The recent abdication of King Juan Carlos of Spain triggered memories both of fun with British royals, and a five-century closing of the Spanish circle, as the wings of history beat over our heads.
Warning: If you believe in the divine right of kings, are a British Empire Loyalist, or an American in love with royalty – read further at your own peril.
I wanted to come fight in “Palestine” in 1947, and applied for a Canadian passport. It came, and on the bottom of every page was printed “A Canadian citizen is a British subject.”
Shift to1939. Most of Toronto’s population of British subjects crowded along Exhibition Road near the Lake Ontario shore. We were all waving flags. Policemen or soldiers stood to attention in front of us, at ten-yard intervals, smartly saluting as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth slowly drove by in an open car, waving regally. I was eight years old. My father raised me onto his shoulders so I could see above the taller children.
Years later I understood the true reasons for their visit. Hitler was on the move in Europe. The King and Queen were sent to strengthen ties with Canada (and the US, which they also visited), in preparation for the war which came that fateful, awful September.
Now we come to Philip Mountbatten, Prince Consort of the present Queen Elizabeth II who is the daughter of George VI and the Queen Elizabeth I had seen. Philip and Her Royal Majesty are actually cousins a few times removed.
The story moves to the 1980s. St. James’s Palace. Prince Philip, in exchange for a hefty contribution to a British charity, is receiving a few hundred couples – major contributors to Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal and the UJA, from all across the globe at a royal reception. I, then chairman of World KH-UIA, had to disguise my amusement at seeing these wellheeled and devoted leaders and their wives pushing forward around the Prince. Powers of trade and industry. Shaking hands, taking pictures. Star-struck. Royalty- struck! What particularly tickled me was that the Americans, spiritual descendants of the Revolution against George III were the most avid fans, cameras flashing.
Okay, if that’s what helps make people want to come to the “International” as it was called, who am I to be cynical? It took another Canadian to put it all in perspective.
Phil Granovsky was chairman of the Board of World Trustees of Keren HaYesod. Short, very smart, and with a unique sense of humor. He knew just how to put everything into its proper place .
Granovsky begins: “Your Royal Highness, we have a great deal in common.” (What an opening, only Phil could have done that!)
First, Sir, your name is Philip, and my name is Philip.
Second, you, Sir, are royalty. My middle name is Melech – which means King.
Third, Sir. I have a daughter and you have a son.”
Philip, to his royal credit, threw back his head and roared…
Now, kind reader, we move to a breathtaking moment in history As I write, the Spanish Government is about to offer Spanish citizenship to descendants of Jews banished five hundred years ago. And also, Juan Carlos, King of Spain, has abdicated in favor of his son – yes, yes – another Philip (Felipe)! Let me tell you about Felipe’s Jewish connection. As heir apparent, he carried the title of Principe de Asturias.
Why Asturias? The “Reconquista” or Christian reconquest of Spain from the Islamic Moors began in the northern province of Asturias. It took seven centuries to complete the expulsion of the Moroccan Muslims.
By then all of Spain was as Catholic as Catholic could be. Now the Inquisition could turn full force on the Jews. As part of Spain’s brutal anti-Semitic Catholicism, the Jews of Spain were – in the Edict of Expulsion of March 31, 1492 – ordered to leave Spain, by Their Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Some chose to stay and convert to Catholicism, and were known as conversos or New Christians. They were treated with great suspicion: many of the conversos remained secret Jews; called Marranos (pigs) by the Spaniards, known as Ánusim (the forced ones) by fellow Jews. Those who refused to convert were the brave ancestors of the Sephardic Diaspora, which peppered the Mediterranean littoral. They were especially well-received in Turkey and its Ottoman Empire then covering present-day Iraq to Greece and the Balkan states. (To the attention of Mr. Erdogan!) Almost 500 hundred years later, in 1990, in Oviedo, capital of Asturias, my wife, Henrietta and I were privileged to be present when the painful history of five centuries was bridged. (I had been made an honorary Sephardi by two wonderful warm friends, Mauricio Hatchwell de Toledano of Madrid and Nessim Gaon of Geneva.
Decades earlier I had relived the pain and glory of Sepharad in studying the history books by Cecil Roth: always I wished I could share that heritage. Who knows? My uncle who survived the Nazi occupation in France claimed that my grandmother, née Sarah Varga, was of Spanish stock. (There was indeed a great historian called Solomon Ibn Verga who was among those expelled in 1492.) Back, however, to Oviedo, 1990. Prince Felipe addressed leaders of Sephardic Jewry from across the world gathered in the central theater of Asturias. “As heir to those who signed the Decree of Expulsion, I welcome you with open arms (con brazos abiertos) and with great emotion.”
Tall, thin, handsome and regal Felipe uttered these words. Henrietta and I felt tears come of themselves. The slate of five-centuries of history had been wiped clean in just a few Spanish words. The hundreds of thousands of conversos and of wandering Jews thrown from the initially warm embrace of Spain could not hear these words, allay and assuage their pain and suffering. The event in Oviedo and the earlier abolition of the Edict of Expulsion could never have taken place if there was no Jewish State to rise from the ashes and reassert the vitality of our people.
History sometimes rights wrongs.
The former Chief Hacham of the British Commonwealth, Dr. Solomon Gaon responded. He chose to speak in Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), that archaic Spanish which Sephardi Jews carried from country to country, in which they sang, in which they dreamed. Twelve leaders of world Sephardim, representing the twelve tribes, sat on the stage behind him.
A hush fell over the hall. It was packed with the grandees of Spain and of Asturias, undoubtedly many carrying hidden memories of converso ancestors. Hundred of Spaniards, dozens of Jews….
“When I grew up in a small town thousands of kilometers from here, in our little home, on one wall were the words of “Hatikva” in Hebrew, on the other, the Ode to Sepharad, to Spain, in Spanish… This is a dream realized.”
Christians and Jews, Spaniards and Ladino- speakers, the children of the expellers and the children of the expelled sat silent. Sat silent, but for the falling tears.
In his colorful career, Avraham Avi-hai has been a senior civil servant, a founding dean of the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. Dr. Avi-hai has lived his whole life immersed in and absorbed with Jewish history and the making of Israel. His novel A Tale of Two Avrahams (Gefen Publishing) reflects the tense present and storied past. Email: 2avrahams@ gmail.com