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Spanish City Celebrates Tolerance, Reaps Benefits from Embrace of Israel

June 2, 2003
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About a decade ago, this city in the arid south of Spain put up a plaque to mark the location of its old Jewish quarter, or “Juderia” as it’s called in Spanish.

Then researchers in the municipal archive made some surprising discoveries about the fate of Jews in a time when mass anti-Semitic hysteria and pogroms were sweeping the rest of the land.

So up went another plaque.

“In this city,” the new plaque says, “not a single Jew suffered a violent death at the hands of Christians, and the Juderia was neither assaulted nor robbed.”

Today, the leaders of this city are making every effort to honor that legacy. While the rest of Europe appears more interested in condemning and even boycotting Israeli businesses and culture, Murcia is aggressively courting them.

“Our character is different,” says the city’s deputy mayor, Antonio Gonzalez Barnes. “We have a solid foundation of understanding.”

Barnes notes that when the Israeli ambassador unveiled the new plaque last year at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “there was not a single anti-Israeli protest, slogan or graffiti here.”

Murcia is a pleasant city about the size of Tel Aviv with splendid architecture, a thriving caf scene and some of the best cuisine in Spain. It is off the beaten track for tourists because of poor access — but that may change with the coming of a new highway to Madrid.

Murcia is also the capital of an agricultural region that locals call Huerta de Europa, or “Europe’s Market Garden,” because it produces tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables that are served on dinner tables around the continent.

With endless stretches of lush farmland and arid mountain ranges, a visitor might be forgiven for thinking he was in Israel.

Barnes certainly understands that sense of familiarity.

“The whole system of irrigation in Murcia is ‘made in Israel,’ ” he says. “The problem of Israel — no water — is the same problem as ours.”

In recent years, city officials have crisscrossed Israel, visiting kibbutzim and talking to scientists. Murcia now has more trade with Israel than with all of Israel’s Arab neighbors put together.

The deputy mayor, who is also alderman for culture, says he has worked closely with the Israeli Embassy in Spain to stage an annual “Murcia: Three Cultures” festival, which celebrates the medieval period of interfaith harmony.

In those days, Murcia was a semiautonomous kingdom that was resisting edicts from the rulers of Spain, says Maria Angeles Jover, the director of the city’s archive.

And while Murcia’s rulers couldn’t disobey royal edicts from the Spanish kings — such as the 1492 expulsion edict — they were deliberately slow in implementing ordinances aimed at making life difficult for Jews.

When the rabidly anti-Semitic preacher Vicente Ferrer came to town to stir up trouble, the city governors allowed the Jews to defend themselves, she says.

It is estimated that about 1,000 Jews lived in the city at that time, about one-fifth of Murcia’s population. As hostility raged in surrounding territories in the course of the 15th century, many Jews sought refuge in Murcia, the archivist says.

Many Murciano Jews survived the Inquisition because they didn’t have to go through neighboring kingdoms to board ships leaving from the coast. The Murcian port of Cartagena is only 20 miles away from the regional capital.

“Eight hundred years ago, it was possible to have coexistence here without the spilling of blood, and so there’s no reason we can’t have it now,” he says.

The Three Cultures festival began as a response to racist attacks against Muslims several years ago in the nearby province of Almeria, another agricultural region depending on immigrant labor from North Africa.

Many see it as no coincidence that several Al-Qaida suspects arrested in Spain have come from these regions.

While Murcia’s city government is also working with Arab countries on the festival, Barnes says the Israeli Embassy has provided the most enthusiastic support.

“From the first moment, they understood the importance of this festival,” he says.

Every year, the festival has an exhibit devoted to Jewish life in medieval Murcia, and a monthlong series of concerts representing the three cultures and the message of tolerance.

This year, Israeli-American singer David Broza, along with several klezmer and Sephardic groups, headlined the festival along with Algerian pop star Cheb Khaled and African-American opera diva Barbara Hendricks.

City Hall also sponsored the publication of a bound collection of essays and interviews with Israeli writers such as A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev and Amos Oz.

The President of the Murcia-Israel Friendship Association is City Council member Rosa Fructuoso. She says support for Israel is also strong among local voters.

“Being against Israel is not a wise electoral stance,” says Fructuoso, who is a member of the Spanish Socialist Party, which at the national level is critical of Israel.

Sofia Lopez, a mother and painter, never misses the Jewish exhibit. This year she came wearing a blue and white striped polo shirt.

“I was born the same year as the state of Israel, and I always defend it,” she says.

But for her, the exhibit symbolizes not only the good life Jews once had here, but also the bad ending brought about King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s decree.

“It bothered the rulers that there were people who were smarter than they were,” she says.

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