Following May Day celebrations yesterday in Seville, where the BirthWrong tour joined the anarchist oriented union Confederation General del Trabajo at a plaza for revolutionary song, speeches and cheap beer, we set out for the Centro de Interpretation Juderia de Sevilla, the local museum of Jewish history in the former Jewish quarter known as Barrio Santa Cruz. Our guide, Virginia, set the backdrop for the tour with a short summary of Jewish history in Islamic Spain, explaining how cultural cross-pollination flourished beneath religious segregation. Among the best known byproducts of the so-called Golden Age is flamenco, a blend of Indian and Arabic music and Andalusian rabbinical hyms.
By 1248, Ferdinand III’s Christian army had stormed through southern Spain and conquered Seville. The city’s Jewish and Arab authorities conceded defeat by offering Ferdinand the symbolic keys to the city. The Jews of Seville were soon confined to a walled-in ghetto, subjected to a regime of discrimination and placed under close surveillance. After nightfall, residents of the Jewish quarter were forbidden from passing through the walls that confined them. When the Black Death hit Spain in the mid-14th century, conspiracy theories spread among the Christian population of Seville that Jews were poisoning the city’s water supply. This incitement led straight to the pogrom of 1381 in which 80 percent of the city’s Jewish population was butchered. The rest were pressured to convert as the vice of surveillance and suspicion tightened all around them. Distrust of the Conversos prompted the institution of Purity of Blood statutes that forbade anyone with Jewish ancestry from holding public office. The laws were eventually applied to Muslims, who were also deemed a “stained race” by southern Spain’s Christian authorities.
Despite the all-encompassing regime of repression, the Conversos resisted. A group of local Jews led by a wealthy merchant named Diego Ben Suson hatched a failed conspiracy to carry out an armed insurrection against local Catholic power brokers. Secret ceremonies took place on Yom Kippur as sentries kept watch for Christians through narrow slits barely visible from the outside. Beneath homes and businesses, Jews constructed an elaborate network of tunnels stretching as far as the Guadalquivir river that offered an escape route during Christian attacks. This morning, I passed through an unmarked door in the lobby of Seville’s Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia, descended a winding stone staircase into the hotel’s basement, and walked a fifty meter stretch of what had been a secret Jewish tunnel.
In March, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued a formal order of expulsion to Spain’s Jewish community. The Jews who fled to safety in places like Tunisia and the provinces of the Ottoman Empire held onto the keys to their homes along with the hope that they would someday return. 522 years later, the Spanish government issued a draft law granting Spanish citizenship to descendants of Jews exiled under the infamous expulsion order.
Unfortunately, Muslims are not eligible. Many Arab Muslim families, especially in North Africa, trace their ancestry directly to Spain– for instance some members of my friend Ali Abunimah’s family say their ancestors came to Palestine from Spain in 1492. Yet Muslims are treated increasingly as part of a civilization that is alien to Europe.
Keys dangle from the ceiling of an eerily lit room in the Centro de Interpretation Juderia, symbolizing the tragedy of expulsion and exile. As Virginia led us through the narrow lands of Barrio Santa Cruz, I heard some murmuring from the group about undeniable connections to the present.