06 February 2009

Barcelona: Jewish cemeteries symposium report

"Archaeological intervention on historical necropolises: Jewish cemeteries" was a symposium organized by the Museum of History of Barcelona on January 15-16. From Barcelona, Zakhor Center's Dominique Tomasov Blinder sent me a symposium report, detailed below.

For some time, I have spoken to Dominique about this situation and, on my trips to Spain, I have visited such sites as Tarrega where Jewish cemeteries have been unearthed after centuries. As a Jew, of course, I want all Jewish remains to be handled with respect and dignity and to be reburied in a Jewish cemetery.

However, as a genealogist with a personal Sephardic interest, and also as a researcher who understands that DNA knowledge is essential to learning who we really are, I keep hoping that it may be possible to work out an arrangement with one research institute, in Spain or elsewhere, whereby such remains may supply enough DNA to be able to connect the descendants of these remains to a community of origin.

I am personally conflicted about this situation and believe that others are as well. I understand that allowing DNA testing on those Spanish or indeed any such remains anywhere would mean that many researchers in diverse fields would want samples, thus seriously impacting the Jewish injunction that such remains are to be respected and reburied in Jewish cemeteries.

What do you think?

Here's the report:

For three years, the Jewish community in Barcelona and Catalonia has taken a pro-active approach to protect the country's Jewish history, believing it is essential to Spain's history and that the [active] role of the Jewish people is necessary to bring meaning to interpretation and presentation.

Barcelona's three synagogues created a task force - the Heritage Commission - which along with the Center of Studies of Montjuic, requested landmark status for Barcelona's ancient Jewish cemetery (much of it destroyed over the centuries) to dignify its memory and explain its meaning and value to society.

A year later, after the Catalan government initiated a process to designate the cemetery an historic site, public works planned for the area were halted until the final declaration would be issued.

The Heritage Commission was also involved in finding an alternative approach to the excavations in the Jewish cemetery of Tarrega (two hours west of Barcelona). In this case, after pressure from international Jewish and non Jewish organizations, the Catalan government decided that human remains, after being analyzed as per standard archaeological practices, would be turned over to the Jewish community.

As in 1996 - when remains were discovered in Valencia - the bones were reburied in Barcelona's Jewish cemetery.

The scientific community complained in both cases, alleging that halting archaeological work, including research, was against the Constitution and not acceptable if in favor of a religious minority.

In October 2008, the National Sessions for the Research of Jewish Necropolis in Sepharad, was organized by the Municipal government of Lucena (Cordoba) after an ancient Jewish cemetery was discovered during that city's beltway construction.

The Museum of History of the City [of Barcelona] organized a symposium which, according to organizers, would discuss issues of concern to the scientific world and the general public. View the program here.

The Commission welcomed the initiative, a first step in a process of debate and understanding, where different legitimate concerns could be expressed and analysed. Unfortunately the symposium did not offer this opportunity as only a one-sided position of "science above all" was presented with no room for dialogue.

All speakers and participants were either archaeologists or public officers in charge of cultural management, along with a public notary who stressed aspects of current legislation ratifying an “interventionism” approach in dealing with ancient cemeteries.

The lone Jewish voice in one session was the Federation of Jewish Communities, which found it difficult to explain its concerns including looking for dialogue and working towards an acceptable solution respecting the Jewish prohibition on exhumation and sensibility.

Organizers and presenters brought up the issue of “historic discontinuity” of Jews in Catalonia (and Spain) as an argument to deny the involvement that the local or international Jewish community claims today in connection to historic cemeteries.

Museum director Joan Roca said: “I want to stress on these two concepts, that of public character of the heritage and historic discontinuity."

The public notary added: ”Juridical relations expire with the passing of time, after 600 years there are no more rights. Nobody can request that a site is respected with religious criteria. To recover the memory may be sacred, but not to obtain privileges. In memory, there are no singularities.”

