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Spain to Give Sephardic Jews Special Place in Columbus Rites

July 25, 1987|ALFREDO GOMEZ | Associated Press

MADRID — When Queen Isabella sent Christopher Columbus off to sea in 1492, she also expelled Jews from Spain. Now, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America nears, Spain is offering Sephardic Jews around the world a special place in the celebrations.

Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain. Sephardim are descendants of the people expelled by Queen Isabella, or those who follow Sephardic rites.

Special plans are being made for them during commemorations in 1992 of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landfall in the Caribbean.

Spain's secretary of state for international cooperation, Luis Yanez, already has declared Toledo the "international capital of Sepharad-92," likening the ancient city to a "Sephardic Jerusalem."

Flourishing Community

Toledo, 40 miles south of Madrid, was the site of a flourishing Jewish community and a center of international learning in the 12th to 15th centuries.

The government decision puts Toledo on a par with Barcelona and Seville in importance in the observance of the anniversary's other main events--the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona and the World's Fair in Seville.

The dual objective, Yanez said, is to make Toledo "a center of international pilgrimage," and "to publicize Spain's Jewish past both at home and abroad."

Samuel Toledano, leader of Spain's Jewish community, said the anniversary plans are of "great importance because it means the re-encounter of the new, democratic Spain with its Jewish past, before, during and after the fateful year of 1492."

"We plan to take an active part in studying all the events surrounding 1492," Toledano added. "On the one hand these events were the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, but on the other, they were the very important Jewish participation in the saga of the discovery and colonization of America."

Aug. 3, 1492, the day Columbus set sail from Palos, near Huelva, coincided with the deadline set for Jews to leave Spain, Toledano said.

The Jewish Cartographic School on the Mediterranean island of Majorca made the Italian-born sailor's voyage technically possible. And much of the money needed to finance the voyages was put up by Jewish financiers and advisers of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, Roman Catholics.

"A third of the crew members on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were Jews," Toledano said, "and that's not even getting into the historical controversy over whether Columbus himself was a Jew."

A coordinating committee of Sephardic Jewish communities in Spain and abroad has been set up to cooperate with a working group of Spanish government officials, Toledano said, in the organization of congresses and symposiums aimed at "the rediscovery of Jewish Spain."

Most of Spain's estimated 12,000 Jews today live in Madrid and Barcelona, while the remainder are in the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Toledano said since the modification of the civil code in 1982, most of the Jews in Spain now have Spanish nationality.

The royal expulsion edict in 1492 also coincided with the consolidation of the Spanish monarchs' defeat of the Muslim Moors, who controlled the southern part of Spain for nearly eight centuries.

Historians have described the edict as a measure drawn up by Roman Catholic authorities aimed at creating a politically and religiously homogenous nation.

The Muslims were also expelled or forced to convert to Christianity.

According to Haim Avni, author of "Spain, Franco and the Jews," Jews living in Spain, northern Morocco and Tangier at the beginning of the 20th Century enjoyed relative tolerance, although they were not allowed to worship in public.

Different Opinion

But Avni refutes the thesis held by admirers of the late Gen. Francisco Franco that the Spanish dictator helped large numbers of Jews escape the Nazis before and during World War II.

Citing official Spanish diplomatic records, Avni concludes, "the maximum number of Jews protected by Spain who were thus saved from the Holocaust was 3,235."

In 1967 Franco promulgated a law of religious liberty officially recognizing Jewish, Protestant and other non-Roman Catholic communities.

The first modern synagogue in Spain was consecrated in Madrid in December, 1968, when the expulsion edict was definitively abrogated.

On Jan. 17, 1986, Spain established diplomatic relations with Israel.

Spain now has 10 synagogues. Two opened in Majorca and in the Mediterranean resort town of Benidorm in the last three months.

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