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Temporary Halt of Construction at Toledo Cemetery Site

By Samuel D. Gruber

ISJM, Janurary 4, 2009


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 CanadaSpain 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." wrote a strong public letter in which he compared the removal of the dead from the cemetery to the brutal expulsion of Jews from


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 forw 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.

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

Excavation for Construction on Site of Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Toledo
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, November 13, 2008

Dominque Tomasov Blinder and David Stoleru of the Center of Studies ZAKHOR in Barcelona report that excavation for new construction is taking place on the site recognized as the medieval Jewish cemetery of Toledo, Spain. There is already a school on the site, built in the 80's that destroyed a great part of the cemetery. The new excavation is for expansion of the school.  ISJM has obtained photos of the excavation the reveal the complete exposure of skeletons.

Recently, representatives of Atra Kadishah (Israel) traveled to Madrid together with a delegation of American Rabbis. A series of meetings have taken place with government officials from the United States, and the Department of Religious Affairs of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, and other officials.  Despite international pressure, Spanish law makes the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities the sole interlocutor with the Spanish government on Jewish affairs in Spain.  An agreement was prepared by the Federation that described how to proceed in case where a cemetery is found in a construction site and was expected to be signed.  According to sources in Spain, the agreement would have allowed for the bones removed by archaeologists to be taken by the Federation under rabbinic supervision for reburial elsewhere (similar to what was agreed in the case at Tarrega). Due to a combination of factors, the agreement has not yet been confirmed.


Blinder and Stoleru visited the site to meet with the archaeologist in charge and with the Director of Landmarks of the region of Castille-La Mancha, to explain the significance of cemeteries in Judaism and that Jewish graves – no matter when they are from – are by Jewish law considered inviolate except in extreme circumstances. ZACHOR's intention is to find a solution for the site with respect for its meaning and to avoid irreversible damage.


According to Blinder, "Toledo is the city where the three cultures flourished in the Middle Ages reaching at times exemplary levels of "Convivencia", where the famous School of Translators produced great pieces which contributed to the intellectual development of the world, a city where even very important Rabbis from Catalonia and from Germany chose to live. Today, besides two synagogues (of the 10 that existed at the time) which can be visited today as Museums, the ancient cemetery is the only other landmark which remains of the Jewish community which once lived there. This community certainly deserves respect for their tradition and beliefs."


"This cemetery definitely transcends the city of Toledo, as the descendants of Jews from Toledo now live in the five corners of the earth. Urban growth in the last century has destroyed most of its extension. Now there is a small portion, with about 85 tombs that is vulnerable to construction and will disappear forever if nothing is done to prevent it."


It should be noted that Toledo is among the most visited cities in Spain for its Jewish heritage. It is home to two medieval synagogues that can be visited, as well as the Museo Sefardi, located at the Samuel Ha-Levi Synagogue. The Museum contains many old gravestones, some of which presumably came from the old cemetery site.  Meanwhile, several government-assisted efforts are underway to encourage increaded international tourism to Jewish sites throughout Spain.

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