Behind the Headlines the Jews of Spain
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Spain

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For the first time since 1492, Spanish Jewry is on the eve of a major breakthrough: the forging of an historic concordat with the government of Spain, which will ensure total religious freedom, rights and privileges on a par with those enjoyed by their Catholic neighbors.

A State Commission on Religious Liberty has recently been formed, comprising seven representatives of the various ministries — seven from the religious faiths and seven professional experts. A member of the Standing Commission of four is Samuel Toledano, a Madrid industrialist and an ardent Zionist. The remaining members of this important working group are two Catholics and one Protestant.

Toledano considered it most significant that, although there are only 10,000 or 12,000 Jews out of a population of 38 million, one of the four Commission members is a Jew. He saw it as “a matter of historic vindication after centuries of suppression,” and added that “whereas doors have been closed to Jews in several countries in the Mediterranean area, the fact that the door has been reopened in Spain reflects the vitality of Judaism, and indicates that Jews can still play a vital role in ameliorating the social and religious life of the nation.”

A first and important step was taken in 1980, he pointed out, with the passage of a law dealing with religious liberty and non-discrimination, and the Jewish community was consulted in the drafting of this progressive legislation.


Toledano is the secretary of the Federation of Communities. There are II Federations in Spain. Five have permanent offices — Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga; and in Ceuta and Melilla, which are two Spanish enclaves in Morocco. The remaining six each comprise a number of Jewish families which gather together for services in towns such as Sevilla, Valencia, Alicante, Majorca, and two cities in the Canary Islands. The role of the Federation is to coordinate the interests of the II communities and to act as spokesman in relations with the government.

Toledano is now busily engaged, together with the three other members of the standing commission, in the drafting of the historic Concordat with the government, containing a broad spectrum of specific issues to be resolved.

These involve marriage, the status of rabbis, the observance of Jewish holidays, programs of Jewish studies in state schools, facilities for kosher meat and ritual slaughtering, the purchase of land for Jewish cemeteries, tax exemption for Jewish instruction, access to the state radio and television networks for programs of Jewish interest, and other matters of importance to the Jewish community.


Toledano is also working quietly and steadfastly to broaden and intensify the acceptance of Israel by the new Socialist government of Spain. Although Spain now has trade and cultural relations with Israel and has accepted a permanent representative of Israel, with the rank of Ambassador, accredited to the World Tourist Organization, a specialized body of the United Nations with its headquarters in Madrid, it is Toledano’s earnest hope — and he is doing all he can to foster it — that there will be full recognition by the new government and the exchange of Ambassadors between Israel and Spain in the not too distant future.

It is interesting to note that the government’s reluctance to do so up to now is partly based on the fact that in 1951, the then Prime Minister of Israel, Moshe Sharett, instructed his UN delegate to vote against Spain’s admission to that body.

Although the leftist elements in the new government are committed to Third World causes, favor the PLO, and are somewhat antagonistic to the United States, there are other elements within the Socialist Party which are definitely pro-Israel, including three Ministers who have visited Israel and will work toward improved relations.


The renaissance of Spanish Jewry, of such recent origin, bodes well for the future of Jews throughout the Mediterranean region. It is interesting to discover that the 3,000 Jews in Madrid, the 2,000 in Barcelona, and the remaining 5,000 to 7,000 in other areas, returned to Spain not too long ago, primarily from Morocco, with a small contingent of Ashkenazi Jews who fled from Germany and Eastern Europe, and even a smaller number from the Balkans and Turkey.

Toledano disclosed that there are hundreds of Argentinean Jews who have migrated to Spain, but who profess no religion, and indeed refuse to identify as Jews or to show any interest in Zionism or in Israel.

It was his opinion that these South Americans had turned against the religion and the traditions of their parents because of their own leftist tendencies, and that there was no hope of bringing them into the fold, despite repeated attempts by the official Jewish body.


It is a touching experience to visit the Jewish community center in Barcelona, maintained by the 500 Jewish families in the region. It is an imposing, well-kept building containing two synagogues, the larger one on the main floor for the Sephardim and a smaller one upstairs for the Ashkenazi members.

In another part of Spain’s largest city is the beautiful Jewish day school, opened 12 years ago, where some 120 students pursue an eight-year program of Hebrew studies. Like the impressive school in Madrid, which cost more than $1 million, the operating costs are enormous and a severe financial drain on the limited financial resources of both communities.


One can only admire the tenacity of Spanish Jewry in their efforts to ensure a Jewish heritage for their children and for generations yet unborn. For the American-Jewish tourist, it is a treat, for heart and mind, to visit these proud bastions of Sephardic Spain, as well as to wander through the narrow, twisting streets of the ancient Jewish quarters of Toledo, Sevilla, Granada and Cordova, and to recall Maimonides and other great Jewish scholars of the past, who were among the great glories of the land before Ferdinand and Isabella set to work.

Toledano points with pride to the fact that the Jewish community has sponsored, in conjunction with the Center for Judaeo-Christian Studies (a church body), an annual meeting of Israeli and Spanish university professors, alternately in Spain and in Israel, who hold seminars on the bible, history, sociology, the humanities, medicine and law. Such exchanges serve to heighten the prestige and influence of the community, which exerts a national influence far in excess of its numbers.

Toledano does not foresee any substantial growth of the community, “for Spain is traditionally a country of emigration, not immigration. Our Jewry will remain fairly stable, with some aliya either just before or after (attending) university. We strive for an acceptable common denominator, neither super-orthodox nor superliberal.”

One cannot help but be impressed by this man who is making history on behalf of the Jews of Spain; his blend of driving intelligence and unwavering idealism stands him in good stead as he helps repair the ravages, five centuries afterward, of the infamous Inquisition.

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