Observations of a Jewish Traveler to Iberia

My wife and I just returned from a wonderful fortnight in Iberia. We truly enjoyed the trip and marveled at the brick, marble and especially the tiled buildings, walls, streets and aqueducts that reveal the history of places, some of which are still in use in such cities as Granada, Cordoba, Seville in Andalusia and Toledo, Segovia and Toledo in northern Spain. Everyone we encountered in hotels, restaurants and stores were very polite and helpful.

Spain and Portugal are beautiful countries, blessed with rivers, mountains and the seas, rich in agricultural resources. It is no wonder that the Muslims wanted to control it, no matter its infidel population. It is also no wonder that the polyglot Euro-Christian majority fought long and hard to recover hegemony. Despite the hundreds of thousands of Jews who populated the peninsula prior to 1492, in visiting 16 cities and towns, we encountered just three relics of the vibrant but now extinct Jewish presence in Spain, and two cultural center-museums. The record is clear about expulsion for many and the coercion of the rest to convert. It is also factual that from Isabella to yeoman farmers, the Christian population enjoyed the windfall of property that was expropriated or bought at fire sale prices to be “repurposed” or destroyed. Studies show that a large minority of today’s Hispanic people have Jewish roots. We know of people in New Mexico discovering their Jewish identities, some of whom are returning to the community. Likewise, there is a community, Belomonte in Portugal, that is in touch with its converso roots and in some ways is re-establishing a Jewish presence (however, since it was well off the Porto-Lisbon path we could not visit it).

Our guides were respectful of the Jewish contribution to Iberia. They expressed, and I felt that they were sincerely rueful, in portraying the vestiges of a dead culture. They were able to point out in almost every place, streets named for Jews and places that were once synagogues, always avowing that the disappearance of their Jews was tragic for Spain and Portugal. After hearing this numerous times, I could not help but feel very saddened and more than a little irritated at what I felt was a kind of exploitation of the ghosts of Sephardic Jewry for the current profit of these countries. Many visitors are Jewish and the guides know this. The tourist industry makes an effort to come clean with a dispassionate, matter-of-fact recitation of persecution and forced exile. And yet, in the recounting of history and the explanation of how palaces, mosques and fortresses were Christianized in the reconquista, once could not help but detect a certain pride in that triumph. Even though it may be that most Iberians are now as secular as the rest of the Europeans, it may well be that Spain was until recently arguably the most Catholic country on the continent.

I am aware of programs in Spain and Portugal to grant citizenship to Sephardic Jews who can prove their roots. And yet I am also very aware of strong anti-Jewish sentiments among much of the population (read here); 30% of searches on Google for Jew resolve to anti-Semitic sites (see article here). Spanish governments make no particular attempt to straddle the Israel-Palestinian issue. They tilt again and again to the Muslim side of the conflict and do nothing to tamp down BDS actions of its provincial and musical governments, nor to change attitudes of its population (read here). I am sorry to say that the city I found most appealing, Valencia, is in the forefront of the BDS movement. Even on our first night in Spain, in Madrid, not three blocks from our hotel and the Prado, we could have had our tapas right next to a BDS demonstration.

I find it shamefully ironic to note that among the Spanish denunciations of Israel is its purported apartheid. While more than half of Israeli Jews hail from North Africa and the Middle East, I was surprised to find the Spanish people to be the “whitest” population I have seen anywhere in decades (only tourists and street vendors were significantly nonwhite). One would think that in light of its history, the documented Jewish DNA of so much of its populace (https://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Genetic-research-almost-25-percent-of-Latinos-Hispanics-have-Jewish-DNA-581959 ) and the touristic imperative to be officially remorseful about their malevolent pogroms and prejudices, Spain and Portugal would make a special effort to make amends with world Jewry by expressing more than pro-forma support for the Jewish state of Israel. (I do recognize that despite Franco’s association with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, Spain did not turn in Jews who made it to Spanish soil. The less oppressive Salazar of Portugal acted similarly during World War II.) In glorifying their own history and in making small, symbolic gestures of contrition about their past, these countries are delighted to attract Jewish tourists. Spain in particular has contempt for Israel for its 20th century re-establishment of sovereignty in a part of its aboriginal land, granting full civil rights to its non-Jewish minorities, and despite Israel’s constant pains to thwart national extinction. Spain and Portugal express crocodile tears about  their own multi-century history of violent of national reconquest, ethnic cleansing, plunder, colonialism and racial slavery.

By no means do I advocate avoiding or boycotting Spain and Portugal. To do so would be to advocate shunning every European country (and most of the rest of the Western world). Enjoy the beauty and culture of these places. But just as we break the glass at a wedding to temper joy with a touch of sad remembrance, allow yourself moments of sadness when you visit Spain and Portugal.


About the Author
Retired technology executive residing in Skokie Illinois, with a background in history and Middle East studies,committed to argue for preserving Western values.