People gather at an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain on Aug. 21. Photo by Susana Vera/Reuters

The Barcelona Jewish community is not doomed

In the wake of the horrendous recent terrorist attack in my city, our chief rabbi declared that the Jewish community here is “doomed” and encouraged us to buy property in Israel. With all due respect to the rabbi, he is wrong.

I am 34 years old and have lived in Barcelona since I was 4. I attended the Jewish day school, the public high school and Barcelona University. During the past three years, I have been privileged to serve as director of the Jewish community of Barcelona.

I know this historic community and its people quite well. Next year we will celebrate the centenary of our community’s re-establishment following the expulsion of 1492. In these past hundred years, Jews from all over the world have been attracted to play an active role in the life of our community: Turkish and Greek Jews who arrived in the First World War; activists who participated in the Spanish Civil War; Jews fleeing European anti-Semitism; Moroccan Jews who arrived after the independence of their native country; Latin American Jews; and large numbers of Israelis who have fallen in love with our city.

Barcelona is a dynamic Jewish melting pot. We are religiously pluralistic, blessed with four synagogues each embracing a different approach to Judaism. As Jews everywhere, we relish arguing among ourselves. Yet one of the things that unites us is our relationship with and love of the city.

And not without reason. Barcelona is synonymous with solidarity, welcome, peace and cultural diversity. A trendy city for tourists, a place of opportunity for businesspeople, it is a mecca for those interested in history, art, architecture, soccer and postcard landscapes. We proudly show our city to friends from abroad. We love listening to Hebrew in the city center. We revel in and are active participants in its rich culture. Barcelona is truly an international city; it is no coincidence that those killed and injured in the terrorist attack came from 34 different countries.

Since 1977, with the arrival of democracy in our country, the Jewish community has played an active role in the social, cultural and religious life of the wider society, and we have developed close relations with government institutions at all levels — Barcelonan, Catalonian and Spanish. Public activities have been organized in the Barcelona synagogue. We have celebrated Hanukkah in the streets. We annually commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Catalan Parliament. Every year, hundreds of schools bring their students to the synagogue, where we educate them about Judaism and the important history of our community. We are longstanding participants in interreligious dialogue. In fact, this year our Talmud Torah teacher is president of the official interreligious group of Catalonia.

We are experiencing a revival of Jewish culture. For example, local Jewish authors have published academic books and novels. Last year we organized the first Jewish Literature Festival. This year marks the 19th anniversary of the Jewish Film Festival of Barcelona.The Jewish Museum and Study Center of Girona, not far from Barcelona, is a place to discover Catalan’s Jewish medieval history, which includes the great Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, the Ramban. Many municipalities participate in the European Day of Jewish Culture.

Catalonia hosts brilliant Hebraists, disciples of the Hebrew Department of the University of Barcelona — the oldest chair at the university — as well as renowned writers and historians who have great expertise on Judaism and the history of Catalan Jews. This trend is also reflected in the growing interest of the general Catalan population in Jewish matters, interest that we see translating into spiritual, historical and intellectual curiosity. In short, there is a vibrancy to Jewish life in Barcelona.

The scourge of terrorism has brought great shock and sadness to Barcelona, as it has done in other European cities. These are difficult days for us, no doubt, and we cry and pray for the victims. We are fully coordinating our security with the authorities, who have always been responsive, and our non-Jewish neighbors consistently demonstrate solidarity with us.

The goal of the terrorists is to make us afraid. Barcelona is not afraid. The Jewish community here is not afraid. This cowardly act of violence will only make us stronger in our resolve to stay and grow the Jewish community of this amazing city. We Jews of Barcelona have been proudly living in our revived community for 100 years. We aren’t leaving.

Victor Sorenssen is the director of Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, the Barcelona Jewish Community.

Police cordon off the area after a van crashed into pedestrians near Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona on Aug. 17. Photo Reuters

Following terrorist attack, Barcelona’s chief rabbi says his community is doomed

Commenting on deadly attacks in Catalonia, the chief rabbi of that region in Spain said his community is doomed, partly because of radical Islam and the alleged reluctance of authorities to confront it.

Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen has been encouraging his congregants to leave Spain, which he called during an interview with JTA a “hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe,” for years before the attacks Thursday and Friday, he said. At least 14 victims and five suspected terrorists were killed in Barcelona and the resort town of Cambrils, 75 miles south of that city.

