. It is compulsory. You do not get many things if you have not been in school. To get to the Gaucho school near here, it is 7km. Start early in the morning with a horse, and when you go there, you get the feeling of what the children feel when going to school. Every day on horseback, they ride to school, over rivers. Some of them for hours!

Do you think that if there is no increase in electricity within the next 20 years, that there will be a gradual decline in new generations of Gauchos?

Yes, exactly, that is a good way to put things in perspective. If we keep it the same way, there will be a moment when there are no Gauchos at all, because no one, only very old people, will be living in the countryside.

So Gaucho culture is dying out.

Nobody wants to live in the countryside, you don’t have a fridge! Imagine from November to March, 25 degrees – without a fridge! If the government invested in resources to bring the slums of the cities into the countryside – than we would have a new Uruguay. So far we are unable to think in this way.

The thing is you need to make a decision: Do you want, in the 21st century, to keep people living like they were in the 19th century, just for the sake of keeping a culture, or do you think people have the right to have internet, and electricity and a bloody phone and a fridge running in bloody summer? I am very sorry if that is going to take some part of the Gaucho culture but of course we need to change that.