An honorary Spaniard

Abraham Haim shares his journey from Arabic scholar to president of the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem.

Abraham Haim  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Abraham Haim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Long before Max Ehrman’s Desiderata was published in the 1920s, cautioning the desirability of being on good terms with all people, Moshe Ben-Nahman, or Nahmanides, penned a letter to his son Nahman, advising him to “speak gently to all people at all times.” This missive was sent from Eretz Yisrael to Spain.
Arriving in Jerusalem in the second half of the 13th century, Nahmanides, also known as the Ramban, was taken aback by the poverty and absence of Jewish life compared to the prosperous Jewish communities he had left behind. He found only two Jews in Jerusalem, both expert dyers. They were allowed to live in the city because they specialized in dyeing silk from Damascus, which was very popular at the time.
He was to live in the Holy Land for only three years before death overtook him, but set to work reclaiming holy sites and reestablishing Jewish communities throughout the country, in particular in Jerusalem.
He stayed in contact with Spain and hoped to see it once again. From Jerusalem he also wrote to another son, Shlomo, a member of the Castilian court.
“In a sense,” recounts Abraham Haim, president of the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities of Jerusalem, “the council was established in 1267 with the arrival in Eretz Yisrael of Nahmanides from Gerona, Spain.”
In reality, it came into being a little later, towards the end of the 13th century. Originally called the Council of the Sephardi Community of Jerusalem, the oldest Jewish institution in the country, headed the community in the “Old Yishuv” for centuries, representing it to the authorities and to the non- Jewish population.
Nahmanides’s arrival was the precursor of centuries of Sephardi aliya, particularly after the 1391 massacres in Spain and continuing through the 15th century, with another influx following the Expulsion. After the Ottoman Empire came to power in Jerusalem in 1516, there was Sephardi aliya from other countries as well.
Nahmanides built a synagogue in the Old City, the whereabouts of which are not clear, although it is traditionally accepted that its present location, under the Hurva Synagogue, is its original site.
The Ottoman Empire in the Holy Land recognized only one Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, the Sephardi community, says Haim, author of Particularity and Integration: The Sephardi Leadership in Jerusalem under British Rule.
This recognition continued until the British conquest in 1917, with the head of the community – and therefore also of the Yishuv – known as Rishon Lezion (First in Zion). Not only was he the chief rabbi of the Jews of Jerusalem, but the man who bore the title was also the authorized representative of the Yishuv. He ran two rabbinical courts – one for Torah laws and one for civil affairs.
The Sephardi community underwrote Torah education and charitable institutions, with communal life centering around four synagogues in the Old City that date back to the 16th century. As a group, they are known as the Yohanan Ben-Zakai synagogues, taking their name from the largest of the four, traditionally known to have been built on the site where the scholar once ran a talmudic academy. The synagogues were funded by local and international contributions.
The first one built was the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue.
Its name is based on a story about the prophet Elijah’s appearing as the 10th man for a Yom Kippur minyan (prayer quorum) when least expected. The Istanbuli Synagogue was built after the 18th century. The Emtza’i was the last to appear and is believed to have been the women’s gallery of the largest and main synagogue, known as The Grand.
The community’s expenses were mainly taxes, debt repayment, community property maintenance and haluka, says Haim. Haluka, he explains, was the organized collection of funds in the Diaspora and its distribution in the Holy Land. There were four socioeconomic divisions: the rabbis and talmudic scholars who were supported by haluka payments; the wealthy and the landowners, businessmen and tradesmen; workers and talmudic scholars who both worked and received partial living stipends; and the poor, whose only livelihood was haluka.
AS THE Ashkenazi population grew exponentially and socioeconomically in the 20th century, the tightly knit Sephardi infrastructure, which had come to include Jews from North Africa, Yemen, Bukhara, Georgia and so on, was weakened, giving way to separate institutions for each. Thus the council, which for centuries had been known as the Council of the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem, became the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities.
Nevertheless, young Sephardim arriving in the country continued to engage in public and national life, build neighborhoods, encourage businesses, modernize education and promote Hebrew education.
They persistently attempted to set up a national and international framework for the entire country.
However, this was met with resistance from the Ashkenazim who, afraid of surrendering their organizational independence, did not want to be told by the Sephardim who their representatives should be.
They also feared losing control of their resources, says Haim.
A failed attempt to get approval from the Ottoman governor for the Sephardi community’s wider-ranging plans resulted in 1906 being the year when there was no candidate acceptable to all communities for the position of Rishon Lezion.
Although Sephardi leaders continued to be politically active in the organization of the Yishuv alongside Ashkenazim, the weight and power of the financial assistance to the Yishuv by the Ashkenazi Zionist movements, such as the Zionist Movement and the Jewish Agency, eventually toppled the balance of power. The Sephardi community was represented in the first and second Knessets, but after 1955 it no longer had a presence in parliament.
Today the council is apolitical, says Haim, but still carries out cultural and social functions, including some charitable work, although this is limited due to lack of funds.
In June, Haim, who has been part of the council for the past 40 years, was named president of the council and its board of directors. The appointment came just days before he was to give a presentation in the Spanish city of Zamora (at a conference titled “Zamora Jewish Quarter: Encounters and Reencounters”) 32 years after he first spoke in that northern area of the country (in June 1981 at a conference called “Forgotten Spain: The Jews”).
