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SIDIC Periodical XXV - 1992/2
Spain and the Jews 1492-1992 (Pages 12 - 14)

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Jews and Christians in Spain today
Sr. Ionel Mihalovici

 

Spain has been a vast work-yard preparing for the events and commemorations that are making Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Cordova and Toledo the "magnetic poles" of the whole world. 1992 is the year of the Olympic Games at Barcelona, of Expo '92 in Seville, the fifth centenary of the capture of Granada, last stronghold of Islam in the land of Andalusia, of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and also the year of the expulsion of the Jews, decreed by Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. During nearly half a millenium Spain seemed to have forgotten her banished sons and daughters, but now many spectacular celebrations will highlight the ancestral bond which unites Spain and Sephardic Jews.

This reversal in the attitude of the Spanish state towards the descendants of those banished five centuries ago originated in the meeting of Dr. Angel Pulido with a group of Sephardic Jews on the banks of the Danube in 1880. He was astonished to hear them speaking the language of St. Teresa of Avila and Cervantes, after so long a time and from such a distance. Dr. Pulido told of his discovery in a book which became a classic Spaniards Without a Country. Henceforth the links which had produced, until 1492, such a brilliant cultural flowering of mediaeval Spanish thought, began to be forged anew. The Sephardic Jews could foresee the day when they would be allowed to return to the land for which they had always been nostalgic. This return took place by degrees; first there was the protection granted to the Sephardic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe by Alphonso XIII during the first World War, then that of Franco during the Second.

Jewish Public Prayer

The first synagogue to be built since the expulsion was in Barcelona in 1953. Several places of prayer were set up in Madrid but in 1968 a fine synagogue Beith Yaacob was inaugurated with great solemnity and officially authorised by the Government. This was considered a decisive step towards recognition of the establishment of the Jews in Spain and their freedom of worship.
Queen Sophia, after following a course of study on Judaism given by Rabbi Garzon at the University, expressed the wish to attend the Friday evening service at the Synagogue. Accompanied by notable personalities she heard the ancient Sephardic prayer for the sovereigns of Castile. The liturgy of the Sephardic rite is celebrated every day in this synagogue, which still uses hymns composed by Spanish poets of the Middle Ages, such as Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gabirol. On big feasts and other important occasions many non-Jewish friends are present. The Cultural Centre of the synagogue houses a library and organises courses in Talmud-Torah, Kabbalah and Hebrew. Moreover the Community supports a college where the teaching is given in Spanish, French and Hebrew. This attracts as many non-Jewish students.

Relations with Israel

Relations with Israel are close. Numerous young people, Israeli as well as Spanish, profit from the scholarships granted by the two countries. Many Israeli professors make use of Spanish libraries and archives to research Jewish mediaeval history and culture. Agreements between the universities of Madrid and Israel foster fruitful exchanges in many fields. There are Chairs of Hebrew, of Jewish History and Jewish Thought in the Universities of Madrid, Barcelona and Salamanca. In 1940, at the express request of Franco, the Arias Montana Institute was founded and integrated in the "Council of Scientific Research" for the study and publication of Judaeo-Spanish literature, and its review Sepharad enjoys international renown. In Barcelona the Riopiedras Editons and in Cordova El Almendro are dedicated to the spread of Sephardic culture. Riopiedras' "New Sepharad" series already boasts 14 volumes of translation from the best authors of the Golden Age of Spanish Judaism. A second series of works, "Humanismo Judio" deals with current themes such as the Kibbutz and La aportacion de unjudio a la Igiesia, by Sr. Speranza Mary of Sion. El Almendro publishes texts and studies principally on Andalusian Judaism. The San Geronimo Institute publishes new translations of Midrashim, of Responsa and of rabbinic commentaries, which are used by young university teachers of Spain.

