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Post Repatriating Spain's Jews: Stavans in *NYT*
Created by John Eipper on 04/04/14 5:27 AM

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Repatriating Spain's Jews: Stavans in *NYT* (Paul Levine, Denmark, 04/04/14 5:27 am)

Another view of Spain, from Ilan Stavans in the New York Times:


JE comments:  The Mexican-born Stavans, of Amherst College, is probably the leading "public Hispanist" in the United States.  (I would suggest that our own Ronald Hilton occupied this role during the 1950s and '60s.)  Spain is offering citizenship to the descendants of the Sephardim who were expelled from the Kingdom in 1492.  Some 150,000 are expected to apply.  In Stavan's view, the measure is too little too late, and moreover, coming at this time of crisis, it might primarily be a ploy to lure foreign investment.  All true, but what is wrong with a belated attempt to right Spain's biggest mistake?

(One of my favorite thought exercises is to imagine a Spain that hadn't expelled its Jewish citizens in 1492.  Given the expertise and capital that would have remained on the Peninsula, I can envision a world today with Spanish, not English, as the hegemonic language.)

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  • Repatriating Spain's Jews; Anti-Semitism and Philo-Semitism (Sasha Pack, USA 04/04/14 10:11 AM)
    Thanks to Paul Levine (4 April) for posting Ilan Stavans' Op-Ed on the latest Spanish discussion of "repatriating" the descendants of expelled Spanish Jews. Stavans seems not to be aware of a somewhat deeper historical perspective on the issue, which may tie into the current WAIS discussion of Gibraltar as well. Anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism have coexisted in Spain (as in many other places) for at least 150 years. Since the Jewish expulsion from Spanish Oran in 1669, the first Jewish population to come under Spanish control in modern times was in Tetuán (northern Morocco), which the Spanish occupied from 1860-63. José Antonio Alarcón's account of that war--a best-seller of the day--told a heroic tale of Spanish soldiers liberating the city's terrorized Jewish quarter. (A few pages later, these Jews are converting to Catholicism.) Several hundred Moroccan Jews took refuge in Andalusia, Ceuta, and Melilla during that war. Most remained, and a few thousand more came, especially to Ceuta and Melilla, over the next decades. The municipality of Madrid approved a Jewish cemetery in 1865, and the Jewish question played a role in the decision to end the Catholic monopoly on religious practice in Spain a few years later. Still, when the Sephardic community of Bordeaux asked the government to rescind the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, they were told that this had been effectively accomplished with the establishment of religious freedom, but the Edict would not be revoked explicitly. Only Franco would quietly do this toward the end of his life.

    Much of this ambivalence had to with the fin-de-siècle question of whether race or religion as the essential trait of Spanishness. Although I do not have the specifics in front of me, I recall that the early fascist aesthete Ernesto Giménez Caballero wrote about the essential Spanishness of Sephardim and advocated their return to the Peninsula. Religious anti-Semitism remained a staple of European Catholic education down to the time of Vatican II (see the new book by the Berkeley historian John Connelly).

    Spanish agents in Moroccan port cities engaged all kinds of public spectacles, sometimes violent, directed against local Jews in the 1860s. The motive was apparently to curry favor with the Muslim populations, who often resented an apparent Anglo-French alliance with the Jews -- to the point that, after protests by the British (Lord Russell) and Americans (William Seward), the embarrassed Spanish Queen had to issue instructions to the Spanish legation in Tangier to stop.

    Decades later, during World War II, when the Spanish occupied Tangier, the roles were reversed. Doing some archival work, I once encountered a memorandum circulated to Spanish officers in Tangier instructing them to refrain from openly socializing with the city's Jews (apparently Spanish officers were spotted attending Jewish weddings and other major community events), so as not to undermine the effort to demonstrate anti-Zionist solidarity with the Arabs--by this time an Axis speciality. Following Moroccan independence, I am aware of a number of Moroccan Jews who fled in fear to Spain in the late 1950s, but I believe the vast majority went to Israel or the Americas.

    One of the historic Spanish grievances over British Gibraltar was that it was home to Jewish enemies, Freemasons, and Protestant missionaries. There was some truth to this, though after 1869 these "enemies" basically could operate anywhere in Spain anyway, rendering that particular irredentist argument moot.

    I have not visited the Jewish cemeteries of Spain, but I'll trust Stavans that they are largely hidden and in disarray. But I think it's a bit misleading to imply that there is some sudden conversion in Spain to disingenuous philo-Semitism. This ambivalence and ambiguity has existed for a long time.

    JE comments:  My only beef with Sasha Pack is that he doesn't write WAIS often enough!  A very informative post.  Américo Castro was another Spanish historian who argued for the essential "Spanishness" of the Sephardim.  Interestingly, Castro suggested that the Basques were more Spanish than even the Castilians.  What the heck is "Spanishness," anyway?

    Returning to our original topic, "repatriation" is a strange term in this context, as the Spain's citizenship offer doesn't require taking up residence.  Maybe the initiative should be called "repatriation of capital, or, come here and buy an apartment."

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    • Anti-Semitism and Philo-Semitism in Spain (Henry Levin, USA 04/04/14 4:05 PM)

      In response to Sasha Pack (4 April), I have seen several references to scientific studies that say that one out of five Spanish have Jewish genes. Intermarriage, voluntary conversions and forced conversions of five hundred years ago are still present in the genes of the present Spanish population. My wife is one of them. Her family name, Soler, can be found through Catalunya, Valencia, and the Baleares. There are encyclopedias of Jewish surnames in Spain which seem to overlap with many, if not most, of the common names in the Spanish population. If there is anti-Semitism or philo-Semitism, much of it may be self-love or self-hate without awareness.

      JE comments:  Yes, Spain's Inquisition and the "limpieza de sangre" obsession post-1492 is one of History's greatest exercises in self-hatred.

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