Spain demo: concerned about Jewish heritage?
Spain demo: concerned about Jewish heritage?Reuters

Just outside the 11th-century walls that surround Avila in central Spain, rows of granite slabs surrounded by neatly trimmed grass mark the spot where ancient Jewish graves lay.

Local authorities spent 250,000 euros ($335,000) to build the memorial garden, which opened last year, on the grounds of a medieval Jewish cemetery in what used to be an empty field behind a monastery - a move criticized by some as being a ploy to increase tourism.

A plaque explains, in Spanish and English, that the cemetery was dismantled after Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 banished Jews from Spain as part of the brutal Inquisition that sought to wipe out Judaism from the kingdom.

"We knew there was a Jewish cemetery there and we decided to highlight it," Avila mayor Miguel Angel Garcia Nieto said at his office in the city's imposing 19th century town hall.

"We can't live with our backs to the reality that many people around the world have their roots here in Spain, including Avila, whose ancestors were forced to leave," he added.

Historians believe at least 200,000 Jews lived in Spain before the 1492 expulsion and made rich contributions to science, music and literature. Many who refused to convert or be expelled were burned at the stake or suffered various other atrocities.

Now two dozen cities and towns across Spain have banded together in a Network of Jewish Quarters to try to revive and promote their Jewish history by building monuments, putting up signs identifying historic sites and hosting concerts, lectures and other cultural activities.

The network, founded in 1995, signed a cooperation agreement two years ago with Spain's tourist board, Turespana, to promote its sites in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and the United States, which have large Sephardic Jewish populations.

Last year, it launched an online project with Google, which offers historical timelines, maps and photographs of ancient landmarks of Jewish life in Spain.

Remorse or profiting off of anti-Semitism?

While the new efforts to promote Jewish heritage sites are presented as a way of commemorating Jewish history, many say the real impetus behind the move is a desire to profit off Spain's anti-Semitic past by attracting tourists.

"The economic component here plays a central role because if it was solely about reclaiming the past then doing so would entail more than refurbishing some old buildings and alleyways," Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel told AFP.

"It would also require refurbishing the national consciousness and memory. Very little about the Inquisition, which sought to hunt down Jews and torment them, is being taught in Spanish schools," Freund added.

In Avila, a 21-room hotel with rooms named after Jewish thinkers now occupies the spot where a synagogue is thought to have once existed. The sites of the two other synagogues which once existed in Avila are now occupied by private homes that have no signs of ever being a house of worship except for discreet street signs.

Assumpcio Hosta, the secretary general of the Network of Jewish Quarters, acknowledged that much of the history which medieval Spain sought to obliterate leaves little traces to be recreated.

"There are some cities where the buildings are no longer there, the streets are no longer there, you don't see so much but instead there are many documents from that period which are of interest," Hosta said. "It's not that they don't have the history, it's that the history is not so visible."

In context of the anti-Semitism of the Inquisition, it is worth noting that Spain has recently displayed blatant anti-Semitic overtoneswith hundreds rallying in the country two months ago against Israel, calling to "put fear" into the Jews. That call has been acted upon, with Israeli tourists being the target of a graffiti attack a few weeks ago.

Likewise a recent Friday sermon by a Muslim cleric in Azuqueca De Henares, Spain, was replete with anti-Semitic vile, concluding with the prayer: "Oh Allah, destroy the plundering Jews...count them one by one and do not spare a single one of them."