Initiatives

Historians are more interested in the mediaeval history of Spanish Jews, among them Professors Luis Suarez Fernandex and Carlos Carrete Barrando. Others like Professor Isidro Gonzales Garcia, Antonio Marquina and Frederico Ysart are studying contemporary events concerning the life of Jews in Spain. Once or twice a year, congresses on the three cultures, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, which were the glory of medieval Spain, are held with the participation of numerous experts from Israel and Spain, and with a few Muslims. These congresses aim to contribute towards reconciliation.

Two important events mark the present history of the Jews in Spain. First, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Spain and the State of Israel on 17 January 1988. The second event is the signing of the Accord of Cooperation between the State and the "Federation of Sephardic Communities of Spain" on 21 February 1990. According to the Secretary General of the Federation, Samuel Toledano, "This accord is the culmination of long and difficult negotiations which began in 1978 when the new Spanish Constitution proclaimed the law of religious liberty in the country". One of the most important points of the Accord is the recognition of Jewish festivals (Sabbath, Rosh Hashana, Kippur, Pesach, Shavuoth, Sukkoth and Ninth of Av), holidays for Jewish workers and students.

Another important event, the award of the Principe de Asturias prize to the Sephardic communities of the world, acknowledges the faithfulness of Jews of Spanish origin to Spain during five centuries of exile. In his speech, Prince Filipe expressed his joy at receiving back with open arms the descendants of those whom his ancestors had expelled. In 1992 the king, Juan Carlos I, will sign the abrogation of the decree issued in 1492 by the soverigns Isabella and Ferdinand.

Jewish - Christian Friendship

It is certain that this sensational reversal in relations between Spain and the Jewish world is due in part to the atmosphere created by the work of Jewish-Christian Friendship groups, which began in 1960 with the arrival of the Sisters of Sion in Madrid and in 1966 in Barcelona. There had been signs of antisemitism in the media on the occasion of the Eichman trial, and there was a lively reaction from intellectuals such as Professors Cantera Burgos, Perez Castro, Camon Aznar, Menendes Pelayo, Diez-Macho, journalist like Jose Maria Perez Lozano, Jose Maria Javierre and many others. It was then that the first Jewish-Christian Friendship groups were founded in Spain, with the warm approval of the auxiliary bishop of Madrid, Mgr. Jose Maria Garcia Lahiguerra, with the collaboration of the Jewish community. One of its first activities was the revision of school texts and catechisms, which contained antisemitism. The Ministry of Education as well as the Church welcomed the corrections and suggestions presented to them.

The Jewish-Christian Friendship groups set out to eliminate age-old prejudices which were still prevalent. Meetings were organized, publications issued and the press, radio and television contacted. In Barcelona similar activities developed under the name Entesa Judeo-Cristiana. A number of intellectuals - Millas-Vallicrosa, Jaime Vandor, Raphael Vasquex, Sanches Bosch, Antonio Matabosch and others under the presidency of Carlos Benarroch, Sister Speranza Mary and Antoni de Gibert, worked enthusiastically to build up trust and establish esteem between Jews and Christians.

In 1969 the Centre for Jewish-Christian Studies was founded at Madrid and was recognized as a Diocesan Institute. Activities increased rapidly: biblical courses, seminars on Judaism, pilgrimages to Israel, library services, a symposium bringing together Israeli and Spanish intellectuals is held regularly alternately in Israel and Spain; contacts with parishes, colleges and other organizations, both in Madrid and in the Provinces, are maintained. The publication Circular (an information sheet) and the periodical El Olivo (Documentation and Studies for dialogue between Jews and Christians) are distributed internationally. The activities of the Centre are thus extended to the Americas and Europe and Israel. The centre is a member of the International Council of Christians and Jews, which has held one of its colloquiums at Salamanca, where relations between the three cultures, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, were studied on Spanish soil.

New areas of activity concerning Jewish-Christian relations are opening up. The Iberian Peninsula, in recovering its roots, seems to be a privileged land for new ways towards reconciliation.


Ionel Mihalovici is a Sister of Our Lady of sion and is the director of the Jewish Christian Centre in Madrid

 

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