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Spanish Prize Goes to Sephardim, Honored by Spain, German Leader

Spain’s most prestigious award, the Premio Principe de Asturias, was presented to Sephardic Jewry at ceremonies here last Thursday.

The presentation was made by Felipe de Borbon, prince of Asturias, the son of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain.

It was accepted by a 10-member delegation representing Sephardic communities all over the world, the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain 500 years ago. The delegation met privately with the prince.

The award, which ranks as the Hispanic world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was established in 1980 by the Premio Principe de Asturias Foundation in this town near the Bay of Biscay.

It is awarded annually to an individual, group or institution anywhere in the world for activities in the interests of humanity and has a monetary value of nearly $50,000. It is always presented by the Spanish crown prince.

In this year’s award, Sephardic Jewry was cited for upholding and preserving the Spanish language and culture, although driven from their country in 1492.

The award was announced in July in recognition of the millions of Sephardic Jews who have been described as “the wandering Spain.”

The foundation noted that those people spread Spanish culture for generations in remote corners of the world.

At the Oviedo ceremony, the prince stressed that the Spanish language and culture were inextricably linked with Jewish accomplishments in Spain. He expressed hope that Spain will once again become a meeting place of the Spanish and Jewish traditions.

In New York, Andre Sassoon, vice president of the International Jewish Committee for Sepharad ’92 and secretary of the World Sephardi Federation, said, “It was by far the most emotional gathering. It was unprecedented for an entire Jewish community to get such an award.”

He said there is a movement in the Spanish Parliament to pass a law that every Sephardic Jew can apply for Spanish citizenship.

‘INCREDIBLE, DEAFENING APPLAUSE’

Sassoon related that Rabbi Salomon Gaon, who is spiritual head of the World Sephardi Federation, “broke down twice during the speech, and there was incredible, deafening applause in the theater, which held about 1,000 people.”

Also present to accept an award for international relations was German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who called it an “incredible honor to be on the same platform when the Sephardic community was receiving the prize,” Sassoon recalled.

According to scholars, some 400,000 Jews were expelled from Spain in the year Columbus set out on his first voyage of discovery. The edict of expulsion was made on March 31, 1492, and Jews were given three months to leave Spain.

Jews who remained in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism. Many of them continued to practice Judaism in secrecy. The term for them, Marrano, is derogatory and means pig.

Spanish, and later Portuguese, Jews resettled in France, Italy, Holland, North Africa, Turkey and other countries. About a million Sephardim live in Israel. Another 3 million to 4 million live in various countries of North and South America and southern Europe.

The delegation that accepted the Prince of Asturias award included Rabbi Gaon, who is also head of Sephardic studies at Yeshiva University in New York, and Nessim Gaon, president of the World Sephardi Federation, who received the award on behalf of the community.

Also in the delegation were Salomon Garazi of the South American Sephardic Federation; Leon Benmayor of the Jewish community in Salonika, Greece; Leon Levy of the American Sephardi Federation; Samuel Toledano of Spain’s Jewish community; Pierre Dray of France; Professor Moshe Mani of Tel Aviv University; and Sassoon.

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum in New York contributed to this report.)

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