Rabbi Praises Spain’s Progress in Jewish Relations

GRANADA, SPAIN — To mark the first visit to Granada by a Jewish religious leader since Jews were expelled from Spain over five centuries ago, the city authorities had hoped to be host to a luncheon for Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

Nowadays, however, Granada, a city of about 250,000, does not have any strict kosher establishments. So the chief rabbi had to settle last week for a garden picnic, in the beautiful surroundings of the Alhambra, the former Moorish palace in whose throne room one of the 1492 expulsion edicts for Jews was said to have been signed.

As he considered whether to tuck into a plastic tub of hummus or a plate of biscuits, the chief rabbi sounded unfazed by the informal and frugal lunch.

“Birds don’t eat kosher,” he said. “When you have a place that no longer has Jews, you also cannot expect it to have the proper structures to cater to the needs and eating habits of Jews.”

Indeed, the Jewish presence in Granada is “almost nil today,” said José María Castillo Sánchez, a former theology professor at the University of Granada, who was part of the welcoming committee for the rabbi. And while estimates differ, the Jewish community in Spain — 25,000 to 45,000 in a country of 47 million people — is a tiny fraction of that living there before 1492.

Still, the chief rabbi focused on praising Spain’s recent progress in rekindling the relationship with the Jews. Visiting the Granada City Hall, he told the mayor, José Torres Hurtado, “We now see that this city is full of the light of wisdom, liberty and splendor.”

Sitting in a salon decorated with religious paintings depicting scenes of the birth and death of Jesus Christ, the chief rabbi added, “I consider this visit to be very special because, after centuries, we are erasing the darkness that has covered this relationship.”

In response, Mr. Torres Hurtado highlighted “the perfect harmony between cultures” that prevails in modern Granada.

He also jokingly told his guest that “let us hope that not so much time goes by until the next visit” by a Jewish religious leader.

In an interview during his picnic, the chief rabbi went a step further by suggesting that Spain had become such “a beacon” that it was likely to attract more Jews from Latin America, where some Jews, he argued, are struggling amid “social instability.”

The 1492 expulsion marks one of the bleakest moments in the history of European Jewry. But the chief rabbi, who represents, among others, Jews descended from those who were forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula, suggested that no further steps needed be taken to ensure complete reconciliation.

“We are not asking for the official abolition of the edicts of expulsion because they have no legal relevance now and are like a plate which has been used and should just be thrown away,” he said. “Trying to work out what exactly convinced people here to issue such edicts would require an infinite amount of work, when we should instead be looking to the future and not the past.”

This visit to Granada comes as the Spanish authorities have shown greater willingness to confront such low points in their country’s history.

Last month, the authorities on the island of Majorca held a memorial for Jews who were burned in the city of Palma in May 1691, in what was the first such commemoration staged by a Spanish regional government.

Some studies have suggested Spain continues to be plagued by anti-Semitism, notably a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes survey that found that 46 percent of Spaniards viewed Jews unfavorably, which gave Spain the highest negative rating in Europe.

But more recent Spanish studies have played down such findings, including one last year by Casa Sefarad-Israel, an agency of the Spanish Foreign Ministry set up to promote good relations with Spanish Jewry and Israel. Its study found that negative views had dropped to 34.6 of the Spanish population.

“What the polls really show is that much of Spanish society is not in agreement with Israel’s policy toward Palestine, but that view then sometimes gets confused with anti-Semitism,” said José María Contreras, subdirector for religious affairs in the Spanish Justice Ministry. “Many people in this country just don’t make a difference between Israelis and Jews, just as they often also don’t distinguish between Spaniards and Catholics, however much of a plural society Spain has become.”

Meanwhile, outside Granada’s City Hall, protesters were occupying the square, surrounded by banners condemning political corruption and authoritarianism, as part of a youth-led movement seeking an overhaul of Spain’s political system that started in Madrid on May 15 before spreading nationwide. “This makes for a bit of an ugly landscape, sorry about that,” Granada’s mayor told the chief rabbi.

While no words of apology were pronounced by the mayor and other Spanish officials concerning the 1492 expulsion, those in attendance suggested that the chief rabbi’s visit was in itself significant enough to draw a line under this dark episode in Spanish history.

“It should not have taken 519 years for a Jewish religious leader to come back here, but what matters is that this has finally taken place,” said Diego de Ojeda, director of Casa Sefarad-Israel.


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