I think that what the notary really meant to say was that, after the 1492 Expulsion of the Jews, the Jewish community no longer has any rights.

Writes Dominique, where were the historians? The archaeologists with a different point of view? The lawyers with understanding of local and international law and recommendations? The human science professionals? Or other professionals and interest groups?

Public heritage issues cannot be discussed only at the “official level” as it will never represent the many and diverse layers in the society that contribute to the understanding of such heritage

The process to allow for the exchange of ideas and for consultation, very necessary for such a complex issue, may take some time, but there is a lot of work to be done in the meantime.
According to Dominique, Zakhor Center insists on the need for a full inventory of ancient Jewish cemeteries in Spain, and the best definition of the site borders. If these sites are documented in city or municipality property registers, they can be accounted for and respected in future urban planning. Zakhor is compiling the results of thorough research to establish the boundaries of Barcelona's Jewish cemetery.

In an authentic dialogue, with open minds and a genuine interest to learn from different experiences and knowledge, one can begin to understand connections among religious, cultural and ethnic identities and history. This reflection will help society to place this chapter of Jewish history within the overall history of Spain and protect the important heritage of humanity as part of the diverse society we live in.

The symposium ended with an eight-point declaration signed only by the presenters - not the organizers or the Federation of Jewish Communities. It was meant to be a working paper for participants to add comments, critiques and contributions.

However, because panelists and audience shared a singular position, the points do not reveal real questions concerning the cemetery issue. In essence, it says yes to excavations and yes to analyzing human remains. According to Dominique, only one open issue remains - what to do with the bones afterwards.

In a few months, the organizers want to present a final document to the government to decide on a system to be used for Jewish cemeteries. If circulated only among symposium participants, only one point of view (official and scientific) will be reflected. It reduces the issue to majority/establishment vs minority/religion instead of creating wider opinions on diversity, respect and social maturity.

Here are the points:

Aware of the need to make our contribution to the reconstruction of the
scientific principles of our common past and specially in relation to processes
of studying and dealing with human remains which appear in historical centers,
wish to make the following declaration:

1. Particular sensitivities relating to public heritage in general and historical cemeteries in particular should be accommodated in the framework of the declaration of human rights and constitutional principles enforced in each country.

2. Ancient cemeteries are an irreplaceable physical testimony of capital importance for the study of diversity and characteristics of peoples who created and used them.

3. Knowledge of rituals corresponding to those buried and scientific methodologies for the social and biological study of disappeared ancient populations, is a reliable way to achieve objective knowledge about ancestors.

4. The handling of human remains, regardless of typology, antiquity, cultural or religious description, must be carried out with maximum care, scientific assurances and respect for the fact that these are human remains

5. Archaeology and anthropology allow assurance of scientific action in cemetery study, not excluding other fields such as history. Actions on burial sites shall comply strictly with local public law and apply principles of professional ethics.

6. The depository institutions shall assure respectful treatment of remains, unity of grouping and individuals, preservation under the best physical conditions and access to authorized persons for appropriate study.

7. The human remains, regardless of how fragmentary they may be, obtained from archaeological interventions, are basic elements for the study of ancient populations. Once such studies have been conducted, the future place of deposit shall be discussed by all relevant parties in accordance with the laws enforced.

8. The data and conclusions obtained through studies of historical cemeteries should be public character and accessible to all who so request and who are interested in explaining themselves and their history, with respect to aspects related to physical knowledge of the individuals who have been studied and to the
associated cultural aspects.

Perhaps the most disturbing is Point 7, where I have bolded the last sentence.

The "future place of deposit" of such remains is not a topic for "discussion by all relevant parties," as Jewish remains, after studies have been conducted, must be reburied in Jewish cemeteries.

It seems there is precedent for just this action according to previous government decisions, which seem to have been influenced by international interest in such cases.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:33 AM

    You should try to find out the sinagogues already existing in roman times...

    Graça Cravinho