In his time associated with the council, Haim has served as historic archive director, Spanish-language courses director – in coordination with the Spanish consul-general in Jerusalem – board member, chargé of Spanish affairs and president of the council’s Cultural Commission.
HAIM WAS born in Jerusalem on December 6, 1941, of a Sephardi mix coming from Sarajevo, Istanbul, Baghdad and Basra. He studied Middle Eastern history and Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and obtained a PhD in history from Tel Aviv University.
He recounts that one day in 1969, a friend doing an internship at the offices of a well-known Jerusalem lawyer told him that documents in Arabic had been discovered with information relating to the Sephardi community, and he asked Haim to translate them. This resulted in the 1971 publication of Haim’s Documents from the Collection of Elie Eliachar by Tel Aviv University.
“That was my first encounter with the Council of Sephardi and Oriental Communities, based at 12 Hahavatzelet Street,” says Haim. “I met the honorable Sephardi Elie Eliachar in Jerusalem, and he said he would show me the historic archives of the community. But first he wanted me to summarize 200 documents of the president [of the council]’s private archives, which were part of the council’s history.”
When Haim was allowed access to the archives, he was saddened to see so many documents that were not properly archived but kept in sacks. Haim’s girlfriend and future wife, Dania, headed a group of students who spent three years classifying the material. Once that was done, Haim wrote his doctoral thesis on the information that had been uncovered.
“I also made this archive known to the academic community, and I prepared my own presentations, which I delivered at international conferences,” he says.
Over time, he recounts, many Spanish authorities on the subject, as well as locals, have visited the archives.
Haim went on to write his first doctoral thesis on the subject.
From 1979 to 1989, he served as scientific coordinator of the Misgav Yerushalayim Institute for Research and Study of Sephardi and Oriental Jewish Heritage at the Hebrew University. In 1989, then-education and culture minister Yitzhak Navon appointed Haim director of Sephardi heritage in the Culture and Education Ministry, a position he filled until 1994. Haim used his time in the ministry and outside to develop contacts and deepen ties with Spain and its people and spent part of several summers, between 1979 and 1982, studying Spanish at the Colegio de Espana of Salamanca.
From 1983 to 2012 Haim gave conferences on Sephardi themes at the college where just a few years earlier he had begun to learn the language. For 21 years he has received grants from the Spanish government to share his knowledge of Hispanic studies. He has lectured at various universities, cultural associations and municipalities in Spain and throughout the Diaspora.
Haim points out that much of what he achieved with Spain and the Spanish was done long before diplomatic ties were established between the two countries in 1986.
“It was difficult, but it was doable,” he says. “Already by the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s there were fewer barriers. The first conference I gave in Spain in Spanish was in 1981 [dictator Francisco Franco was dead, and the Spanish Constitution allowing freedom of religion was three years old].”
In the mid-1970s, the UN General Assembly denounced Zionism as racism, at a time when Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, was ambassador to the UN. It was the president of the Sephardi Council, Elie Eliachar, who pressured Spain, through its consulgeneral in Jerusalem, not to support the motion. Spain did not abstain, however, but it refused to participate in the voting altogether, which was a tough move because in those days Spain had very good contacts with the Arab world, Haim explains.
“My mission has always been more to inform than to publish,” he says about his busy life, traveling between Jerusalem and Spain, a country in which he feels very much at home.
AS PRESIDENT of the council, Haim says his responsibilities include budgetary concerns and relations with the authorities. He is looking forward to the traditional “crowning” ceremony of the Sephardi chief rabbi (still known traditionally as the “Rishon Lezion”) on September 16 in the Grand Synagogue of the Ben-Zakai quartet. It will be attended by President Shimon Peres, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, notable rabbis and leaders of the local and international Sephardi community.
Haim has been a tenured professor and is a constant researcher. He belongs to the International Fraternity of Researchers of Toledo and is adviser to the National Authority on Ladino and its Culture. He participates in conferences and seminars on Middle Eastern history, Spanish Judaism, the Sephardi world and inter-religious subjects. In 1999 he received the Order of Civil Merit from King Juan Carlos of Spain.
In Spain, Haim has become the honorable president of the Center for Medieval Studies of Ribadavia, Orense and of the Mount Sinai Cultural Association in Ponferrada, Leon, among others. He is also a peace ambassador for the Universal Peace Federation.
In addition, he has been the coordinator of the council for the annual Samuel Toledano Prize since its establishment in Jerusalem in 1998. The prize is awarded to one Spanish and one Israeli citizen in three categories: Spanish Jewry and Sephardi heritage; relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain; and Israel-Spain relations.
In 1992 a film was made, called From Toledo to Jerusalem, he says. The star of the film, the singer and narrator was Yehoram Gaon. Toledo was chosen because it was a place where the three cultures and religions once coexisted, he explains.
“Today Jerusalem must become the place of coexistence of the three cultures. It must be a city of peace,” says Haim. “The name says it. Yeru means city, shalem means complete, or peace. So Jerusalem must be the city of peace.”