Menu JTA Search

Is Spain facing up to its history?

A street musician plays Flamenco guitar next to the statue of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. (Jerome Socolovsky)

A street musician plays Flamenco guitar next to the statue of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. (Jerome Socolovsky)

CORDOBA, Spain, June 9 (JTA) — It was the whitewashed walls and narrow alleyways of the Jewish Quarter — abutting the magnificent eighth-century mosque held up by more than 850 marble columns — that produced the Jewish sages Maimonides and Judah Halevy. It’s also this sun-baked Spanish city on the shimmering Guadalquivir River that claims the great Muslim and Christian philosophers Averroes and Seneca as native sons. But centuries later, it was also on these cobblestoned streets that Jews were hunted down and burned at the stake by Christian mobs in an orgy of violence brought on by rabidly anti-Semitic preachers. After previous meetings in Vienna and Berlin, Cordoba was chosen by the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as the place to discuss anti-Semitism. The Spanish hosts hoped the Conference on anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance would provide an example of how members of different faiths and cultures once were able to live together in peace. But that’s not the whole story. “They took the good part of the history,” said Eli Cohen, a Spanish law student at a university in Malaga. “They chose the time when three cultures lived together. After the Reconquista, and the Catholic monarchs, it was another story.” Indeed, the nationwide religious cleansing carried out during the reconquest of Spain from Moorish rule led by the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, has been the crucible of modern Spanish identity. For centuries, Spanish children have learned about Ferdinand and Isabella much the way American children learn about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Much has changed, especially in the past 30 years, since Spain’s transition to democracy. Schoolteachers no longer tell pupils that the Jews were Christ-killers. But anti-Semitic stereotypes persist: A recent Anti-Defamation League survey on attitudes toward Jews in 12 European countries found that 54 percent of Spaniards believe “Jews have too much power in international financial markets,” and 51 percent believe Jews are “more loyal to Israel” than to Spain. Victor Harel, Israel’s ambassador to Spain, pointed out in an essay for the Spanish newspaper El Pais the litany of anti-Semitic acts registered in Spain last year: A Holocaust memorial in Barcelona desecrated twice, Nazi symbols and an anti-Semitic slogan held up at a Madrid soccer match, the statue of medieval financier Samuel Halevi in Toledo vandalized and burned, elderly Jews in Melilla attacked, a Barcelona education manual that called Israel’s security fence “the wall of shame,” and a publicity campaign personally backed by the mayor of the town of Oleiros that called Israel’s leaders “the new Nazis.” Indeed, Spain’s government, particularly the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has been widely criticized in Jewish and Israeli circles for its perceived bias against Israel. That tempered the goodwill from this year’s annual OSCE meeting on anti-Semitism. “I think it’s good, but the first thing the government should do, before holding a conference here, before inviting the World Jewish Congress to dinner, is to be impartial in the conflict, so that there would be no questions in the first place,” said Cohen, the Spanish student, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Harel, the Israeli ambassador, noted that Zapatero recently visited the Mauthausen concentration camp and instituted a national Holocaust Memory Day on Jan. 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz. He also noted that the Madrid regional legislature has started holding annual Holocaust remembrance ceremonies. These initiatives, Harel said, “deserve praise and recognition.” Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos should be credited for stopping other European politicians who wanted to downgrade the profile of the OSCE conference. But, he noted, Moratinos wasn’t motivated purely by altruism. “Moratinos spoiled their plan because he had his own reasons for doing so,” Singer said. “He had a rotten record in Israel, from the time that he was in charge of foreign affairs at the European Union. He had a rotten country’s record in the way that the Socialists behave towards Israel, and he figured this is his big opportunity.” “How are we going to tell Mr. Moratinos you can’t be good on anti-Semitism?” Ben Cohen, the ADL’s European affairs director, said Spain’s initiatives to discuss European anti-Semitism should reach back further. He says Cordoba is a good example of how Spaniards are “rejoicing and celebrating their Jewish past,” but they need to reflect on the atrocities committed by their forebears. Spain still has no major memorial to the Inquisition or the expulsion of Jews from Spain. “Walking around Cordoba here, you’ll see a statue of Maimonides, you’ll see a café named after Judah Halevy, you’ll see a shop where you can buy CD’s of Ladino music,” he said. “But if the average tourist asks, ‘Well, what happened to these people? Where did they go? How come they’re not here anymore?’ you won’t find an answer in the streets of this city, because there’s no memorial here.” Some Spanish leaders have starting taking another look at the country’s own history, and the OSCE conference gave them a venue to do so in public. One of them is Manuel Chavez Gonzalez, a key Socialist Party figure. He is the president of Andalusia, the southern region named after the historic Islamic caliphate of Al-Andalus, which includes Cordoba, Granada and Seville. On the eve of the Cordoba meeting, Chavez addressed a forum in Seville organized by the Fundacion Tres Culturas, or Three Cultures Foundation. “It was in this land of Andalusia” that “different cultural influences converged, which enabled a powerful synthesis of wisdom,” Chavez said. “It was here that the ancient knowledge was translated and transmitted to medieval Europe. He adds: “But Andalusia also saw, after the conquest of Granada and the unification of the peninsula under a single Christian monarchy, the expulsion of the Jews in 1492,” and of Muslims who remained in the south in 1609. “Two great tragedies, and two great historical injustices,” he said. “This is also Spain, and this is also Andalusia.”

NEXT STORY