Criticism as Spain builds monuments to Jewish past

Purpose of establishing heritage sites is to attract tourism to areas that otherwise have little to recommend them as holiday destinations.

April 6, 2011 21:05
3 minute read.
Gilad Schalit rally in Barcelona, Spain.

Israel_Spain_311. (photo credit: Ohad Kaner)


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GIRONA, Spain - Hidden among the maze of alleyways east of the Onyar River, the Museum of Jewish History stands as testament - if an inadvertent one - to the completeness of Spain's destruction of its once-thriving Jewish population.

Inside the museum, set in what is said to be Girona's last known synagogue, designers have layered the ancient architecture with all the flourishes of a contemporary museum, complete with glass-lit cases, multimedia displays and an audio tour in several languages.

In one case sits the signet ring belonging to Girona's most famous Jewish son, Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman Girondi, the legendary Judaic scholar known as the Ramban or Nahmanides.

The sight of the ring inspires the kind of spine-tingling intimacy with history that museums like this aim to evoke - that is, until the voice on the audio guide announces that the ring is a fake, a copy of the original that sits in a museum in Jerusalem.

In fact, most of the artifacts in Girona are copies. Virtually nothing is left from the community that once lived here, save for the tombstones excavated from the nearby Jewish cemetery. The few artifacts from the period that have survived are generally beyond the museum's financial ability to acquire.

“Once in a while we can buy something, but it's not as often as we would like,” said Assumpcio Hosta, the director of Patronat Call de Girona, the municipal body responsible for the preservation of Girona's Jewish heritage. “It costs a lot of money.”

That difficulty hasn't stopped nearly two dozen cities and towns throughout Spain from trying to capitalize on their Jewish history, building monuments and hosting concerts, lectures and other cultural activities inspired by one of the most productive and accomplished Jewish communities in history.

The effort has left some Jews feeling that Spain is exploiting a history that rightfully belongs to contemporary Spanish Jews, and in the process is relegating a living culture to a museum piece by portraying Judaism as little more than a historic curiosity.

The primary purpose of establishing the Spanish Jewish heritage sites is to attract tourism to areas that otherwise have little to recommend them as holiday destinations.

“The government is using the Jewish patrimony for a purpose, and the only real purpose is to bring tourism to Spain,” said Rabbi Dovid Libersohn, the Argentina-born Chabad rabbi in Barcelona. “Some politicians, they like Judaism without Jews.”

But Spanish officials involved in the effort to highlight Jewish heritage say it’s not a fair or apt analysis. They note that the Spanish government has devoted resources to rebuilding its ties with Israel and with Jewish communities, in Spain and beyond. In 2006, Spain established Casa Sefarad-Israel, an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs charged with promoting good relations with Spanish Jewry, the global Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel.

Within Spain there is Red de Juderias, a network of nearly two dozen Spanish cities and towns whose official purpose is to preserve the cultural legacy of Jewish Spain but whose main aim is to promote tourist sites.

The development of Jewish heritage sites in Spain is part of a wider explosion of interest in the culture of Europe's lost Jewish communities.

Institutions such as the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage and Warsaw's Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, and annual events like the European Day of Jewish Culture and the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, work to restore the Jewish place in the pantheon of European minorities. Most of these efforts are intended mostly for non-Jews, who often are the organizers.

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