Oh Barcelona!

For the 10th of Tevet, Rabbi Don Yizchak Abarbanel's words: For although you can dispose our power, we have the higher truth. Although you can dispose of our persons, you cannot dispose of our sacred souls...

Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg, MD FACR

Judaism Wall in Barcelona
Wall in Barcelona

“For the stone shall cry out of the wall…” Habakkuk 2:11

The main terminal at the Barcelona-El Prat Airport in Spain was overcrowded on a cool cloudy October evening. Teeming travelers hurried to catch flights or to retrieve luggage. Close to 50 million tourists a year traverse this airport to revel in one of Europe’s most visited cities. In a corner adjacent to an elevator a large group of people dressed in worn black clothing were cautiously scanning their unfamiliar surroundings. They seemed bewildered, baffled, as if they had been transplanted from a different era. Uprooted. Their badly damaged suitcases heaped on a cart were secured by tightly wrapped transparent red elastic vinyl. At the center of the group was a teenage boy in a wheelchair, his face atrociously scarred. No doubt, refugees.

Ahh, yes. Refugees.

Over 500 years ago King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the infamous edict to expel all Jews from Spain, instantly creating hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who scattered all over Europe and North Africa.

“... They (the Jews) depart from all of these realms and lordships, along with their sons and daughters, menservants and maidservants, those who are great as well as the lesser folk,  and they shall not dare to return to those places, neither temporarily on the way to somewhere else nor in any other manner, under pain that if they do not comply with this command and should be found in our kingdom they incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their possessions … without further trial, sentence, or declaration.”

Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, economic adviser to the Crown, brilliant Bible commentator, philosopher, statesman and leader of the Jews in Spain strove to rescind this inhumane edict but upon failing wrote the following final letter to his Spanish King and Queen: 

“…I find it very difficult to understand how every Jewish man, woman, and child can be a threat to the Catholic faith. 

We destroy you?

It is indeed the opposite. Did you not admit in this edict to having confined all Jews to restricted quarters and to having limited our legal and social privileges, not to mention forcing us to wear shameful badges? Did you not tax us oppressively? Did you not terrorize us day and night with your diabolical Inquisition?  I will not allow the voice of Israel to be stilled on this day.”

After vehemently rejecting Christianity he concludes:

“We leave you with this comforting knowledge. For although you can dispose our power, we have the higher truth. Although you can dispose of our persons, you cannot dispose of our sacred souls and the historical truth to which only we bear witness.

Listen, King and Queen of Spain, for on this day you have joined the list of evil-doers against the remnant of the House of Israel. If you seek to destroy us, your wishes will come for naught, for greater and more powerful rulers have tried to finish with us, and all have failed. Indeed, we shall prosper in other lands far from here. For wherever we go, the God of Israel is with us. And as for you, Don Ferdinand and Doña Isabella, God's hand will reach out and punish the arrogance in your heart.”


I fondly remember Joe Amar singing the praises of Barcelona:

“Oh Barcelona! Barcelona!

on stringed instruments,

with a guitar and mandolin.

The splendor of your soil captured my heart

Oh Barcelona!”

Barcelona is indeed a beautiful city with uniquely magnificent architectural masterpieces designed by the legendary Antoni Gaudi. The exceptional Park Guel, no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites and multiple vibrant museums. Strolling down the famous La Rambla pedestrian mall I turn into la Boqueria, Barcelona’s largest food market, voted the best food market in the world by CNN. The market shops are primarily owned by the same families for generations, and date back to a meat market established in 1217 when the Jews still lived in the area. I turn to the butchers’ section and am flummoxed by a grotesque sight. Suspended by hooves on hooks, hundreds of severed cured pink-red whole pig legs hang over the counters. Many more are displayed in holders consisting of a clamp fixed to a wooden base.  I learn that in Spain pig legs have been displayed not only in butcher shops but also in many locales, specialty stores and restaurants. Upon further inquiry I discover that this tradition dates to the Spanish Inquisition. Through the ages the explicit public display of pig legs denoted one was neither Jewish nor Muslim but a perceptibly proud and dedicated Catholic.

There are few remnants of historic ancient Jewish Barcelona today. Montjuic, “the Mountain of Jews” was the original Jewish burial site for over 500 years beginning as early as the 9th century. This spectacular popular tourist site is currently home to several museums (including the famed Miro Museum), the Olympic Stadium and the Montjuïc Palace. The panoramic vistas from the Mountain of the Jews are breathtaking but not a single Jewish tombstone is extant nor is the exact location of the ancient Jewish cemetery publicly delineated. It was to this extent that every Jewish presence on the “Jewish Mountain” was obliterated and willfully expunged.

On the walls of the mid-16th century Palau del Lloctinent I am horrified to spot about ten stones with visible Hebrew inscriptions. They are fragments of hacked tombstones severed from the Jewish cemetery on Montjuïc.
In 2001 in preparation for new construction on the mountain the City of Barcelona found five hundred and fifty-seven Jewish graves but only a single headstone dating back to 1229. This was the first tombstone found in its original location in Barcelona.  In 2006 Dominique, an architect and historian of Jewish Barcelona with expertise in ancient Jewish cemeteries and her organization Zakhor were able to convince the authorities to refrain from undertaking the new construction planned for the cemetery site. To date there is still no formal signage of this ancient historic Jewish cemetery.

