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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.5)

Part 5/5

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.

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.