One on One: 'Israel is our insurance'

Gibraltar's Jewish mayor on small-but-solid Jewish community on Rock.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
March 4, 2009 21:43
One on One: 'Israel is our insurance'

Solomon Levy 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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'Though we Jews in Gibraltar always say that the Rock is very much our own place, we call it Yerushalayim haktana [little Jerusalem]," says Gibraltar Mayor Solomon ("Momy") Levy, here on a private visit to the actual capital of the country last month. Levy, 72, has the distinction of being the first civic mayor of the British-governed Spanish neighbor where he was born and bred - as an Orthodox Jew. The office, says Levy, used to be a political appointment. But, according to the New Gibraltar Constitution (of 2006), a different mayor is to be appointed each year. "And I am proud to be the first in this category," he asserts, beaming. This is not the only source of pride the job awards Levy - a successful real-estate agent and key figure in the Jewish community - whose term ends on July 31. "The first mayor ever was my late uncle, Sir Joshua Hassan, who served for 21 years, before becoming Gibraltar's chief minister," explains Levy. "And I'm especially proud, because the robe and hat I wear now are the same ones that my uncle wore in the 1950s. Other than he and myself, nobody else has worn them so far." The dapper man-about-town type, who walks around Gibraltar in a Panama hat, yet wears a kippa for prayers and during meals, says, "I'm Orthodox, but not ultra-Orthodox. I like to mix with everybody. My motto has always been that in Gibraltar we are all one big family." How did there come to be such a serious Jewish community on the Rock of Gibraltar? In the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which helped end the War of the Spanish Succession, Spain ceded Gibraltar and Minorca to Great Britain. It is still valid. And it's interesting to note that Article 10 of the treaty says that no Jews or Moors will live on the Rock. So, technically, I'm not supposed to be living there. But my family has lived in Gibraltar for 250 years. My father's side came from Morocco, and my mother's from France and Manchester. Trade was good. The first Jew appeared in 1708, and he got a job as a postman with the army. Of course, all who came over originally were from Spain. So we are all Sephardim - although we accept Ashkenazim, too [he laughs]. At first, because the treaty forbade Jews from living on the Rock, they weren't allowed to own property. But around the late 1700s, the governor said, "These people aren't so bad, after all. Let's allow them to buy property." On the first plot they bought, they built a synagogue. Since then, three more have been built. So, with a Jewish population of 650 - among a total of 30,000 - we've got four shuls, a kollel, a Talmud Torah for children aged four to 11, one Jewish private school for boys and another for girls. Before going off to university [abroad], most of the kids spend a year at a yeshiva in Israel. My son, for example, attended a yeshiva in Bayit Vegan [in Jerusalem] and then went to Cambridge. We also have two kosher restaurants - one meat and one dairy. [In spite of being Sephardic, here he uses the Yiddish terms, fleishik and milchik.] And the only bakery in the whole of Gibraltar is a kosher one, so non-Jews in Gibraltar get very annoyed when Pessah comes around [during which time observant Jews eat only unleavened products]. We also have the best selection of kosher wines in the Iberian Peninsula. But mohalim [circumcisers] have to be brought in from London. With all due respect to Chabad, we don't need it, because we are self-sufficient. Has intermarriage been an issue in your family? During World War II, when everyone was evacuated from the Rock, there ended up being many mixed marriages. Some of the couples used to go to Morocco to get a quickie conversion and then come back. But, baruch hashem [thank God], in the early 1950s, we had a rabbi who convinced boys to go to yeshiva. And since then, there's been no problem. It used to be true of Israel - and, to some extent, still is - that everybody was either Orthodox or secular, and that Conservative and Reform congregations were only attended by people from other countries. Is this true of Gibraltar as well? Ninety percent of the Jews on the Rock are Orthodox. The others live alongside the rest of the community with no problem. All of our synagogues are Orthodox; we have no Conservative or Reform. During the summer, we get a lot of Jewish tourism. Jews visiting southern Spain always make it a point to come to Gibraltar on Friday afternoons to have an Orthodox Shabbat. They are amazed to see how well our community functions, on the one hand, and how good our relations are with other religions, on the other. The first thing I did when I became mayor was to summon the Roman Catholic bishop, the imam, the rabbi and the Protestant vicar. We all joined hands, and that became a famous photo in Gibraltar - as an example to the world. The climate in Britain these days is nothing like what you describe - particularly where Muslim attitudes toward Jews are concerned. The capital has been called Londonistan, and universities have boycotted Israeli professors. There is growing anti-Semitism. Does Gibraltar have no fallout from this phenomenon? No. In 1969, when [General Francisco] Franco closed the frontier between Spain and Gibraltar, we were left without any workers, so we had to import Moroccans, who are all Muslims. I am a real-estate agent. I manage property. At least 500 of my tenants are Moroccan. And we've had no problems with them whatsoever. They come to work. They are well-treated. Consequently, they forget all this radicalism. They used