King of Spain Pays Tribute to Jews 500 Years After Edict of Expulsion

In a ceremony redolent of the pomp and flourish that befits royalty, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Sofia righted a 15th-century wrong on Tuesday.

In the presence of Israeli President Chaim Herzog; his predecessor, Yitzhak Navon; and hundreds of others at Madrid’s Beth Yaacov synagogue, the Spanish regents honored the Jews whose ancestors another Spanish royal couple expelled 500 years ago.

On March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the edict ordering Spain’s 200,000 Jews to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country.

It was an act that profoundly affected not only Jewish history but the histories of Spain and the countries of Europe, Africa and the Americas, where the descendants of Spanish Jews live.

For Moises Bengio, who arrived in Spain from Morocco 30 years ago, Tuesday’s ceremony brought tears of joy.

"I wish that my ancestors could come out of their graves and see the king in the synagogue," said Bengio, one of the participating cantors.

"I am filled with emotions that border on crying," the 68-year-old chazan said. "Twenty years ago we could never imagine this day would come. Even 30 years ago, we were barely tolerated," he said.

Dignitaries representing Spain’s estimated 12,000 Jews and Jews worldwide attended the 90-minute ceremony. This is "a sacred hour," Salomon Gaon, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, told the assemblage.

FIRST VISIT TO A SYNAGOGUE

The king, who was visiting a synagogue in Spain for the first time, was moved as Gaon cited things both he and Herzog had done as an example to all nations to live together in peace.

"This is the moment each of us must bow to God in the heavens, who in his grace made us witness to an act of reconciliation that finds its expression in the presence in this sanctuary of the king of Spain," Gaon said.

The king and the Israeli president were blessed by the Sephardic rabbi in Ladino, the language of old Spanish Jewry.

The ceremony in the 24-year-old synagogue started at 6 p.m. local time, when the king unveiled a plaque commemorating "a solemn act of re-encounter with Spanish Judaism."

The king, wearing a white yarmulka, and the queen, her hair partly covered by a lacy black kerchief in line with Jewish custom, sat on red velvet chairs on one side of the Torah Ark. President Herzog and his wife sat on the other side.

The king, speaking in Spanish, cited the many contributions Jews made to Medieval Spain and thanked those countries that gave haven to the Jews after the 1492 edict.

Some in the audience wept.

The king paid tribute to the "strength of spirit" of Spanish Jews, forced to leave because the state demanded "religious uniformity."

"We have known moments of splendor and of decadence," the king said. "We have lived through periods of great respect for political and ideological freedom, as well as periods of intolerance and persecution for political, ideological or religious reasons," he said.

"But what matters is not the accountability of our mistakes or our successes, but rather the will to project and analyze the past with a view to our future, the will to work together in the pursuit of a noble undertaking," the king said.

Juan Carlos did not, however, apologize for the expulsion edict, nor did the Jewish community expect him to.

APOLOGY NOT IN ORDER

"We don’t think an apology is in order since you cannot blame Spain today for what happened," said Samuel Toledano, secretary-general of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain. "It has a highly symbolic significance that he comes to us, to our synagogue, to extend his welcome and sympathy."

An Israeli official attending the ceremony echoed Toledano’s feelings, saying that if Jews started demanding that everyone apologize for things that happened in the past, "we’d never have time to get anything else done."

The ceremony, which was written about in Spanish newspapers days before it took place, was part of Sepharad ’92, a series of events sponsored by the government and Jewish organizations to commemorate Jewish life in Spain.

The Jews now living in Spain arrived relatively recently. The majority came from Morocco in the 1950s and 1960s, when they began to feel nervous about their future in a Moslem country.

Thousands of others have since come from Latin America, many who came from Argentina during that country’s tumultuous years of the "dirty war" of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Although Jews did not have full rights under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, his death in 1975 began the slow process toward full recognition of Jewish and other religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

In 1978, the government approved a new constitution that guaranteed freedom of ideology, religion and worship and did much to equalize the status of religious minorities.

A few years later, the Jewish community started working on a set of accords that would assure them the freedom to practice Judaism freely. The accords were signed by the government in 1990, and are due to be ratified by Parliament this year.

The accords formalize various rights such as the religious observance of holidays in civil institutions, such as the armed forces, grant tax exemption for synagogues and give civil recognition to religious weddings.

FEW PROBLEMS WITH ANTI-SEMITISM

Toledano and others said that despite Spain’s past and the relative ignorance most Spaniards have about Jews, Spanish Jews do not face any strong anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, a few hours before the commemoration ceremony, Spanish workers in orange jumpsuits could be seen frantically scraping off tiny posters of the Youth of the National Front, in which the group justified the expulsion, saying Spain "only did what other nations did before."

Israeli security men could be seen all around the synagogue before the event took place, while men with dogs checked under sewer gratings and garbage cans for bombs.

But Spanish Jewish leaders said the main problems their community faces are those faced by Jewish communities everywhere: mainly the issues of assimilation and intermarriage.

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