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Around the Jewish World in Enclave Known for Tolerance, Jewish Community Senses Change

October 28, 2004
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It’s recess time at the Hispano-Israelita School and Rabbi Yamin Bitan stands on the balcony of his office, looking down at the children playing together in the schoolyard. “Look, do you see those kids over there? They’re Muslims,” the rabbi says. He then points at another boy kicking a soccer ball with them.

“That little blond one is a Jew, Yoel. I did his circumcision. I also circumcised Jacob, that little red head over there,” Bitan says.

Despite its name, the Hispano-Israelita School is a state-funded, public educational institution open to pupils of all faiths. Only after school do the Jewish youngsters stay for religious lessons.

The school is one symbol of the harmony among Muslims, Christians and Jews that has reigned for over a century in Melilla, a small city on the North African coast that belongs to Spain.

A woman with a Muslim veil comes to pick up her child in the courtyard, where echoes can be heard of a boy chanting verses from the Torah in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah.

Melillans call it “convivencia,” or living together. It’s the same word Spaniards use when talking about Spain’s medieval “golden age,” when the three monotheistic faiths flourished side by side.

But lately, anti-Jewish attacks here and in Ceuta, another Spanish enclave further up the coast, are threatening to kill what remains of the tradition of “convivencia.”

In recent months, Jewish families and elderly have been taunted and harassed on the street, while a synagogue and the Jewish cemetery were pelted with rocks and gasoline-filled bottles.

“They’ve desecrated my husband’s grave. They’ve thrown paint and rocks and garbage at the synagogue. And when the men go to pray, they insult them,” says Tamar Trusman, who takes care of toddlers in the school’s day care center.

Melilla’s population of 60,000 is split mainly between Christians and Muslims, with about 1,000 Jews. There also are small groups of Hindus and Gypsies.

There is a similar mix and tradition of coexistence in Ceuta.

Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, but they began returning to the North African enclaves in the 19th century after freedom of religion was re-established. Most came from northern Morocco, drawn by burgeoning trade opportunities.

At the community’s peak — just before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 — there were 6,000 Jews here.

The community today is still ritually self-sufficient with half a dozen synagogues, a kosher butcher shop and a kosher Sephardi restaurant that could hold its own in Israel.

But the attacks have led the Hispano-Israelita school to close off its large front entrance. All visitors now must come through a side door with a permanent guard.

“We used to be just like any other school, which didn’t need guards,” said Trusman’s younger colleague, Raquel Ben Susan.

Ben Susan sees a new Muslim radicalism in Melilla, and describes a family that has moved in next to her parents.

“It’s not the Muslim that we Melillans are accustomed to. The men have beards like Osama bin Laden’s, and their wives are all in black. I’ve never seen people dress like this before,” she says.

There have been two main waves of attacks against Jews in Melilla.

The first was after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, when local Muslim youths marched in support of Osama bin Laden. The Jewish cemetery was attacked with rocks and B.B. guns, and graffiti supporting Al-Qaida was daubed on a Roman Catholic church.

The most recent wave came after the March 11, 2004, train bombings that killed nearly 200 people in Madrid — an attack that has been linked to fundamentalist Muslim groups in Morocco.

Some reports have linked the violence in Melilla to the local Al-Badr association founded by Mustafa Aberchan, a former president of Melilla’s city government.

Al-Badr spokespeople have condemned the attacks, and Muslim leaders also have denied reports in the Spanish press of Muslim leaders giving incendiary sermons.

Mohamed Mesian Mohamed is the administrator of the central mosque here. Cassette recordings of Friday sermons line the wall behind his desk.

“We don’t do politics here in the mosque. The imam only says what is in the Koran and what was said by God and his Prophet Mohammed,” he says.

He defends a recent local government decision to tell Israel’s ambassador to Spain that he is not welcome in Melilla. Muslim leaders had lobbied against a planned visit by the envoy.

“In Palestine they are killing children by the dozens,” Mesian Mohamed says. “A Palestinian has no alternative but to kill himself and take 15 or 20 Jews with him.”

The mosque official argues that attacks against the Jewish community in Melilla have been committed by young Muslim kids and do not reflect the attitudes of most Muslims here.

“I have Jewish friends. We get along marvelously, because we don’t have problems with anybody. When we curse Jews, we’re not talking about the Jews here — but the Zionists” in Israel, he says.

At the Hispano Israelita school, the president of Melilla’s Jewish community, Salomon Benzaquen, speaks about the recent attacks after a meeting with other local Jewish leaders.

“These are isolated incidents, by young hooligans,” he says, adding that the boycott of the Israeli ambassador might not have happened if news of the visit hadn’t been leaked to the press ahead of time.

Nevertheless, he appears sufficiently concerned about the physical threats to make a plea for overseas funding to help provide security for Jewish institutions.

“Naturally, we don’t want to alarm people, but we need to protect ourselves,” he says.

Up in his office, Rabbi Bitan fiddles with a bloodstained bandage over a cut on his finger. He doubles as the community’s shochet, or kosher butcher, and mohel, the ritual circumciser.

Bitan says Jews in Melilla are safe for the time being because terrorists would have nothing to gain from an attack here.

“The only thing they would accomplish is that within a month there wouldn’t be a single Jew left here,” he says. “We all have apartments in Malaga, in Israel, in America, or somewhere else.”

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