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Toledo, Spain - A Medieval Jewish Cemetery Shakes Modern Spain

Published on: July 1, 2009 05:09 PM
By:  NY Times
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David Stoleru, co-founder of Center of Studies Zakhor in Barcelona, which researches and promotes the preservation of Jewish heritage, at the construction site where the graves of 103 Spanish Jews were excavated. (Michael Kamber for The New York Times)David Stoleru, co-founder of Center of Studies Zakhor in Barcelona, which researches and promotes the preservation of Jewish heritage, at the construction site where the graves of 103 Spanish Jews were excavated. (Michael Kamber for The New York Times)

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.

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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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Read Comments (16)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Jul 01, 2009 at 04:24 PM No Surprise... Says:

I am not surprised that this machlokes occurred. They do not respect the Jewish Community. Whether the problem occurs with private builders or publicly owned land worldwide -- and especially in Europe -- no one wants to deal with the issue of preserving Beis Keveros. The American Frum Kehilla must mark the known areas and urge the respective governments to make the cites heratige protected. Sadly, this occurs in Eretz Yisrael and the same problem causes much distress.

2

 Jul 01, 2009 at 04:42 PM Askupeh Says:

A correction is in place; the expulsion was of hundreds of thousands and the forced conversion also was of hundreds of thousands starting in 1391 (Shnas KaNO). The number of Moslems who went through the same fate was maybe in the thousands, hence the sick need of the NYT to “equalize”.


Based on the mathematical law of probability, every single Spaniard is descended from Jews. Therefore the number of Halachical Jews (daughter of a daughter) should be quite high, and can be used as an argument to preserve THEIR ancestors.

3

 Jul 01, 2009 at 04:41 PM Avrohom Abba Says:

Spain is still against the Jewish community. They, like some other Christians, feel that we rejected Jesus. But they never stopped to think that it is Jesus who rejected us.

Also, even the Jews who were afraid for their lives and their families' lives, and therefore converted, even today, 517 years later, the Spanish people have a derogatory name for them. So, we see that even after converting like they demanded, they still hate, even more than 500 years later.
This cemetary apology is nevertheless a good gesture.

4

 Jul 01, 2009 at 07:28 PM Anonymous Says:

For all those that dislike the Muslims so much you should know that Toledo was a wonderful city of Torah under the Muslim Caliph, with great scholars. We don't have anything like it today of course. And in Europe we had it in places like Vilna, Miknes, Istanbul, Galicia, etc. Toledo, Cordoba, Seville!! And can anyone remember what the Crusades and Inquisition did, hmmm??? Does anyone remember what the meshumadim did to our communities in Spain during the Christian conquest?!

5

 Jul 01, 2009 at 07:12 PM Anonymous Says:

Thanks to the holy work of the London based Vaad of the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries this holy work of preserving our ancestors butei chaim was done in Spain.

6

 Jul 01, 2009 at 09:55 PM Charles Hall Says:

Reply to #2  
Askupeh Says:

A correction is in place; the expulsion was of hundreds of thousands and the forced conversion also was of hundreds of thousands starting in 1391 (Shnas KaNO). The number of Moslems who went through the same fate was maybe in the thousands, hence the sick need of the NYT to “equalize”.


Based on the mathematical law of probability, every single Spaniard is descended from Jews. Therefore the number of Halachical Jews (daughter of a daughter) should be quite high, and can be used as an argument to preserve THEIR ancestors.

Not sick, accurate. Muslims in Spain also numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and experienced persecution similar to that Jews faced. The main difference was that the final expulsion came a century later for Muslims.

And it is not true that every single Spaniard is descended from Jews. Your calculation would require that conversos would be as likely to marry an Old Christian as another converso and that is clearly false.

7

 Jul 01, 2009 at 11:04 PM Not just that... Says:

The correct thing to do would be to move the remains to Eretz Yisrael. That is a legitimate reason to exhume remains to begin with.

8

 Jul 02, 2009 at 09:46 AM Anonymous Says:

The NYT refers to thousands of black-clad Orthodox Jews gathered in a Brooklyn hotel (which was organized by Asra Kadishe) and to the activities of Rabbi David Niederman.
I guess that the NY Times does not read Der Blatt, or does not subsrcribe to the BS about the "holy work of the London based Vaad "

9

 Jul 02, 2009 at 12:12 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #6  
Charles Hall Says:

Not sick, accurate. Muslims in Spain also numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and experienced persecution similar to that Jews faced. The main difference was that the final expulsion came a century later for Muslims.

