JBuzz Feature May 20, 2012: Was Christopher Columbus secretly a Jew?

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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JEWISH ACADEMIC & UNIVERSITY NEWS

Was Columbus secretly a Jew?

Source: CNN, 5-20-12
Christopher Columbus bids farewell to his son Diego at Palos, Spain, before embarking on his first voyage on August 3, 1492.
Christopher Columbus bids farewell to his son Diego at Palos, Spain, before embarking on his first voyage on August 3, 1492.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sunday marks the 508th anniversary of the death of Christopher Columbus
  • Charles Garcia: Columbus was a Marrano, or a Jew who feigned to be a Catholic
  • He says that during Columbus’ lifetime, Jews became the target of religious persecution
  • Garcia: Columbus’ voyage was motivated by a desire to find a safe haven for Jews

Today marks the 508th anniversary of the death of Christopher Columbus….

Recently, a number of Spanish scholars, such as Jose Erugo, Celso Garcia de la Riega, Otero Sanchez and Nicholas Dias Perez, have concluded that Columbus was a Marrano, whose survival depended upon the suppression of all evidence of his Jewish background in face of the brutal, systematic ethnic cleansing.

Columbus, who was known in Spain as Cristóbal Colón and didn’t speak Italian, signed his last will and testament on May 19, 1506, and made five curious — and revealing — provisions….

The evidence seem to bear out a far more complicated picture of the man for whom our nation now celebrates a national holiday and has named its capital.

As we witness bloodshed the world over in the name of religious freedom, it is valuable to take another look at the man who sailed the seas in search of such freedoms — landing in a place that would eventually come to hold such an ideal at its very core….READ MORE

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RENÉE LEVINE MELAMMED: His/Her Story: A Jewish warrior queen

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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FEATURES — JEWISH HISTORY

The story of the Jewish Berber queen, her success as a warrior, and her own destruction.

MOUNT MORIAH achieved its holiness with Abraham
Photo by: Ariel Jerozolimski

With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Arab tribes sought to conquer North Africa and continue to Europe via Spain. The major obstacle to a conquest of the Magreb was the presence of a Berber queen in the mountains of presentday Algeria. Her tribe, the Gerawa, had converted to Judaism earlier in the century; their queen, Dahia al-Kahena, daughter of Mathia ben Tifan, either converted with them or was Jewish by birth.

This era signaled the end of the Byzantine dynasty in a geographical area that was home to Byzantines, Arabs and Jews, as well as Christian Berbers. The fathers of Kahena’s two sons were equally diverse, for one was Berber and the other Greek.

Kahena was a formidable warrior commanding a strong army. Hassan ibn Ne’uman, an Arab Egyptian prince, successfully defeated the Byzantines in Carthage in 687 and set forth to meet her in battle; she defeated him in Tunisia. Arabic lore relates that at the time of her victory, she released all hostages except one, whom she adopted in order to gain his loyalty. (In one version, she breastfed this new son in order to cement his loyalty to her; if he was a soldier, this would have been extremely odd.) Hassan returned to Egypt, where he awaited reinforcements for about five years…..

The story of the Jewish Berber queen is filled with fact and fiction; lack of contemporary sources makes it rather difficult to always be precise. There are contradictions in different versions: either her sons were killed with her in the battle near a well called Bir al-Kahina, or they remained with their adoptive brother, converted to Islam and conquered Spain together in 711. The latter version seems to be a much more romanticized one befitting medieval Arab historiographical trends. Her age and the duration of her rule are uncertain, although the shortest rule attributed to her is 35 years.

Yet even after peeling away the romanticization, certain facts remain undisputed and are supported by a Judeo-Arabic poem written by local Jews damning her for having created such devastation for her own people. Her success as a warrior stood her in good stead until she chose a selfdefeating means of withstanding a second attack by a strengthened Arab army. Her poor judgment led to her own destruction and that of Byzantine North Africa. The defeat that she suffered cleared the way for the Arab conquest of Spain in 711, the only country in Western Europe to experience Islamic rule.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.

Majorcan Descendants of Spanish Jews Who Converted Are Recognized as Jews

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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Source: NYT, 7-10-11

Centuries after the Spanish Inquisition led to the forced conversion of Jews to Catholicism, an ultra-orthodox rabbinical court in Israel has issued a religious ruling that recognizes descendants from the insular island of Majorca as Jews.

The opinion focused narrowly on the Majorcan community of about 20,000 people known as chuetas and did not apply to descendants of Sephardic Jewish converts in mainland Spain or the broader diaspora of thousands of others who scattered to the Ottoman Empire and the Spanish colonies in South and North America.

The island, isolated until a tourist boom that began in the late 1960s, is a sociological preserve for descendants of Jews who formed an insular community of Catholic converts that intermarried through the centuries because of religious persecution and discrimination that barred them from holding certain positions in the Roman Catholic Church through the 20th century. Most carry the names of 15 families with ancestors who were tried and executed during the 17th century for practicing Judaism.

The religious court in Israel, led for more than 40 years by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, sent another rabbi to the island in May to explore its warren of streets where a synagogue once stood and to examine the family trees of some of the chuetas who trace lineage back 500 years.

In a two-paragraph opinion — typical of the private rabbinical court that deals with matters of conversions, marriage conflicts and financial disputes — Rabbi Karelitz issued a statement that said because of the intermarriage patterns of the chuetas, “all those who are related to the former generations are Jews.”…READ MORE

David Stoleru: School Built on Cemetery Provides Lesson in History

Michael Kamber for The New York Times David Stoleru, who works to preserve Jewish heritage in Spain, at the construction site of a school atop a medieval Jewish cemetery in a Toledo suburb last month.

Source: NYT, 7-1-09

TOLEDO, Spain — As this medieval hilltop city 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 the peace of more than 100 medieval souls, they laid them to rest in the cool, reddish earth.

The New York Times Toledo was once the capital of a thriving Jewish community.

The quiet ceremony in late June concluded months of delicate negotiations between Jewish groups and Spanish authorities over the fate of 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 around 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 exigencies of modern society against the rights of a scattered people for whom a permanent tomb is a crucial religious requirement. It stirred friction between Jewish groups eager to protect their heritage but divided over how to deal with a secular government.

“Toledo is central to Jewish history,” said David Stoleru, a co-founder of the Center of Studies Zakhor in Barcelona, a research group dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage. “The state has a duty to protect that legacy.” “This issue has international repercussions,” Mr. Stoleru said. “It’s not just affecting the Jewish community in Spain but the sensibility of an entire people.”

Enlarge This Image Michael Kamber for The New York Times

Tombstones at one of Toledo’s two medieval synagogues are reminders of Spain’s Jewish heritage.

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; Mr. 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 Spain’s 40,000 Jews. Jewish representatives suggested building a raised foundation to sit above the graves but were told this would be difficult and expensive, according to rabbis and government officials involved in the talks.

María 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 by telephone. “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. The facts on the ground built their own momentum: by mid-June, a foundation had been laid and the skeleton of a two-story building stood above the grave site. Meanwhile, international protests spread to New York, Israel and Canada. Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations 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 June 18, the parties agreed to bury the remains close to the original graves but clear of the construction site…..

For Mr. Stoleru, the issue of Jewish graves raises questions about how modern, secular Spain reconciles itself with dark chapters of its history, like the expulsion and forced conversion of thousands of Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition. “We need to reflect much more deeply about the expulsion and use history to inform our daily actions,” he said. “Jewish heritage in Spain should not be a museum piece. It should be a tool for teaching tolerance and diversity.”