To Bar-Hen, whose community on Friday resumed activities that it had suspended briefly following the Barcelona attack, “Jews are not here permanently,” he said of the city and region. “I tell my congregants: Don’t think we’re here for good. And I encourage them to buy property in Israel. This place is lost. Don’t repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late.”

white van on Thursday careered into crowds on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s feted thoroughfare, when the street was packed with locals and tourists. Along with the fatalities, more than 100 were injured. The driver of the van fled on foot and was believed to be still at large on Friday. Police shot dead another man at a checkpoint Thursday. The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for that attack.

Hours later, police killed five men during a raid in Cambrils whom police said were terrorists planning an imminent attack.

Part of the problem exposed by the attacks, Bar-Hen said, is the presence of a large Muslim community with “radical fringes.” Once these people are “living among you,” he said of terrorists and their supporters, “it’s very difficult to get rid of them. They only get stronger.” He also said this applied to Europe as a whole.

“Europe is lost,” he said.

Bar-Hen emphasized that he was speaking as a private person and not for all the members of his community.

Displaying a defiant and more confident attitude than Bar-Hen, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain issued a statement expressing “full confidence in security forces who work daily to prevent fanatics and radical Muslims from inflicting pain and chaos on our cities.”

Bar-Hen also charged that authorities and some politicians are reluctant to confront Islamist terrorism. He cited the government’s decision in April to allow Leila Khaled, a Palestinian terrorist who was convicted in a plot to hijack an airplane in 1969, to enter the country for a book festival. This showed authorities “do not understand the nature of terrorism, if they treat it as an action by the disenfranchised,” Bar-Hen said.

Ignoring calls to ban the visit by Khaled — book fair organizers hung posters of Khaled on main streets — Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau Ballano of the far-left Barcelona en Comú party led the passage in April of a City Council resolution condemning Israel’s “violations of international law.”

On Friday, Colau Ballano wrote on Facebook: “Barcelona is a city of peace. Terror will not make us stop being who we are: a brave city open to the world.” She urged readers to show up at a solidarity rally that day.

Angel Mas, founder of the ACOM pro-Israel group, which protested Khaled’s visit, said it is “pure cynicism” by Colau Ballano to claim to oppose terrorism in light of her support for Khaled “and other individuals that support terrorist causes,” as he phrased it.

Bar-Hen said he may not attend the rally called by Colau Ballano, as security officials instructed him to avoid public areas in the coming days because he is recognizably Jewish.

Medical staff members and policemen stand in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a "terrorist attack" after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

At least 13 dead, more than 50 injured in Barcelona van-ramming attack near kosher restaurant

This is a developing story.

A van plowed through a crowd of people on Barcelona’s main shopping street, reportedly killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 50 others.

Police said they were treating the Thursday incident as a terrorist attack, according to the French news agency AFP.

The Catalan government’s minister of the interior announced the death toll of the the attack on Rambla avenue near the entrance to Maccabi, a kosher restaurant, CNN reported. Spanish media, including the online edition of the El Mundo daily, reported that the bulk of injuries occurred outside the FNAC department store on the same street.

Barcelona’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen, said it did not appear the attack targeted Jews, but security forces instructed him to temporarily close Jewish institutions in the city, according to Israel’s Channel 10. The Daily Mail reported that several people were injured outside the restaurant.

Reports stated that local police have arrested one man in connection to the attack. Some reports have speculated that this man is Driss Oukabir, a Moroccan citizen who the Spanish-language paper El Pais identified as the van’s renter. Avi Mayer, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, posted an item from what appears to be Oukabir’s Facebook page showing an  anti-Semitic video.

Witnesses at the scene said the driver of the vehicle fled on foot and shots were fired. Shortly after the attack, two armed men entered the Turkish restaurant Luna de Estambul, according to The Associated Press. The men were holed up there as police surrounded the place, Mundo Hispanico reported.

In photos from the scene of the attack, men and women in summer clothing are seen lying on the ground, and in some cases being treated by civilians and medics.

As the car began hitting pedestrians, a stampede occurred on the street and in the FNAC store, injuring more people, according to El Mundo.

The last Jews of Spain

I was in Spain the day before Simchat Torah when my Israeli friend suggested we honor the holiday by walking through Sevilla’s Jewish quarter – La Juderia de Sevilla.

It was a terrible way to celebrate.

Sevilla’s Jewish quarter – or, rather, what once functioned as Sevilla’s Jewish quarter, before pogroms, massacres and expulsions – is bring-your-meds depressing.

A map outlining places of interest lists several sinagogas (synagogues), abruptly followed by the explanation, “actually,” this is now Iglesia [church] de Santa Maria la Blanca or Convento de Madre de Dios. On one side of the map is a quaint little reconstruction of an enclosed area that was once home to the second largest Jewish community in the Kingdom of Castilla. Today, all that remains are a few dinky pieces of the wall that delineated the quarter, and I probably don’t have to tell you what’s left of the Jewish cemetery.

