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.4)

Part 4/5

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.

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.

A Rejection Of Spain’s Sepharad (Prologue)

 

Published by Mozaika journal

Prologue: Locating Sepharad in Spain’s Law of Return

(Prologue of 5 parts)

“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.