Barcelona Restoring Jewish Quarter – But Local Jews Say They Feel Ignored

Barcelona is restoring its old Jewish quarter, but the local Jewish community says it’s being shut out of the process.

In the Middle Ages, Barcelona’s Jewish community of 4,000 people played an integral role in the city. Acting as a bridge to immigrants from throughout the Mediterranean, the local Jews spoke Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan, Latin and Arabic.

But in 1391, anti-Jewish riots moved up the Iberian Peninsula. A large number of Barcelona’s Jews were forced out, killed or converted. Similar projects have been carried out in other Spanish cities such as nearby Gerona, where Jewish life also flourished.

These programs are part of a government initiative to restore ancient Jewish neighborhoods throughout the country and present them as tourist attractions. What distinguishes the Barcelona initiative is the presence there of a modern Jewish community numbering about 5,000. But representatives of the city’s Orthodox, Reform and Chabad communities say they are being ignored in the initiative.

“We very much appreciate that City Hall is finally getting involved in restoring its Jewish past,” said Tobi Burdman, president of the Israelite Community of Barcelona. “What we don’t want to see is a Jewish quarter without Jews, in the style of Gerona. Here there’s a living Jewry, one that should be listened to and consulted with, and not just called up to appear in the photo.”

Adding to the community’s resentment has been the issue of Montjuic, or “Mountain of the Jews,” in Catalan. Known for its massive sports stadium, which hosted the 1992 Olympic Games, Montjuic also is the location of one of the oldest and largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. In 2001, more than 500 tombs were discovered during construction on the mountain, but still there are no monuments commemorating its historic importance.

A meeting in late November between urban planners and community members addressed Jewish concerns about construction plans that would affect the area where the cemetery lies. Community members at the meeting said some progress had been made in terms of protecting the site and eventually placing a monument there. One community spokesman said there seemed to be a slight difference in attitude among city planners dealing with Montjuic and those in charge of the restoration of Call, who he said had been “completely unreceptive.”

Regarding the old Jewish quarter, Teresa Serra, a City Hall official dealing with the project, said the city is restoring the quarter as it would any other historic area in Barcelona. “The only difference is that there will be a center of cultural reference for the neighborhood involving everything from the Jewish epoch,” Serra said.

Community members say they would like to play at least some role, even something as minor as reviewing texts, brochures or museum signs. But Serra said the city has yet to receive a clear proposal for participation from the community. Some community members insist they’ve asked to meet with city officials to discuss drafting a proposal. But sources have acknowledged past divisiveness and said the community is just beginning to make its voice heard in a unified fashion.

Many Barcelona Jews have initiated efforts to restore the quarter, notably Miguel Iaffa. Inspired by the findings of a medieval historian that pointed to the location of the quarter’s main synagogue before the 1391 pogrom, Iaffa purchased a portion of the site in 1996 and restored it, preventing the space from being turned into a pub.

In 2006, Jewish residents celebrated the renovation of Barcelona’s oldest synagogue, dating from the 9th century, walking the Torah scroll to the site. “That the city is now trying to reap the benefits of our efforts to recover the neighborhood seems perfectly fine with me,” Iaffa said. “But they’re doing it with a sectarian spirit … What they’re interested in is having American Jews come and do tourism and spend money like they do in Gerona. They’re not interested in us at all.”

Various sources, including those in City Hall, said anti-Israel feeling has affected the city’s attitude on some level.

Serra admitted that biases regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had to some degree “contaminated the atmosphere” around the renovation project. “There is an anti-Semitic attitude here because of this problem of anti-Israelism that influences everything,” said Pilar Rahola, a former legislator from the Catalan Left Party. “With respect to City Hall, the government of Barcelona, like the government of Spain, prefers ‘Jewish stones’ to living Jewish people.”

Rahola, who is not Jewish, added that while the rest of Spain is at least interested in uncovering its Jewish past, this is not the case in Barcelona. “There’s no desire to even recuperate the medieval past,” she said. “We’re faced with an administration that has a strong allergy to the Jewish topic, even though it might not clearly practice anti-Semitism.”

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