The story of Spanish Jewry is now a story of remnants. It is the story of much of Jewish Europe, defined mostly by what is missing, by exclusions and absences.

Sevilla’s Jewish museum, if one could call it that, is but a room with few artifacts and some text on the walls. It is a poor testament to the rich history of Spanish Jewish life, a once-thriving medieval culture that produced some of Jewish history’s most honored philosophers and poets — Maimonides, Nachmanides, Yehuda Halevi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, among them. Oddly, more wall space is devoted to Susona Ben Suson, the reputedly beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant and Jewish converso (convert) who fell in love with a Christian nobleman and then betrayed her father and her people.

The dirty little secret about the Spanish Inquisition is that even after Jews converted to Christianity to save themselves, they were subject to “estatutos de limpieza de sangre,” discrimination and reprisals resulting from their lack of pure Christian blood. When a group of Sevillan conversos hatched a plot to take back their city and halt these reprisals, the pretty Susona Ben Suson told her lover, who then dumped her and had everyone else killed. According to one legend, Susona died a recluse, having asked that her skull be nailed to the doorpost of her house in order to remind others of the consequences of betrayal. Another legend says the Inquisitioners burned her alive.

The story Spain tells about Sephardic Jewry can sometimes seem schizophrenic, oscillating from the glories of the Golden Age to the ignominious Inquisition. It carves Spanish Jewish history into distinct chapters, suggesting one period was good, and the other, bad. 

But Moisés Hassán-Amsélem, a Sevillan native of Moroccan and Algerian Jewish descent, tells another story. “Life for the Jews in Spain was never that great, as some historians would say,” Hassán-Amsélem told me during an interview.

The 48-year-old educator (and a non-practicing attorney) is Sevilla’s go-to tour guide for the Jewish quarter; he is a Jewish history autodidact and lives in an apartment of wall-to-wall books. He also lectures on Holocaust studies and anti-Semitism at the local public university, Pablo de Olavide. He scoffs at the notion that there ever was a Spanish Jewish “Golden Age” when Jews prospered and three religions co-existed in peace and harmony – “This is a myth,” he said.

Hassán-Amsélem became a tour guide because he wanted to introduce visitors to a different perspective than that of official Spain. In the 1990s, eight cities decided to work together to create a network of Jewish quarters – Red de Juderías de España – in order to encourage and promote tourism. “Jews became an attraction,” he said wryly. And it worked: Today, there are 24 cities in this network, and Hassán-Amsélem said he conducted more than 220 tours last year.

“But how many of these cities have something to show? Hassán-Amsélem asked. “Not many.”

Hassán-Amsélem is bothered by how the official record romanticizes the past. “You realize there’s not that much to see [in these quarters] because after 500 years, so much has been destroyed.” In Barcelona, for example, a Jewish cemetery was turned into a quarry – a cheap place to buy stone, which then became the building blocks of the city. “You can still see a façade with Hebrew letters carved into it,” Hassán-Amsélem said of one of Barcelona’s Jewish-tour stops.

Today, official statistics suggest that where once there was a Jewish community of 200,000, only 40,000 remain. But even that census, Hassán-Amsélem told me, is probably exaggerated: “I don’t see it,” he said, suggesting the actual population is probably somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000, with the biggest communities in Barcelona and Madrid.

After generations of living in exile in North Africa, Hassán-Amsélem’s parents decided to return to their ancestral home in Sevilla. In 1963, his father organized all the Jewish émigrés into the “Israelite Community of Sevilla,” which today claims between 100 and 120 families – the size of one very small synagogue in Los Angeles.

“I am not very optimistic,” Hassán-Amsélem said of the future of Spanish Jewry.  “The number of Jews in Spain is not growing. I don’t know for how long the communities will survive. Places like Sevilla? I am quite pessimistic. I don’t think there are enough Jews to be able to go forward.”

Spain’s recent repatriation efforts – an offer of citizenship to Jews whose ancestors might have been expelled – are a lovely gesture, but the requirements of new potential citizens are not demanding enough to tip the scales of Spain’s Jewish future. 

Spain is also, after all, a Catholic country. And the continuing weakening of its Jewish presence is akin to the general languishing of the Jewish presence throughout Europe.  “There is still a lot of prejudice,” Hassán-Amsélem said. “People are still very ignorant of what being a Jew means – a lot of people [still] think that Jews killed Jesus, and that the Jewish expulsion from Spain happened because Jews were controlling all the finances.”

