Saturday, December 27, 2008

Spain: Barcelona Museum Hosts Seminar on Jewish Cemeteries

Spain: Barcelona Museum Hosts Seminar on Jewish Cemeteries
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The Museum of History of Barcelona will host the two-day conference "Archaeological Intervention on Historical Necropolises: Jewish Cemeteries" on January 15th and 16th, 2009. This is a timely topic, given the current controversy about the medieval Jewish cemetery at Toledo.

The mission of the museum "is the reassessment of the historic heritage of Barcelona, whether the items are movable or immovable. In other words, the museum is responsible for the conservation, research, and dissemination of the objects and buildings that are significant for our collective history and that exemplify the city's past... the best city museum is the city itself, and that it is in its streets, squares, and buildings where we can interpret the passage of time and the interaction of the men and women that have made, throughout the centuries, today's Barcelona possible"

According to the program, the seminar has been organized because:

The artistic, historical and cultural heritage forms an asset which, following its institutional recognition and classification, is safeguarded by the public administrations. This heritage, formed by elements and ensembles which the successive historical legacies have left in a territory,consists of very different types of cultural goods in which the respective collectives as a whole recognise themselves. In the case of the medieval Jewish legacy, Barcelona has recently opened the Barcelona Jewish Quarter Information Centre and the city also possesses an important Jewish necropolis on Montjuic hill. These are historical expressions of a period in the city's past when the Jewish community played a highly significant role.

The Jewish inheritance is a valuable legacy of Barcelona which is being added progressively to the city's visible heritage. For this reason, before acting on the necropolis of Monjuic, it is appropriate to sediment [sic] the legal and scientific arguments which will allow action to be taken there will all due rigour and the necessary sensitivity. This conference, which is open to all interested persons and which will be welcoming experts and professionals from different places in the world, proposes to analyze the vicissitudes experienced in other actions on Jewish necropolises, and then to approach the case of Barcelona from the legal and scientific standpoints
The need for forums in Catalonia and throughout the rest of Spain for discussion of issues related to the documentation, protection, preservation and presentation of Jewish heritage is great, therefore the scheduling of this conference in Barcelona is important. I fear, however, that the views expressed by the invited experts may not reflect a representative sample of opinion. The very wording of the statement of purpose of the seminar, which sets out to examine the question of the Barcelona Jewish cemetery from a "legal and scientific" standpoints suggests that others approaches - religious, ethical, moral, historical and cultural - may get short shrift. I hope not. These approaches need to be considered as part of archaeology, too.

The seminar features presentations from distinguished speakers - many of whom I admire greatly. From the program, however, it appears that the bulk of presentations are by archaeologists - some of whom are on record as being dissatisfied with resolutions where human remains from medieval cemeteries have been re-interred, or those in the field of heritage site management. There is no presentation of Jewish law or tradition from a scholar or authority on Jewish burial practices to provide appropriate balance. There is participation of one representative from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain on the round table "Models and protocols of intervention on medieval cemeteries in Catalonia." Given that the Federation recently signed a protocol (since rejected) which would have allowed the essentially unhindered excavation of cemeteries in favor of development projects, this particular representation does necessarily speak to the protection of cemetery sites. Without the discussion of the religious factors and inclusion of religious viewpoints as part of the discussion, any solutions proposed from the seminar are bound to be questioned and are likely to fail. Including all sides in the discussion is, of course, a messy business. But so is digging up cemeteries.

The seminar organizers seem to accept a priori that the Jewish cemetery in Barcelona (and by association, all other such cemeteries in the region) is first and foremost an archaeological site and can and should be considered as part of the archaeological heritage of the region. Even the seminar speakers who I can recognize as being Jewish come from mostly an archaeological background, or are professionally engaged in the presentation of archaeological sites.

I would put forward the claim the Montjuic is not an archaeological site - but a religious, historical, cultural and urban site - both sacred and communal - and therefore needs to be considered under a different set of assumptions, standards and expectations than archaeological sites.

True, many archaeological techniques of survey, mapping, testing, conservation and interpretation can be applied at Montjuic, without excavation of the human remains. This is the type of "scientific" work that should be proposed and pursued.

I hope that the conference will be recorded and/or transcribed. The presentation will certainly be important contribution to the continuing discussions on how to interpret and preserve the medieval Jewish heritage in Spain.

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