One of the more challenging aspects of Spain is its ongoing, collective ambivalence about Jews and Muslims. It’s a place that, in the last 20 (or maybe even closer to 30) years has come to embrace its Judaeo-Islamic past — uneasily and and sometimes haltingly — if for nothing else than because it makes for a very attractive draw for tourists and foreign investment; but at the same time, it is still very much a place that hasn’t figured out how to deal with the Jews and Muslims in its midst. (A brief disclaimer here: I’m talking strictly about the public sphere and not the academic one for the purposes of this blog post.)
It’s something that struck me most strongly when I was here in 2015 for a semester and visited Alcalá de Henares, a city that very much plays up the presence of its Jewish and Islamic quarters but also sports a mural that trades in stereotypes about Jews being the shadowy, driving force behind corporate and military America. And, here again for what I have come to call The Great NYU Global-Conference-Conference-Research Trip of 2017, I walked past a shop that was trying to sell highish-end women’s accessories by using the image of a frightening, unindividuated Jew conducting bad business under the table. (And now with added homophobia!)
But the casual, corporate, Jews=money=flashy accessories antisemitism of this marketing campaign pales in comparison to the postcards that are available on sale at the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, such as this one:
Girona is easily the best-preserved medieval city I have ever visited and was an important center of Jewish life in the late Middle Ages. Yet even here, even in a medieval city that very much markets itself for Jewish tourism, the old medieval stereotypes are never far below the surface. The “joke” of this postcard is that Isaac “the Blind” of Posquieres, a thirteenth-century kabbalist, is shown selling the lotto tickets that, in Spain, are a concession held by blind and visually impaired people. The not-really-a-joke is that the postcard shows a Jew with a big nose (for anyone who needs a refresher about the medieval origins of this stereotype, see Sara Lipton’s Dark Mirror) enriching himself.
I took a photo of the postcard and showed it on my phone to the women sitting at the entrance desk and explained what I thought the issue was with it; they looked at me very sheepishly, explained that they knew about it but because the bookshop is actually a concession that isn’t operated by the museum, there was nothing they could do about it. They promised to pass my complaint on to the director of the museum, and suggested that it would be helpful if I mentioned it to the owner of the bookshop. Perhaps, they suggested it without really believing it, he just didn’t know.
Of course, the bookshop owner knew. I suspect that this is not the first time that this conversation has proceeded along the edges of this particular triangle: a surprised tourist, the women at the desk, and the owner of the book shop. The shop owner first told me that he doesn’t make the postcards but just orders them; and since the shop orders them in multi-packs and these come in the multi-pack and they are all paid for, he has to sell them. (Nevermind that if it were me and those postcards came in my multi-pack, I’d throw them out even at a loss before I’d sell them — who’s the greedy Jew now?) He also tried to tell me that Isaac the Blind — the thirteenth-century kabbalist, in case you’d forgotten from a few paragraphs up — wasn’t a Jew, but rather was the owner of a tavern at the edge of the Call, the Jewish quarter, so it wasn’t actually a stereotype of Jews.
The tourist industry here that pours so much energy into remembering long-dead Jews and enticing the living ones to tour their old haunts will never be more than a silly little parody of itself and a pathetic disservice not just to Jewish history but to its own — which are, of course, inextricable from each other — until it actually looks its own history, both medieval and modern, squarely in the face and appreciates it rather than just casting a casual glance in its direction.
My pithy closing sentence was going to be this: I love this country deeply, but I also have to hate it because it still very much hates me. But the use of that word, country, is what opens up the broader question. How much does a modern country owe to what used to be there? To the descendants of the people who used to be there? What is the nature of what is owed? Is there only a choice between forgetting fully and remembering fully, or is there some middle ground? I had planned to end with a barrage of unanswered questions that I’d really like to answer, but I think that would make this a much longer and different post. So for now, I’ll just get on with loving and hating Spain and trying to let that seething tumult wind itself into words.