to say to me, "We fight for our stomachs." How much concern is there among the Jews in Gibraltar over the events in Israel? There is great concern. When I became mayor, the first official visit I hosted was from Israeli Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor. He was happy to see how pro-Israel we are. Perhaps it's selfish on our part, but Israel is our insurance. Because, has veshalom [God forbid], if anything were to happen, we would go to Israel. Yet you pride yourself on being British... Indeed. [Here he produces a photo of the queen adjusting his tie.] That was in 1999, when I was awarded the MBE - Member of the British Empire. My brother, a rabbi in Britain, calls it the "mi shebeirach [Hebrew prayer for health and well-being] of Elizabeth." I had been at Buckingham Palace 43 years earlier, when my uncle received the CBE - Commander of the British Empire. So, when the queen was pinning the MBE on me, I told her this. "Who is your late uncle?" she asked. "The late Sir Joshua Hassan - who got three knighthoods," I said. "I remember him very well," she said. The next day, Lord Janner, president of the Holocaust Educational Trust, rang me up and said he had a spare invitation to Buckingham Palace that afternoon. He asked if I'd like to come along, even though I'd been there the day before. "I never refuse a good offer," I said. When I got there, I approached the queen. "Your Majesty," I said, "it would be the dream of the Gibraltarians if you were to visit us in the millennium." "Look what happened last time I was in Gibraltar," she said. She was referring to a visit she paid to the Rock in 1954, which caused big trouble, because Franco said that no English sovereign could touch Spanish soil without his permission. "Yes, ma'am, but the Rock belongs to you." "But what will my cousin say?" she answered. Having been in the army in Gibraltar for 18 years, I stood at attention. "With all due respect to his majesty, the king of Spain," I said, "the Rock of Gibraltar belongs to her majesty the queen." Then I went away. The following week, she went to lunch with Lord Mayor of London Peter Levine, a Jew. As lord mayor, he has to have a chaplain, which is normally a priest. But being Jewish, his was a rabbi - and that rabbi was my brother. So, the queen came to the lunch, and the lord mayor introduced her to his chaplain, "Rabbi Levy from Gibraltar." At this, the queen said, "Last week, I had a chap at home who tried to persuade me to come to Gibraltar." "That was my brother," he said. To which the queen replied, "You seem to be everywhere." Aren't there Gibraltarians who want independence from Britain? Only a handful, and it's not serious. We can never have independence; the most we can - and do - have is self-determination. We look after all our affairs, except for foreign, which are handled by the British government. We have a self-contained economy - which is why the global financial crisis didn't hit us - our own taxation and parliament. Britain is our governing body, but we're not a colony any more. Why is there still hostility in Gibraltar toward Spain? Because it treated us very badly. I mean, it closed the frontier for 18 years! Aren't you more Spanish culturally than British, however? We have the best of both worlds. For example, the official language is English, but I have a saying: "British we are; British we will stay, but Spanish we speak all day." So, in school, the kids speak English, and in the playground, Spanish. I am a lover of zarzuela, a Spanish opera. I attend a lot of Spanish plays. And though I shouldn't say so, I also love bull-fighting. You go there with your sandwiches and bottle of wine - in my case kosher wine... I go to Madrid quite often. And Spaniards come to Gibraltar frequently, often commenting on how many Jews there are there. In spite of our small number, our synagogues are all near each other, and we're such a tight community that we seem more numerous. Speaking of numbers, do you anticipate a gradual dwindling of the Jewish community in Gibraltar, as is happening in the rest of the Diaspora? If anything, we might increase. Somehow or other, since 1945, we've stayed about the same number. My brothers married English women, but I married a Gibraltarian. She is 10 years younger than I, so we weren't in the same class in school, and there wasn't the problem of familiarity that sometimes hinders coupling. When my wife was a little girl, I was already gallivanting around in a sports car, traveling to Spain and living the life of a bachelor. But then the frontier was closed, so I got married. [He laughs] Franco actually did a mitzva for me by closing it. Anyway, we came on our honeymoon to Israel. Since then, you have visited frequently. What was your first experience of the country? When I was a young boy, we didn't have enough Jewish education in Gibraltar, so my father sent me to [the now defunct] Carmel College in the UK. Its founder and principal was the late Rabbi Kopul Rosen, father of Rabbi David Rosen [the former chief rabbi of Ireland and currently chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations], with whom I've kept in touch. On this visit, I asked him if I could visit his father's grave, and I did. Next to my parents, Rabbi Rosen taught me a tremendous amount. In Gibraltar, I'm known as one of the most elegantly dressed men. I learned that from Kopul Rosen. Before attending Carmel College, I had never been to Israel, so I wasn't familiar with the Israeli mentality. And all the Israeli boys I met in England seemed arrogant and boastful - as though they were special. I could never understand that attitude. Since then, however, after coming here regularly and seeing the wonders that have been done here, I realize that their attitude was justified.

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