Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Spain: Temporary Halt of Construction at Toledo Cemetery Site

Spain: Temporary Halt of Construction at Toledo Cemetery Site
by Samuel D. Gruber

The rhetoric and protests over the excavation of the medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo, Spain have heated up since I last wrote about this in early November. There have been some recent developments that give hope for a solution. Specifically, the Spanish government has ordered a stop on all work at the site until at least January 15, 2009. A complete halt to work was a condition of Jewish religious groups to their joining in negotiation. The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in a press release (below) praise the government's action as "positive decision." The halt follows weeks of public demonstrations outside of Spanish embassies, protests form abroad to the Spanish government and intensive discussions by representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, the CER, and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE).

These discussions followed the signing by the president of the Spanish Jewish Federation in late November of a protocol with the Spanish government that would allow Jewish cemeteries when found to be excavated, but to have the bones collected and removed elsewhere. The agreement was widely denounced - since it opens the doors for unlimited development of cemetery sites. It also violates the most basic regard for the religious sanctity of cemeteries - a critical belief of observant Jews; and also their historic and cultural importance, a value cherished by cultural traditionalists and historians, and historic preservationists. Archaeologists were dissatisfied, too, since it allowed excavation but not the prolonged analysis of human remains essential to the field of paleopathology, physical anthropology and related branches of archaeology. As a result, the Rabbinical Council of Spain sent a letter to the government clearly requesting the legal protection of Jewish cemeteries.

To my mind, this should have been the first and only position advocated, and it is the only acceptable solution. Only by beginning with a blanket protection of cemeteries can extraordinary circumstances and situation be recognized and when necessary negotiated and resolved. It is important that the destruction of cemeteries and the exhumation of remains always be the absolute last solution.

Prayer vigils (demonstrations) organized by The Central Rabbinical Council (CRC) of the United States and Canada in front of the Spanish Consulate in New York, and other demonstrations organized by Atra Kadisha - the most active of all groups in monitoring archaeological work in Israel (and increasingly in Europe, too) - at the Spanish Embassy in Tel Aviv raised the public profile of the conflict. Rabbi Isaac Gluck, executive director of The Central Rabbinical Council (CRC) of the United States and Canada wrote a strong public letter in which he compared the removal of the dead from the cemetery to the brutal expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. In his letter to the Spanish Ambassador in Washington Rabbi Gluck wrote that "we hope that you would enhance your tourism among Jews by protecting Jewish cemeteries as revered remnants of a Golden Age - not threatened tourism with acts of brutality, which remind Spanish citizens, and Jews alike of the acts, which even now cause pain and anguish in their recollection."

The public protests follow a previously successful media-savvy method of putting pressure on recalcitrant governments (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic). Significantly, it is the Spanish Foreign Ministry, that has taken the lead on calling for a halt to the excavations, not the municipality nor any department of internal affairs.

The Barcelona-based cultural heritage group ZACHOR has called for the landmark designation of the Toledo cemetery site - something that can easily be done according to existing Spanish cultural heritage law. In the case of Toledo, archaeologists seem to be keeping quiet ,and they are surely caught in the middle. The cemetery excavation was neither advocated nor planned by archaeologists - they were instead performing common archaeological rescue work, making the best of a bad situation when a sanctioned development project encroaches on historical remains. It is the local government which presumably gave the permit for this work that is mostly at fault, since the approximate location of the cemetery has been long known to local historians. Archaeologists have apparently tried to treat the site with care, with the hope of extracting all information about its history as possible in these circumstances.

I still have not heard what, if any, comment or protest the staff of Toledo's well-known Museo Sefardi have made about the cemetery excavation. Certainly, as the locally recognized authorities on Jewish culture in Toledo they should have been vigilant in identifying and protecting historic Jewish sites.

Where do we go from here? I propose three tasks

1. In Toledo, restoration of the cemetery site. Burials should remain
in situ and be recovered, removed bones should be returned. The school will have to find another solution for its expansion. The Jewish community, the Museo Sefardi and others should use this as an opportunity to develop education and la cultural programming about Jewish history in the area. If all the bones have alreacdy been removed, the solution used in York, England may be neccessary - the creation of a new place at the site for re-burial of remains.

2. Nationwide, all pre-modern Jewish cemeteries should be immediately added to the national list of protected historic sites and they should be properly marked so none can claim ignorance of their existence.

3. Since the exact location of only a few medieval Jewish cemeteries is known, an intensive multi-year research effort needs to be undertaken to identify with as much exactitude as possible the actual and likely locations of Jewish cemeteries. Scholars in archives and archaeologists using various regional and site survey methods can move this project forward.
ZAKHOR has already presented a proposal (for which it seeks funding) to begin this process. Together with a list of distinguished scholars, I have agreed to advise and possibly participate in such a project.

I'll be writing more about this, and related issues of medieval Jewish remnants and remain in Europe in future blog posts.

Press Release from the Conference of European Rabbis 12/22/2008


European rabbis praise authorities' positive stance

London, December 22 - The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) welcome the decision of the government of the Kingdom of Spain to cease all works at the medieval Jewish cemetery in Toledo.

The decision taken Friday, December 19, follows high-level meetings at the Spanish foreign ministry in Madrid with representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, the Conference of Spanish Rabbis, the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE).

The CER and CPJCE welcome this positive decision on the part of the Spanish government and urge the government to verify that its decision is fully adhered to on the ground by the local authorities in Castilla-La Mancha.

At its meeting on December 18 in Madrid with Ambassador Ana Salomon of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, CPJCE Executive Director Rabbi Avraham Ginsburg and CER International Relations Director Philip Carmel had demanded that work cease immediately at the Toledo cemetery. Such a halt is deemed urgent by senior European rabbinical authorities in order that an adequate solution can be found for the graves.

Talks are continuing with the authorities in Madrid and Toledo to find a comprehensive solution to this issue in the coming days.

The CER and CPJCE demand that all further actions by the authorities in Toledo and by the Spanish government concerning the Jewish cemetery in Toledo and all Jewish cemeteries in Spain be coordinated with the full approval of the Conference of Spanish Rabbis headed by the Chief Rabbi of Madrid, Rabbi Moshe Bendahan, and with the CER and CPJCE.

The Conference of European Rabbis federates Jewish religious leaders in over 40 European countries and includes all the continent's chief rabbis and senior rabbinical judges. The CER holds consultancy status as an international non-governmental organisation at the Council of Europe and within the institutions of the European Union.

The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe is a voluntary organisation founded in 1995 with the task of safeguarding, protecting and preserving Jewish cemeteries and mass graves all over Europe. The CPJCE is headed by a team of distinguished experts in Jewish law and is regarded as the foremost halachic authority on the preservation of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. ENDS

Thanks to Dominique Tomasov Blinder in Barcelona and Philip Carmel in Brussels for information used in this report

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