And it is not true that every single Spaniard is descended from Jews. Your calculation would require that conversos would be as likely to marry an Old Christian as another converso and that is clearly false.

but they prosicuted others while they were in power the jews never did that only the oppisite

10

 Jul 02, 2009 at 12:28 PM Askupeh Says:

Reply to #6  
Charles Hall Says:

Not sick, accurate. Muslims in Spain also numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and experienced persecution similar to that Jews faced. The main difference was that the final expulsion came a century later for Muslims.

And it is not true that every single Spaniard is descended from Jews. Your calculation would require that conversos would be as likely to marry an Old Christian as another converso and that is clearly false.

Come on; how many Muslims were burned at the stake and how many Jews? Also how many Moslems left Spain and how many Jews? Obviously there is no comparison; only the “sick” minds of the NYT see a comparison. To them the Holocaust was “equal” for Jews and gays, and the inquisition and expulsion was “equal” for Jews and Muslims. They are only interested in the lowest common denominator, which suits their agenda.

According to estimates over thirty thousand Jews were snatched by the inquisition. The oldest to be tortured and put to death was almost a hundred years old and the youngest a Jewish girl of seven.

As to your second point; not necessarily true but indeed probable, hence "the mathematical law of PROBABILITY".

11

 Jul 02, 2009 at 12:23 PM Anonymous Says:

The amount of people who died ??? There used to be a cherem on Spain! Is it still being enforced??

12

 Jul 02, 2009 at 01:37 PM Milhouse Says:

Reply to #4  
Anonymous Says:

For all those that dislike the Muslims so much you should know that Toledo was a wonderful city of Torah under the Muslim Caliph, with great scholars. We don't have anything like it today of course. And in Europe we had it in places like Vilna, Miknes, Istanbul, Galicia, etc. Toledo, Cordoba, Seville!! And can anyone remember what the Crusades and Inquisition did, hmmm??? Does anyone remember what the meshumadim did to our communities in Spain during the Christian conquest?!

And the Almohades were also Moslems. Overall the Jewish experience in dar-al-Islam was no better than in Christendom.

You mention Vilna and Galicia, neither of which was ever under Moslem rule.

13

 Jul 02, 2009 at 01:38 PM Milhouse Says:

Reply to #11  
Anonymous Says:

The amount of people who died ??? There used to be a cherem on Spain! Is it still being enforced??

As far as I know there is no evidence such a cherem ever existed. If it did, it would certainly have no force on those of us who are not descended from those who accepted it.

14

 Jul 02, 2009 at 02:33 PM Anonymous Says:

To #13 My Father z"l, told me about the cherem on Spain before he passed away several years ago. I was just curious if anybody else out in cyberspace, knew about the cherem?

15

 Jul 02, 2009 at 02:55 PM Askupeh Says:

Reply to #13  
Milhouse Says:

As far as I know there is no evidence such a cherem ever existed. If it did, it would certainly have no force on those of us who are not descended from those who accepted it.

I’ve also heard of such a Cherem, but it doesn’t really make sense because Jews weren’t allowed in until the 1880’s when the expulsion was not enforced anymore. It was rescinded formally about fifteen years ago by King Juan Carlos of Spain although it was unofficially rescinded in 1968, so who would have made a Cherem and for what reason?

16

 Jul 02, 2009 at 04:27 PM Raphael Kaufman Says:

Reply to #10  
Askupeh Says:

Come on; how many Muslims were burned at the stake and how many Jews? Also how many Moslems left Spain and how many Jews? Obviously there is no comparison; only the “sick” minds of the NYT see a comparison. To them the Holocaust was “equal” for Jews and gays, and the inquisition and expulsion was “equal” for Jews and Muslims. They are only interested in the lowest common denominator, which suits their agenda.

According to estimates over thirty thousand Jews were snatched by the inquisition. The oldest to be tortured and put to death was almost a hundred years old and the youngest a Jewish girl of seven.

As to your second point; not necessarily true but indeed probable, hence "the mathematical law of PROBABILITY".

Fact: No professing Jew was ever burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. As every one knows, Jews were expelled from Spain 1492 and forbidden to return on pain of death. Those who remained behind had converted or became Marranos. The Inquistion held that once baptised, individuals who secretly maintained Jewish practices were heretics. Heresy was punishable by death. Another fact is that, in it's zeal to root out secret Jews, they tortured and killed almost as many innocent Christians as secret Jews. There was also an element of corruption involved as the property of "heretics" became Church property with a portion given to the accuser (much like the IRS). Who knows how many people were accused and persecuted because some neighbor or a particular Priest coveted the accused's property.

17

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