Toledo's Jews mourn loss of grave heritage
AS THE medieval hilltop city of Toledo baked in the afternoon heat, a group of Jewish leaders gathered beside a freshly dug grave and lowered into it small bundles of flaking, ancient bones. With prayers and a plea for forgiveness for disturbing more than 100 long-dead souls, they laid them to rest in the cool, reddish earth.
The quiet ceremony concluded months of delicate negotiations between Jewish groups and Spanish authorities over the remains of 103 Spanish Jews whose graves were excavated last year during the construction of a school building in a suburb of this historic city.
The exhumation drew international condemnation from Jewish representatives and became an important battleground in the quest to preserve Jewish cemeteries all over Spain, remnants of a thriving community that made Toledo its capital before being expelled by Spain's Roman Catholic monarchs in 1492.
The dispute pitted the demands of modern society against the rights of a scattered people for whom a permanent tomb is a crucial religious requirement.
"Toledo is central to Jewish history," said David Stoleru, a co-founder of the Centre of Studies Zakhor in Barcelona, a group dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage.
"The state has a duty to protect that legacy," he said. "This issue has international repercussions. It's not just affecting the Jewish community in Spain but the sensibility of an entire people."
The controversy began in September, when builders digging a new foundation at the Azarquiel High School discovered dozens of graves, believed to be part of a Jewish cemetery dating from around the 13th century. The cemetery may extend well beyond the grounds of the school; Stoleru said he recently saw bones in the ground at another nearby construction site.
The government of Castilla-La Mancha, the parched region of which Toledo is the tourist-mobbed capital, halted the digging and stored the remains at a museum pending discussions with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which represents 40,000 Jews.
Jewish representatives suggested building a raised foundation to sit above the graves but were told this would be difficult and expensive.
Maria Soledad Herrero, who runs the regional government's culture department, said the authorities had to balance the needs of history with those of students. "Nobody knows the importance of Spain's Jewish heritage better than we in Toledo," she said. "But we can't put 1,000 pupils on the street."
As talks dragged on, the economic pressure grew, and in February the authorities ordered construction to restart: by mid-June, a foundation had been laid and the skeleton of a two-storey building stood above the grave site.
Meanwhile, protests spread to New York, Israel and Canada. Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organisations of Williamsburg, visited Spain to protest the exhumation, which he said was tantamount to a second expulsion. Thousands of black-clad Orthodox Jews gathered in a Brooklyn hotel in May to mourn the desecration.
Finally, on 18 June, the parties agreed to rebury the remains close by, but clear of the construction site.
Dalia Levinsohn, secretary general of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, hailed the agreement and dismissed criticism from groups advocating a harder line. "We did what we could," she said. "If you kick up a big fuss, the next time someone finds remains they won't say a word to us."
However, Toledo's symbolism made it an important, and distressing, precedent, religious leaders said. "This is not an example we want to repeat," said Rabbi Moshe Bendahan, Spain's chief rabbi, who helped to broker the agreement. "The model would be to not excavate the remains in the first place."
Toledo, home to two of Spain's last three medieval synagogues though with virtually no practising Jews today, is not the first European city to face such controversy. Preservationists have battled exhumations from Prague to Vilnius. The remains of more than 150 people were exhumed from a medieval cemetery in Tarrega, in Catalonia, two years ago and reburied in Barcelona. In May, on the other hand,
Catalan authorities declared the Jewish cemetery on Mont Juic, in Barcelona, a cultural heritage site.
Levinsohn said the federation would seek protocols with Spain's 17 regional governments to safeguard Jewish cemeteries. Under Spanish law, when ancient human remains are found they are exhumed and stored for study. Jewish preservationists said Spain should also identify what they say could be hundreds of unmarked cemeteries.
For Stoleru, the issue raises questions about how Spain reconciles itself with dark chapters of its past. "We need to reflect much more deeply about the expulsion and use history to inform our daily actions," he said. "Jewish heritage should not be a museum piece. It should be a tool for teaching tolerance and diversity."
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