Toledo, Spain - A Medieval Jewish Cemetery Shakes Modern Spain
Toledo, Spain - As this medieval hilltop city baked in the afternoon heat, a group of Jewish leaders gathered Sunday beside a freshly dug grave and lowered into it small bundles of flaking, ancient bones. With prayers and a plea for forgiveness for disturbing the peace of more than 100 medieval souls, they laid them to rest in the cool, reddish earth.
The quiet ceremony in late June concluded months of delicate negotiations between Jewish representatives and Spanish authorities over the fate of the remains of 103 Spanish Jews whose graves were excavated last year during the construction of a school building in a suburb of this historic city.
The exhumation drew international condemnation from Jewish representatives and became an important battleground in the quest to preserve Jewish cemeteries all around Spain, remnants of a thriving community that made Toledo its capital before being expelled by Spain’s Roman Catholic monarchs in 1492.
The dispute pitted the exigencies of modern society against the rights of a scattered people for whom a permanent tomb is a crucial religious requirement. It stirred friction between Jewish groups eager to protect their heritage but divided over how to deal with a secular government and promote their cause.
“Toledo is central to Jewish history,” said David Stoleru, co-founder of the Center of Studies Zakhor in Barcelona, a research organization dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage. “The state has a duty to protect that legacy.”
“This issue has international repercussions,” Mr. Stoleru added. “It’s not just affecting the Jewish community in Spain but the sensibility of an entire people.”
The controversy began in September, when builders digging a new foundation at the Azarquiel High School discovered dozens of graves, believed to be part of a Jewish cemetery dating from around the 13th century. The cemetery may extend well beyond the grounds of the school; Mr. Stoleru said he recently saw bones in the ground at another nearby construction site.
The government of Castilla-La Mancha, the parched region of which Toledo is the tourist-mobbed capital, halted the digging and stored the remains at a museum pending discussions with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which represents Spain’s 40,000 Jews.
Jewish representatives suggested building a raised foundation that would sit above the graves but were told this would be difficult and expensive, according to rabbis and Spanish officials involved in the talks.
María Soledad Herrero, who runs the regional government’s culture department, said the authorities had to balance the needs of history with those of the city’s students.
“Nobody knows the importance of Spain’s Jewish heritage better than we in Toledo,” she said by telephone. “But we can’t put 1,000 pupils on the street.”
As talks dragged on, the economic pressure grew, and in February the authorities ordered construction to restart. The facts on the ground built their own momentum: by mid-June, a concrete foundation had been laid and the skeleton of a two-story building stood above the grave site.
Meanwhile, international protests spread to New York, Israel and Canada. Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, visited Spain to protest the exhumation, which he said was tantamount to a second expulsion. Thousands of black-clad Orthodox Jews gathered in a Brooklyn hotel in May to mourn the desecration.
Finally, on June 18, the parties agreed to bury the remains close to the original graves but clear of the construction site.
Dalia Levinsohn, secretary general of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, hailed the agreement this week as the best solution available and dismissed criticism from groups who advocated a harder line.
“We did what we could,” she said by telephone. “If you kick up a big fuss, the next time someone finds remains they won’t say a word to us.”
However, Toledo’s symbolism made it an important, and distressing, precedent, preservationists and religious leaders said.
“This is not an example we want to repeat,” said Rabbi Moshe Bendahan, Spain’s chief rabbi, who helped to broker the agreement. “The model would be to not excavate the remains in the first place.”
Religious representatives and observers in Toledo said the city should seize on a revival in interest in Spain’s Jewish past to promote understanding. The city, which is home to two of Spain’s three remaining medieval synagogues but has virtually no practicing Jewish population, flaunts its history: its cobbled streets are lined with shops selling swords, pottery and medieval figurines, and a miniature tram packed with tourists curls past its grand monuments.
The regional government has shown a willingness to sacrifice modern construction for the sake of preserving historic sites: three years ago it stopped plans by a private developer to build 1,300 apartments in Toledo after diggers uncovered a Visigothic town. The 210-acre site is now protected and is set to be transformed into a museum and research center.
Toledo is by no means the first city to face controversy over a Jewish burial site in Europe, where preservationists have battled exhumations from Prague to Vilnius, Lithuania. The remains of more than 150 people were exhumed from a medieval cemetery in Tarrega, in the northeastern region of Catalonia, two years ago and reburied in a cemetery in Barcelona.
Nor is the news all negative: in May, Catalonia’s regional government declared the Jewish cemetery on Mont Juic, in Barcelona, a cultural heritage site.
Ms. Levinsohn said the federation would seek to sign protocols with Spain’s 17 regional governments to better safeguard Jewish cemeteries. Under Spanish law, when ancient human remains are found they are exhumed and stored for archaeological study. Jewish preservationists said Spain should also identify and map what Jewish leaders say they believe could be hundreds of unmarked cemeteries.
For Mr. Stoleru, the issue of Jewish graves raises questions about how modern, secular Spain reconciles itself with dark chapters of its history, like the expulsion and forced conversion of thousands of Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.
“We need to reflect much more deeply about the expulsion and use history to inform our daily actions,” he said. “Jewish heritage in Spain should not be a museum piece. It should be a tool for teaching tolerance and diversity.”
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