A Rejection of Spain’s Sepharad Part III: Convivencia’s Golden Phoenix


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La Red de Juderias is the most widely known, and publicly criticised, of Spain’s Jewish endeavours.

The Red was the main apparatus through which this revision could take place.

In 1995, the Spanish government matched the emotive ‘rediscovery’ of their Sephardic legacy with the formation of a highly lucrative nationwide tourism industry.

Its launch accompanied the digitalisation of archives from the 15th Century, the restoration of crumbled Jewish sites, and the return of a form of Jewish presence through towns and cities for the first time in five centuries. The positives of this endeavour should not be denied.

However, the way that Medieval history has been revised indicates the inauthenticity of this historical excavation.

Lucia Aguilar, who has also worked within the Red, sees the industry’s account of the past as repetitive and framed in a positive light:

‘Well normally the museums exhibit the convivencia story – another time? – C’mon’ Lucia continues to critique the over-use of convivencia, ‘through this period they construct a myth of the three cultures’ co-existence – to make a nice story, projecting a positive image of Spain’.

Her view is echoed by Alfons Argoneses, who has conducted pioneering archival research into the historic treatment of Sephardic Jews under the Spanish Government.

Alfons disputes this popularised revision of Convivencia:

‘Do we idealise Convivencia? Yes of course, this is taking place now. I mean the word ‘Convivencia’ is full of content –– for long periods of time these were communities of violence’. The archival evidence showing that Jewish communities often fared better under Muslim than Christian rule is ignored, which would be an interesting counter-narrative for today’s territorial conflicts.

Not only is this past reduced to an idealised coexistence, but it is deemed as something uniquely ‘Spanish’.

Within the process of a nation constructing their official account of history, periods are chosen to embody the desired ‘spirit’ of the nation and are idealised and reduced in the process. These selected pasts, are anachronistically made continuous with the present day identity, ignoring the intermediate history that pulls such a past and the present apart in all aspects.

‘Spain did not properly exist until the 19th century!’ Alfons fumes. The irony of this reclamation of convivencia, and Sepharad into a core part of Spain’s identity, is that it was the formation of modern day Spain which lead to the Jews and Muslims’ expulsion from the Peninsula.

The academic Jeffrey Juris notices this tonal shift in a book published through the Red, which continues this inconsistency:

‘The rhetoric in Paths of Sepharad represent a striking discursive shift. Far from excluded, the Jewish past is claimed as a central pillar of “Spanish” heritage and Sephardis are symbolically redefined as “Spaniards”’.

This merging of Sephardic and Spanish enables the Red to reclaim an inherent part of Spanish nationalism.

However, we can see that the Government only reclaims a historic group as ‘Spanish’ when it suits it in the present.

If Sepharad can be deemed as ‘Spanish’, what about the Moors and Muslims that also lived within Spain for centuries? The Law of Return, however, does not extend to this group, which was also expelled through violent inquisitions.

Bayi Loubaris, the president of The Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double standard: “The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those (Muslims) who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist”.

Spain’s cosmetic promotion of its resurrected convivencia-esque cosmopolitanism, is shown through the country’s statistics. Spain is the eighth most Islamophobic country in Europe, as well as the third most anti-Semitic.

However, the media’s promotion of Spain’s efforts may lead many to think otherwise. It is revealing, that on the press section of the Red’s website, this centre recently promoted a series of articles written for Mexico’s Diario Judio by Daniel Ajzen.

Ajzen’s slightly surreal articles follow Government rhetoric in their outlining of Spain’s reclamation of an integral part of their character:

‘Today, this same Spain rises like a phoenix to reclaim the privileged place that it had…A country that tries to recover the best of its character, to return to be an integral part of the world and therefore has today a dynamic, multifaceted, Jewish community’.

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