Within Spain’s selection of the more flattering periods of Jewish history, they have scrambled linearity and avoided the legally repressed 20th Century. Un-scrutinised and accounted for history, is simply sidestepped.
The centre’s stated purpose is to ‘further the understanding of Sephardic Jews in Spanish society’, which any honest exploration of recent history would have achieved.
As 60% of the 40,000 Jews in Spain are Sephardic, and the majority of these came over from Morocco in the 1950s when Independence was gained, exploring Spain’s colonial presence in the region may help familiarise the presence of this demographic in Spanish society today. For many, the idea of Sephardim returning after the Inquisition is a foreign concept.
However, when the website discusses Sephardim in Morocco, there is no mention of Spain’s colonial presence in North Africa. This is not just an anomaly on a government homepage, but is a silence felt in the lack of funding and exhibiting of this crucial historical era.
The website states that:
‘The Sephardim of Morocco developed an important economic and commercial activity’ and they served as a link between Morocco and ‘Western European countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, France, England and Spain itself.’ (my italics).
The author vaguely mentions the ‘colonial appetites of Western European countries over North Africa’. However, the website alleviates any culpability by framing this as a benign force: ‘settlers encountering depressed and impoverished Jewish communities, who often saw colonization as an opportunity to improve their material and cultural situation’.
There is no mention that colonial presence raised resentment and mistrust of Jewish communities, and this presence, along with the formation of Israel, lead to their often forced expulsion in the 1900s.
Indeed, the majority of Spain’s Sephardim moved over from Morocco in the 1950s and ‘60s, to come to a Spanish dictatorship where it was illegal to practise Judaism publicly until 1978.
Speaking to a Moroccan Sephardi, Aaron Azagury, about his arrival to Spain in 1968, I found his experience helpful in accounting for the lack of knowledge of Jews in Spain today. His hearing aid battles with the loud music of the Eixample cafe he chose to meet at, but his story perseveres through a 2-hour interview:
‘Even today people do not know what a Jew is, but if you go 40 years ago – and you said ‘Jew,’’ [He acts out a conversation, gesticulating with his hands], you don’t have horns, you don’t have a tail? You’re not a Jew!
…When I was at school in Tangiers, some of the boys called me ‘dirty Jew’, but I have friends from that time still today. There was anti-semitism, but they knew Jews! we were together – we went as boy scouts together – here that was non-existent’
With Spain still possessing Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco today, the potential discomfort of researching and exhibiting this part of Jewish history is avoided. Government institutions stick to promoting more neutral periods, Jewish history is trapped in the Medieval era.
This is also the case with Franco’s treatment of the Jews, as can be seen on the website:
‘The role of Spain during the Holocaust remains a chapter still underdeveloped. To date, most research and publications have focused on the humanitarian work of a few Spanish diplomats.’
Alfons Argoneses, writing on the way that Spain remembers the Holocaust, explains that: ‘the Spanish Government proposes a version of history that obscures…Franco’s support of Hitler during World War II and his complicity in the deportation of Spanish Jews and Republicans to Nazi camps’.
Silence can be louder than words, and the unexhibited parts of the 20th Century tell us about the past characteristics which the government do not want to inform their present identity today.