Repatriating Spain’s Jews: Revisited

Recently, Spain created great excitement in the Jewish community with an offer of citizenship to Jews who can prove Sephardic roots.

Hannukah in Spain (photo credit: CONCHA JAMBRINA LEAL)
Hannukah in Spain
(photo credit: CONCHA JAMBRINA LEAL)
Recently, Spain created great excitement in the Jewish community with an offer of citizenship to Jews who can prove Sephardic roots.
While most people have reacted positively, others are questioning Spain’s sincerity. One of the openly skeptical critics is Ilan Stavans, who recently wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times entitled, “Repatriating Spain’s Jews,” dated April 1, 2014. It will be shown here that Stavans has done a great disservice to a rather noble gesture by Spain to Jews with Spanish roots.
In the article, Stavans relates how a Sephardic friend of his carries a “mythical key” to unlock a house of tradition that his family left behind when they were expelled from Spain in the year 1492. Stavans contends that Spain’s invitation to Jews (such as his friend) of Spanish heritage to return was born more out of economic desperation than a “rediscovery of its Sephardic heritage.”
The central proof to this argument is Spain’s ongoing “careless” neglect of Jewish heritage sites.
I understand Stavans’s ambivalence toward Spain. In school, I too experienced the conflicting narrative around the events of the year 1492. In my American history class at Maimonides (another Spanish refugee) School in Boston I was taught about the pioneering voyage of Christopher Columbus which opened America up to successive waves of immigration.
As the son of new immigrants, I easily could relate to that compelling narrative.
On the other hand, in my Jewish history class I was taught a much different story.
I learned about Jews who were on that very voyage fleeing from torture, forced to convert, and finally expelled. As the son of Holocaust survivors, unfortunately, that story deeply resonated as well.
What I cannot understand, however, is Stavan’s contention that Spain is carrying out a policy of “official disregard of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.”
In fact, it is quite the opposite. In the past 20 years, Spain has made a concerted effort, pouring millions of dollars into restoring these sites.
During that time, a public NGO, Red de Juderias de Espanã (Network of Jewish quarters in Spain, henceforth “RED”), was formed by 25 towns to preserve Jewish heritage sites and traditions. It has been so successful that Dr.
Shaul Krakover, professor of geography at Ben-Gurion University, after an in-depth study of this organization, concluded that “there is probably no other project [in the world] comparable in scope and organization to that undertaken by RED in Spain.”
My organization, The World Jewish Heritage Fund, also came to the same conclusion after a year-long survey of Jewish Heritage sites around the world.
It is important to note that RED is part of well organized effort affecting, directly or indirectly, nearly every level of government – city, provincial and federal. Municipal initiatives to restore Jewish quarters, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are buttressed by provincial and federal grants. This public-private partnership of heritage preservation is not just a model for preserving Jewish heritage in Spain, but is a model for every country which is interested in protecting its tangible and intangible heritage assets.
Stavan waxes most poetic when he describes the so-called neglect of the Sinagoga de Tránsito in Toledo, built by the king’s treasurer, Samuel Halevi Abulafia. He claims that it is “by far the most manicured Jewish building in Spain – [but it] feels uncomfortably quiet, as if inhabited by ghosts.”
Well, other countries should be so lucky. According to the statistics, this “haunted” synagogue had approximately 300,000 visitors last year. Professor Stavans must have gone there on an off day.
Well, if the act of repatriation is not the result of deep soul searching, then, according to Stavans, it must be a desperate and cynical attempt by Spain to salvage a bad economy. The facts, however, do not support his case. First and foremost is the fact that RED was formed years before the economic crisis.
Second, there is, as of yet, no economic litmus test for citizenship acceptance, and there is certainly no guarantee that high net-worth individuals will in any way predominate the wave of expected applicants.
The truth of the matter is that the repatriation offer is an unprecedented, extraordinary event. It is, indeed, an attempt to correct, as the country’s minister of justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, puts it, “the biggest mistake in Spanish history.”
Of all the countries involved in the Holocaust, very few have laid out the “red carpet” for Jews to return. Take my situation as an example.
My mother and father were both born in Poland (what is now Belarus and Ukraine, respectively). It is virtually impossible for me because of insurmountable hurdles to ask for citizenship from either Belarus, Ukraine or Poland.
Efforts at reconciliation are by their very nature inherently difficult. It is natural that reconciling gestures by the aggrieving party will be met by cynicism and skepticism by the aggrieved. It is also natural that there is and will be cognitive dissonance in various segments of the Spanish population regarding the necessity to make up for events that occurred over 500 years ago.
The skepticism, cynicism and dissonance on both sides is undoubtedly, part and parcel, of the healing process.
Yet the kind of contrarian article written by Stavans is counterproductive. Singling out Spain for “careless” treatment of their Jewish cultural heritage is wrong because it is simply untrue. Already there are four Google pages of people sharing and citing Stavan’s work as if it were fact. In the end it will hurt Spanish tourism which in turn will remove builtin incentives to preserve and restore other heritage sites desperately in need of restoration.
In short, the act of repatriation is a laudable act by a country slowly coming to grips with a sordid past. It is a logical extension of Spain’s (as Stavans so cynically calls it) “rediscovery of its Sephardic heritage” which began long before it’s economic problems. Soon, Stavans’s unnamed Sephardic friend can apply for citizenship and thus open a real door with that “mythical key.” I, on the other hand, am facing doors that are being jammed shut by Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.
The writer is founder of the World Jewish Heritage Foundation.