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Reflecting On Spain’s Antisemitic Past And Present, On Passover Vacation

My family is in Spain for Pesach, which is breathtaking in its landscape and architecture and rich in its history. From the moment we got off the plane, I felt a heaviness, contemplating what was done to my ancestors in this place. As far as I know, I am not Sephardic, but the Jewish people are a family, and just because one branch of it sought refuge in Spain 2000 years ago, when we were violently exiled from the land of Israel, doesn’t make me any less connected to their fate.

And speaking of those Jews who arrived in Toledo 2000 years ago, there is a theory that they named the city Toledo from the Hebrew word “Toldot,” generations. They expected to be in this place for generations. They called it “the new Jerusalem,” just like the Jews of Germany said of Berlin. Things never seem to end well when we get too comfortable in a foreign land and mistakenly believe it’s our forever home.

We visited several old cities here, each with “Jewish quarters,” but with no remnants of anything particularly old and Jewish, besides some out-of-use synagogues that have been turned into churches and even a clothing store. In Segovia, beneath the most charming castle, lies a Jewish graveyard, where potatoes are now growing on top of Jewish bodies. Spaniards desecrated us in our life and do so in our death.

The Jewish museums are full of “artifacts” that are meant to demonstrate what Jewish life might have looked like before 1500 years of Spanish Jewish life was brought to a crushing halt, before the country was made Judenrein. But these artifacts are mostly modern day Judaica, put out on display, since Jews are so rare here.

They don’t teach the Spanish Inquisition in most schools in Spain even though it lasted for 360 years! They had a couple Inquisition museums in the country at one point, but our tour guide told me that they closed them because they made Spaniards uncomfortable. I’ll bet.

Walking through these streets, looking visibly Jewish, I feel almost as if we are ghosts. A people who used to be here, but was destroyed and forgotten about long ago. A Jewish museum guide told us that most Spaniards know nothing about Spain’s Jewish history or even Jews themselves, other than Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons, a reminder of how important representation in media is.

We were told that Madrid is openminded and that it is safe to walk around here looking Jewish. But as we were making our way to the train station in this modern cosmopolitan city, a man passed by our family and said “Iss-rael, Iss-rael, puta.” I assumed we had just been cursed and Google confirmed it.

The day before in the Prado museum, a place containing some of the greatest art of the Western world, there was one artifact so exotic – my husband’s yarmulke – that a respectful man stopped us to ask about it. Why do Jewish men wear it? What does it symbolize? A real live Jew in Spain.

The next day, in the countryside, a man started filming my family and gesturing to the yarmulkes of the boys and men. It’s a spectacle to be a Jew here.

We were warned that it’s not safe to wear yarmulkes in Barcelona. BDS has taken hold there, and we won’t be warmly welcomed. In Barcelona’s anti-discrimination office, in the center of town, they have a sign in the window, explaining in over fifteen languages that they are against discrimination. Guess which language they chose not to include?

How could a country once so cruel to its Jews continue to discriminate against them? Because a people that doesn’t learn its history is sure to repeat it.

During one tour, I learned that the Inquisition wasn’t really about Catholicism. Catholicism was simply a mechanism. There was a feeling that the Jews at that time had become too successful, amassed too much wealth and needed to be cut down to size, by being exiled and having their property seized or being tortured and imprisoned or murdered and having their money stolen. That realization hit hard, as the same things are being said about Jews today in the US.

We have too many positions of power, we “control” too many institutions, have too much money. For the sake of diversity and inclusion – something wonderful this time – Jews must once again, be cut down to size.

We made the mistake again, didn’t we? America was finally different, we told ourselves. It’s the land of the free. The Medina shel Chesed (the country of kindness). We finally, finally no longer have to run.

As we approach Pesach, the time of redemption, our exile is feeling more excruciating than ever. The same story just keeps repeating itself over and over and over again. Will we ever learn?

But you know what else keeps repeating? The artifacts – yarmulkes and seder plates and kiddush cups – that sit in glass displays in Jewish museums in Spain, with no actual Jews to be found, will be used by family and millions of other Jews, as they are used every year, just as our prayer books, Torah books, Tallis and tefillin are used every single day.

We learned the history of Spain on a tour: First Rome conquered, bringing paganism, then Visigoths conquered, bringing early Christianity. Next Arabs conquered, bringing Islam, then Catholics conquered taking over Muslims. Every single one of them persecuted Jews. Yet here we are, still today. We are not artifacts. Our traditions are ancient, yet we have outlasted all the ancient peoples.

Instead of counting the generations in which we can sojourn in foreign lands we call home, perhaps it is time we learn that we only have one home.

This year, in Spain, because of Spain, I’ll be saying “L’Shana Haba’a B’Yerushalayim Habenuya!” “Next Year in a Rebuilt Jerusalem!” with more fervor than ever before.

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  • Avatar photo Elisheva Habib says on April 4, 2023

    I’m curious why you chose to enrich this land so steeped in Jewish blood with your tourist dollars.

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on April 4, 2023

      We hesitated going for years. My understanding of how Jews rose and were made to fall – questions very much on my mind today can best be answered at their source. I will use this information to continue advocating for Jews in the highest places I can gain access to.

      Reply
    • Avatar photo Keren says on June 8, 2023

      Unfortunately, the same could be asked of many nations – most of Europe and the Arab world, in fact. England as well expelled its Jewish population, in addition to other European nations. I agree that Spain seems different, however. Perhaps it is the large number of people affected (although many other European nations condoned or tolerated a much larger number of Jews murdered in recent times), or the fact that it is the first known expulsion of Jews from an entire nation, or the tortures of the Inquisition. I too would like to visit Spain, especially as I’m acquainted with a couple of people who live there, but have not been able to make plans for that very reason.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo Yisrael Ohrstein says on April 4, 2023

    The Year in Yerushalayim! The Kotel, Maaras haMachpela, Zion of the Rambam, Rebbi Akiva.

    Reply
  • Avatar photo Jan J says on April 5, 2023

    It’s my understanding that Jews co-existed quite comfortably when Spain was a Muslim country. It was when the Muslims were driven out that the Jews were banished.

    Reply

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