Posted on January 11, 2018
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.
Posted on December 4, 2017
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.
Posted on September 19, 2017
A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.
A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.
A political pero in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain (Pro-Spanish unity march)
A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.