So the Spanish-Jewish homeland was never totally glorious or golden. And now, when the Jews have their promised land, Israel, even there peace continues to evade them. In every iteration of Jewish history, bounty and blessing are punctuated by violence and loss: Loss of cities, quarters, whole communities, countless artifacts and millions of lives.

“Sometimes I feel myself like a dinosaur, like I should be in a museum from 500 years ago,” Hassán-Amsélem said. “I don’t know if there is any future, but there is a present. And I try to open the eyes of the people; it’s like ‘You see? I’m Jewish. I look like any other person. I have no horns.’”

But he also said that even his very best efforts as an educator are challenged by the situation in Israel.

“Nobody cares that every day a Jew is stabbed in Israel – that doesn’t count, that’s not part of the news. The problem will be when [days from] now, Israel will bomb spaces in Gaza and the whole world will say ‘Jews are all like the Nazis.’ And Spain is part of that, unfortunately.

“This is what Europe has become.”

Spain reaches out to American Jewish tourists

Unless you can read artistically distorted Hebrew, you might not realize that the logo of a program by Spain’s tourism board spells out the four letters of “Sepharad,” the Hebrew word for Spain. And unless you know European geography, you might not realize that the distorted Hebrew letters represent the outline — the national borders — of Spain.

On June 11, this Hebrew logo was on display as Spanish tourism officials — and city mayors — met with Southern California tour operators and travel writers to present a wide-ranging effort by the Spanish government to urge American Jews to visit Spanish sites important in Jewish history.

Called Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters, Routes of Sepharad (in Spanish: Red de Juderías de España, Caminos de Sefarad), this concerted push includes 24 Spanish cities that have restored and highlighted medieval areas that — more than 500 years ago — were home to thriving Jewish communities that produced Moses Maimonides, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Benjamin of Tudela, among other luminaries. Spanish officials hope these renovated Jewish quarters will become must-visit destinations for American Jewish tourists.

Officials made their pitch at the stately Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, where the sanctuary design, décor and picturesque patio are reminiscent of classical Spain and where some prayers are still recited in Ladino, the medieval Iberian language Jewish exiles took with them to various lands after 1492, when they were expelled from Spain.

When asked about the expulsion, Ferran Bel Accensi, president of the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters and mayor of Tortosa, told The Journal, “What happened 500 years ago should never have happened, of course. We recognize that. At the same time, we realize that the descendants of those Jews who were forced to leave retain a love and esteem for Spain. What happened in 1492 is part of our history, and we don’t want to ignore it. We talk about it when we are at those sites. While acknowledging the past, the 24 cities involved in this program have embraced the positive aspects of those cities’ Jewish heritage, and they celebrate our shared history, art, gastronomy and culture.”

Assumpció Hosta Rebés, secretary-general of the Network of Jewish Quarters, pointed out that an excursion into the history of Jewish life in Spain can be divided up in various ways: by regions of the country or by cultural focus.

Rebés added that the network is guided by the RASGO program (an acronym representing Restaurants, Accommodations, Signposting, Guides, and Cultural Offerings), which ensures the availability of kosher food, good hotels and knowledgeable guides at all the historical sites, as well as good street signs and a variety of Jewish cultural events, such as music, art and literature.

“This program focuses on the Jewish community and emphasizes the Jewish roots they can find in Spain,” Rebés said. “We are trying to connect with American Jews, to let them know that Spain is an important part of their heritage. We want visitors to the Jewish quarters to come not just once, but again and again.”

Israeli innovation shines at Mobile World Congress

Israel proved itself to be a leader in technological innovation based on its strong showing at the Mobile World Congress.

Some 100 Israeli companies participated in the mobile industry’s largest annual event in the world, held in Barcelona, which ended earlier this month. The event brought about 67,000 visitors and 1,400 companies to Barcelona to show off the latest advances in the field.

The joint national effort by the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute and the Foreign Trade Administration of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor resulted in some 2,000 business meetings between Israeli and foreign companies. Israeli exhibitors reported on closed deals, advanced negotiations and breakthroughs with the world’s largest mobile operators and hardware and device manufacturers.

The show was an “unparalleled success” for Israeli companies, according to Ramzi Gabai, chairman of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute.

The Spanish publication wrote, “Although a small country with barely 7 million inhabitants, it’s a leader in technological innovation. Proof of this is that Israel has at its disposal one of the largest showcase pavilions at the Mobile World Congress.”

Some of the mobile technology innovations Israeli companies brought to the congress included fixed 3G car phone devices, telemedicine devices and satellite communication systems.