During the years 2006-2012, my husband, Gideon Meir, was the Israeli ambassador to Italy, where I accompanied him during his tenure. Being a Bible scholar and lecturer, I was privileged to participle in many conferences and to lecture at numerous universities in Italy – from the University of Catania in Sicily in the south, to the University of Udine in the north.
In 2008 I participated in a congress organized by Prof. Cicilia Tasca at the University of Cagliari, in southern Sardinia. During the 14th century, Sardinia was part of the Kingdom of Aragon, and Jews lived there in the cities of Caglieri and Alghero.
The subject of the congress was “Gli Ebrei in Sardegna nel Contesto Mediterraneo” (The Jews in Sardinia in the Mediterranean Context).
There, I presented a paper about the ketuba (marriage contract) of Bela and Zarek Carcassona from the city of Alghero, which is in northern Sardinia, and which during the 14th century was under the Spanish kingdom.
Jews lived in the Iberian Peninsula since the beginning of the 8th century. Being the “People of the Book,” they flourished under Muslim rule, especially during the 11th-13th centuries, which are known as “The Golden Age of Jewish Culture in Spain.”
By the 14th century, when most of the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Christian kingdom of Castile, Aragon and other kingdoms, the rulers wanted to bring an end to the cultural pluralism which prospered in Spain, and to create a homogenous Christian society. The only way for the Jews to save their lives under those circumstances was to convert to Christianity.
The Spanish Inquisition chased the “New Christians,” and among them the Marranos, whom they blamed of being faithful to Judaism.
Those who were found guilty were sentenced to torture and death, being burnt alive or hanged.
The leader of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, Thomàs de Torquemada, thought that the New Christians had a bad influence on the Jews who converted to Christianity, and therefore, in 1492 convinced King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile to issue a decree – “Edicato de Granada” – that expelled Jews from Spain.
The punishment for any Jew who did not convert or leave by the deadline was death without trial.
As a result of that decree, about 70,000 to 300,000 Jews were expelled from the Spanish kingdom.
The family of Carcassona came to Alghero from the city of Carcasson, in southern Provance, most likely in 1370, with many other Jewish families, and became one of the richest and most influential in Sardinia at the time.
After the lecture I visited with Prof. Mauro Perani, a Hebrew professor at the University of Bologna and the president of the Italian Association for Jewish Studies in Italy, in the library in the University of Sasari, and saw the ketuba up close along with his students.
Due to its historical import, coupled with the profound tragedy that ensued shortly following its signing, it felt like touching a bittersweet piece of history.
From there I continued to Alghero, a coastal city beside the Mediterranean, of such breathtaking architecture and Jewish history that a few months later I returned for an official visit with my husband.
During our stay there, Marco Tedde, the mayor during that time, took us on a tour of Alghero’s promenade, during which he also showed us the ruins of the synagogue, destroyed in 1492.
When I saw it, I turned to him and asked, “Mr. Mayor, why not have here a piazza della sinagogua (square of the synagogue)?” Tedde immediately agreed, but suggested the name “piazza della Jiuharia,” or “square of the Jews,” and the city’s council began preparations for the change.
The name “piazza della Jiuharia” was subsequently approved, and it seemed like everything was perfect.
But then we returned to Israel.
Tedde had concluded his time as the mayor of Alghero, and a new mayor, who we didn’t know, was elected. It seemed as if there was no chance the plaza would be renamed.
About six months ago, my husband received a fortuitous phone call from the Italian ambassador in Israel, Francesco Maria Talò, who invited us to dinner at his residence with a delegation of Italian industrialists.
Talo knew how important completing the project was, and arranged a meeting with the new mayor, Stefano Lubrano, who was among the members of the delegation.
Later, Lubrano took out a brochure he had prepared and brought to Israel about the Jewish community of Alghero.
On the second page there were some details about the Carcassona family, and on the last page there was a photocopy of the ketuba of Carcassona. I reviewed it and told the mayor that I was the scholar who participated in the conference about the Jews in Sardinia a few years ago, and wrote about this very ketuba.
Lubrano then promised to help me conclude the project and dedicate a square to the Jews in Alghero.
In an email he later sent me, he wrote: “As I told you when we met, I am Christian, and I feel that God put in my heart that I will do everything possible so that the People of Israel will return to Alghero, and so I will repair all the atrocious actions that were done against the People of the Lord.”
A few weeks later my husband and I returned to Alghero for the official dedication of Piazza della Jiuharia. During the ceremony, the mayor read a statement in which he officially apologized to the Jews for the atrocities inflicted upon them by the Spanish people, and asked for forgiveness. He then welcomed Jews back to the city – not only as regular guests, but as an integral and active part of life in Alghero. The statement was signed by him and the current Israeli ambassador in Italy, Naor Gilon.
A plaque placed in the piazza – written in Italian, Catalan and Hebrew – states that the piazza will be a commemorating place for the Jewish community that lived in Alghero, and a place from which “the message of coexistence, serenity and peace among nation will go forth.”
During the ceremony a local choir sang the words, “Our father, our king, we have sinned before Thee.”
The family of my father’s mother, who lived in Cuenca in central Spain, were among the Jews expelled from Spain on March 31, 1492, by the joint Catholic monarchs of Spain Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.
It was a true privilege to sit there to listen to Lubrano and the Christian choir.
A circle in the story of the Jewish nation was finally closed.
The writer is a Bible scholar teaching at Beit Berl College. She has studied and lectured in Universities in North America, Europe and Israel.