“Where are all the tombstones?” I wondered.

In the heart of Barcelona’s medieval Gothic area close to the popular pedestrian promenade of La Rambla, I enter the narrow alleys of the ancient Jewish quarter known as the Call. On the walls of the mid-16th century Palau del Lloctinent I am horrified to spot about ten stones with visible Hebrew inscriptions. They are fragments of hacked tombstones severed from the Jewish cemetery on Montjuïc which were utilized as construction material. The inscribed stones are visible on the wall which overlooks Plaça de Sant Iu, a plaza where street musicians sing and play their Spanish guitars entertaining the multitude of tourists visiting from all corners of the globe. Several of the stones are inverted with the Hebrew writing facing upwards… On one of these inverted stones the words,” lament”, “my son” and ‘Joseph’ can be deciphered. 

Are any of the local street musicians singing the praises of Barcelona aware of the Jewish ancient tombstone fragments embedded in the wall above them? Are they or the hordes of tourists reveling by this hallowed stone wall troubled by this disgrace?

Wall built with Jewish tombstone in Barcelona

Oh Barcelona!

“For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the woodwork shall answer it. Woe to him that builds a town with blood and establishes a city by iniquity!” Habakkuk 2,11-12.

There is no more damning testimony to the torture, public burnings, executions, expulsion of the Jews and overt anti-Semitism during the 14th and 15th centuries than this hallowed memorial wall. It is a self- inflicted Mark of Cain.

Today, in the year 2018 anti-Semitism is alive and well across Europe. In a recent poll by the European Union about a third of the Jews polled stated that they avoid Jewish sites or events out of fear and are considering emigrating. Most of them affirmed that anti-Semitism is their “most pressing problem”. Nearly 40 percent have experienced an anti-Semitic incident over the past five years and most didn’t report it considering it a waste of time. Vera Jourova, the EU commissioner described these data as “shocking”. However, Rabbi Menachem Margolin the head of the European Jewish Association stated. “Anyone who is shocked is disconnected from the reality on the ground.”

“What does anti-Semitism look like in Europe in 2018?” a CNN reporter asks.

“It's a 17-year-old boy, too frightened to wear a kippa on the streets of Paris. It's an Israeli restaurant owner in Berlin who is told that he will end up in the gas chambers. It's a 24-year-old Austrian who knows nothing about the Holocaust. It's the armed guards outside synagogues and Jewish schools across much of Europe. It's the online chat rooms where people peddle conspiracy theories that Jewish "globalists" run the world. It can be violent or subtle. Overt or insidious. Political or personal. It can come from the right or the left. It exists in countries that have large Jewish populations, like France and it also flourishes in places with smaller Jewish communities, like Poland.”

And it is getting much worse.

In the recent violent anti-government demonstrations in France a huge banner was posted on an overpass on the major highway connecting Paris to Marseille- “Macron- A whore of the Jews!!

When I discussed the potential for human evil with my colleague Prakash, a brilliant Ph. D in biophysics, he offered the following analogy: the human genome contains both oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes have the potential for uncontrolled growth and malignancy while the suppressor genes’ role is to inhibit and contain such growth. The loss of tumor suppressor genes will lead to self- destruction as the cells can no longer contain the lurking oncogenes. So is the case when it comes to human behavior… The potential for evil is always there. “The inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). There is no better example for this analogy than the lurking, deep-seated, recurrent and malignant anti-Semitism in Europe where the “suppressor genes” seem to be non- existent.

The Chief Rabbi of Barcelona has been encouraging his congregants to leave Spain, “Don’t think we’re here for good …buy property in Israel, this place is lost. …. Better get out early than late.”


Back in the USA.

Mike and his team arrived to attend to a dangerously leaning Japanese Maple. The bifurcating tree in our front yard had lost one of his two main trunks in a ferocious snow storm last winter and the surviving trunk was dangerously split from its maimed base. It would only take a moderate wind gust to demolish the distressed tree. As Mike’s team was constructing a metal support column, I struck up a conversation. Tall, broad chested and muscular, Mike is a father of three children two of whom are snipers on active duty in the US military with histories of combat tours in Somalia and Afghanistan. “My father also served in the military”, he proudly proclaims. Boasting, he adds that his daughter is a high school student who is already preparing for a military career and studying foreign languages. “She is the smart one” he says.

“What languages is she studying?” I ask. “Russian, …. and Hebrew”, he answers.

Voicing my unconcealed surprise at her choice of Hebrew, he remarks: “Well, you know we’re Jewish!”

He then proceeds to recount the following story. He was raised as a Presbyterian, but on a family owned farm in upstate New York that dates back 300 years a document was unearthed written in a “foreign” language that testifies to their Jewish ancestry.   According to a rabbi they consulted, the document details that they are descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Disbelieving, Mike’s daughter insisted on taking a genealogy DNA test which indeed demonstrated genetic markers of Spanish Jewry.

Mike has begun attending services on Saturdays. “And by the way”, he states with a smile: “my wife happens to be an East European Jewess”.

Surveying the newly installed supporting column on our wounded tree, he turns to me and confidently states: “This tree can endure even if one limb is cut off, it will surely survive many winters…and renew.”