Confronting Spain's buried Jewish past

In matters of historical truth and justice there can be no such thing as a statute of limitations.

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November 30, 2005 07:07

 
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Nestled along the water, bordered by tree-lined avenues and trendy shops, the old city of Palma de Majorca seems an unlikely place to discover an ongoing affront to Jewish history and faith. The popular resort town, located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain, has a number of architectural and historical treasures which dot the landscape and serve as reminders of its vibrant past. Signs and information abound regarding the charming museums and courtyards, ancient churches, Roman ruins and arcades that offer visitors an alluring array of sights to see and experiences to enjoy. With over 20 million people per year passing through the city's international airport, local authorities are keen to preserve and even flaunt the various sites the well-preserved town has to offer, no doubt aware of their value in attracting globe-trotting tourists. There is, however, one glaring exception to this rule. In what seems like an almost willful attempt to overlook the past, hardly any effort is made to recall the city's once-thriving Jewish life, believed to date back as far as the 5th century CE. One could easily spend hours wandering through the narrow medieval streets, where everything from the Roman era to the Arab conquest to the Spanish monarchy enjoys its rightful place on the map, and still not encounter a single reference to the Jewish presence that once existed here. There are no signs to indicate where the town's ancient synagogues once stood, no markers to show where the Jews once lived, nor any memorials to recall how they were victimized and killed. IT IS difficult not to escape the conclusion that this "oversight" is no mere coincidence. Given the manner in which Majorca's Jews were so cruelly persecuted over the centuries it is hardly surprising that the city would prefer not to draw attention to this dark chapter in its history. As far back as 1305 anti-Jewish riots took place in Palma. Four years later the island's first blood-libel occurred when several Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Christian child. In July 1391 a pogrom targeted Palma's Jews, hundreds of whom were massacred, and in 1435, nearly 60 years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the city's entire Jewish community was forced to convert to Catholicism. The Jewish converts, however, were never accepted by their Christian neighbors, who looked down on them and referred to them as "Chuetas" or "New Christians," a practice that continues even today. The Spanish Inquisition was especially active in Majorca, hunting down the "Chuetas" and their descendants for centuries. In 1675 and 1691, hundreds of years after their ancestors had been forced to convert, large numbers of "Chuetas" were executed by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism. In one instance, in January 1675, a 17-year old boy who refused to renounce his belief in the God of Israel was burned alive in Palma by church authorities in front of a cheering crowd of 30,000 spectators. And, as late as 1856, riots erupted in Palma when several "Chuetas" sought to join an exclusive private club, outraging local residents. But Palma's old city, and the site of its ancient Jewish quarter, contain not a clue, nor even a hint, of any of this. It is as though the locals prefer to live in denial rather than confront their past. A VISIT to the English-language Web site of the Palma municipality would seem to confirm this: A search results in a brief, solitary mention of the city's Jewish quarter. Ironically enough, the only visible ancient Jewish artifact remaining in Palma can be found in a church. At the entrance to the towering La Seu Cathedral stands a small glass enclosure containing two rimonim, the decorative silver ornaments known as finials that are placed on the wooden staves of a Torah scroll. The Hebrew lettering on them is clearly visible, and the sign next to the glass says "Rimonim" in Latin letters. After gazing at them briefly, I approached two church workers and asked why the Rimonim had not been returned to Palma's Jewish community. After all, there is no doubt that as Jewish ritual objects, they have no place sitting behind a glass case in a church. My question was greeted with derision, further compounded by the smug answer "We will be happy to trade them with you for something of value" - as though the idea of making a gesture of reconciliation to the island's Jews was somehow unacceptable. Rather than try to heal the wounds of the past, it seems the church would prefer to keep the rimonim on display as a type of morbid trophy to celebrate its destruction of Palma's Jews centuries ago. But what local church and city officials in Palma fail to realize is that those wounds cannot be swept under the carpet or ignored. It is time for Majorca in particular, and for Spain in general, to come to terms more openly and honestly with what they did to the Jewish people. TO BE FAIR, there are Spanish cities, such as Girona, where the Jewish past is celebrated and preserved. But the fact remains that Spain does not have a national memorial to the victims of the Inquisition or the expulsion, and in places such as Palma the Jewish presence is entirely overlooked. Indeed, Spanish schoolchildren barely learn more than the sketchiest of details about the darkest chapters in their nation's history, when the oppression of Jews was state policy. In Palma, a local group called Llegat Jueu, comprised largely of "Chuetas," is trying to change this, working tirelessly to preserve the city's ancient Jewish legacy. They have even launched a new scholarly journal, Segell, to generate greater interest in the area's Jewish history and roots. A prominent Majorcan journalist, Miguel Segura, has bravely written articles and books highlighting his "Chueta" Jewish identity and challenging society to do away with lingering feelings of bigotry and intolerance against Jews and their descendants. But Spanish society itself needs to do more, much more, to confront these issues head on. Centuries may have passed since Spain's Jews were driven into exile or forced to convert, but when it comes to matters of historical truth and justice there can be no such thing as a statute of limitations. The writer is founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that reaches out and assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people.

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