Monday, June 22, 2009

Spain: Toledo Cemetery Dispute Resolved with Reburial of Bones in Original Graves

Spain: Toledo Cemetery Dispute Resolved with Reburial of Bones in Original Graves
by Samuel D. Gruber

Philip Carmel, International Relations Director of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and Executive Director of the Lo Tishcach Foundation announced today that on Sunday June 21, “all of the bones removed from the medieval cemetery in Toledo were reburied in the actual graves from which they had been removed. This was achieved after protracted negotiations which only reached fruition last Thursday in Madrid” Last autumn human bones from 105 distinct graves had been uncovered and then removed as part of an archaeological excavation of the cemetery in advance of construction planned for a school on the adjacent property. Local authorities, who supported the construction project, had offered to delivery the bones for reburial elsewhere.

The opinions of Spanish archaeologists – including those who carried out the careful rescue excavation – were mixed, with many viewing the bones as valuable historical resources for better understanding aspects of medieval Jewish life.
International Jewish religious organizations including the CER and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) had demanded that the bones be returned to their original resting place rejecting both the possible retention of the remains for study and the reburial of the remains elsewhere were strenuously opposed by

There were widespread concerns that removal of the bones elsewhere would establish a precedent for clearing old cemeteries of burials in order to facilitate property development. Most scholars of Jewish law will allow the removal of Jewish remains from a cemetery only in situations of utmost danger to the site and other methods to protect a site have failed. Even then, excavation and removal of remains should be done under rabbinic supervision.

Carmel, speaking for the CER, maintained the greatest difficulties were with the local government of Toledo, not with national leaders. “Toledo has a unique place in the history of the Golden Age of the Jews of Spain and the Spanish government understood this and constantly sought to persuade the local government to respect the sanctity of this site,” Carmel said. “Throughout our negotiations with the Toledo authorities, we insisted that these Toledo Jews be buried in exactly the same graves from which they were removed. They intended this site as their eternal resting place and it was our duty to ensure they were reburied according to their wishes,” he added.

The reburial of the remains took place yesterday (June 21) and was not widely publicized. According to Carmel the ceremony was, however, attended by local and national government representatives, leaders of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain and the president of the CPJCE, Rabbi Elyokim Schlesinger, who personally supervised the burial preparations. Since negotiations ended on Thursday the 18th, the push to rebury on Sunday was presumably taken to avoid any possible challenges or delays to the decision. It also allowed the 87-year-old Rabbi Schlesinger to oversee the reburial, since he was already present as port of the negotiations. Thus, re-burial took place as soon, apparently, after the Sabbath as possible.

According to Carmel, “This remarkable and historic solution brings a satisfactory conclusion to a chapter which has seen a tremendous degree of solidarity and cooperation on the part of the Spanish government and the local Jewish federation and a willingness to work together with the Conference of European Rabbis and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe to achieve an amicable solution within the boundaries of Halachah”

The result of the negotiations appears to be a victory of sorts for those (including myself) who have advocated for greater recognition of medieval Jewish sites as part of a living tradition, rather than as inert remnants of an extinct culture or civilization. While these sites need to be studied and presented more effectively to the large Jewish and Spanish populations, they need to be treated respectfully, too. Even the most careful archaeology – if it runs counter to Jewish tradition or law – cannot be deemed respectful. Alternative essentially non-invasive means of investigation of cemeteries must be further developed.

An important outcome of this settlement is that the site will be marked and maintained as a cemetery – and NOT developed. This should send a strong signal to municipalities and developers throughout Spain that they should not try to usurp cemetery sites. This needs to give further impetus to scholarly efforts to better pinpoint the likely locations of what may be hundreds of Jewish cemeteries throughout Spain. Many of these are not as unknown as one would think – even five hundred years after the Expulsion. They are remembered in toponyms, in land documents, maps and traveller’s accounts, and local legends and lore.

Toledo already attracts as many tourists in search of Jewish heritage as any other place in Spain. The remains of two historic synagogues – one of which is now home to the Museo Sefardi – is a strong attraction. Now, the cemetery site can be added to this. Even though there will be little to see (there are no surviving contemporary gravestone in situ – the reminder of Toledo’s “Golden Era” will be strong at the site.

According to Carmel: “I hope that our work to save this historic cemetery in Toledo will prove to be a prototype for how governments, local Jewish communities and representative Jewish organizations can work together for the benefit of preserving these cemeteries in Europe."

In related news, a few weeks ago the government of Catalonia declared the Jewish cemetery in Barcelona - known as Montjuic - an historic site. I am still collecting details about what this will mean for the future of this cemetery - once on of the largest Jewish burial grounds of Spain. In 2001, 557 graves were excavated there and one gravestone (matzevah) fragment was unearthed. The fate of the remains removed form the graves is unknown to the public. Presumably, there has been adequate time for them to be documented and studied. Arrangements should be made for reburial. The precedent of Toledo should, I hope, speed such action.

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