4th Elul – massacre of the Jews of Barcelona 1391
Across Europe the conditions for the Jews deteriorated between the late 13th and 14th centuries. Expelled from England in 1290 and intermittently from France from 1306, the most violent deterioration was across the Iberian Peninsula. Barcelona, which had a substantial Jewish population with roots going back to at least the year 870, suffered a terrible pogrom on this day and for 500 years no Jews lived in Barcelona.
The riots began in Seville on 15th March 1391. Public opinion had been stirred against the Jews for some years, Jews had been discriminated against by both Church and Monarchy in law – unable to enter work in finance or medicine, not being allowed to have Christian servants or otherwise “have power” over Christians etc. Special items of clothing marked them out, and in law courts their testimony was worth less than those of Christians. This atmosphere was stoked and fuelled by the sermons of a Christian Monk, the Archdeacon of Ecija, Ferdinand Martinez, who preached his hatred eloquently, and who incited his flock against what he saw as the perfidious and untrustworthy Jews – to the point that the aljama of Seville complained about him several times, and the King of Castile Juan 1st wrote to him urging him to moderate his behaviour. The king tried to keep the peace, but in 1390 he died, leaving his heir, a minor, to rule.
Martinez’ Ash Wednesday sermon in 1391, demanding that Jews either convert or die, incited the crowds into the Juderia, the Jewish section of the city. When the mayor tried to control the rioters, Martinez spoke out against him. In Jun of that year, the rioters came back to finish the pogrom, blocking the exits of the Juderia and setting it alight – four thousand Jews died, the few survivors either converted or left. Their property was expropriated. After this, the pogroms spread across the peninsula, and as Jews lost their property and their lives, it became clear to many that conversion to Christianity was their only option to stay alive.
It is estimated that up to half the Jewish population of the Iberian Peninsula converted, including whole communities, their leadership and rabbis. The violence against the Jews that began in 1391 culminated in the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
The Jewish community of Barcelona, destroyed and murdered on 4th Elul 1391, disappeared. There may have been hidden or crypto Jews, but essentially it was a space inimical to Jewish life until the 20th century, when a few Jews came to the city from North Africa and from Eastern Europe. Today there are an estimated 3,500 to four thousand Jews – the highest concentration of Jews in Spain, and it has synagogues, a day school, an old age home and even a Jewish literary festival and Film Festival.
The stories of pogrom, of the rising anti-Semitism that led to them, of the lack of good government to control the growing violence and hatred, of the lack of good people to challenge prevailing narratives of xenophobic rage – Jews are conditioned in our very DNA it seems to me, to sense this in our world and to be early responders to the threats.
But we also have a different conditioning – we respond by continuing to hold to our identity, by supporting each other in community, by retelling our stories and transmitting our values. By recording our realities and teaching our truths.
It never fails to move me when I visit synagogues that were destroyed deliberately – or worse when they have been renovated by the State back to their former glory, but with no Jews to pray in them, study in them, and create community in them – this seems somehow to make a travesty of our history and our survival – albeit in a different world. But it never fails to move me when the descendants of the forcibly converted come forward to reclaim their lost and dislocated identity. And working as I do in Europe, seeing people come back to Jewish community either informally or more formally after such dislocation, working through brit/mikveh/beit din, I know that however dangerous it might sometimes be to be an “out” Jew, there is another force that drives us. In Ellul it is said the gates to the Divine are open, the possibilities of return are infinite. Be that teshuvah the return from a state of alienation back into a state of connection and however we understand and locate ourselves in those terms, now is the time to record, remember and continue our Jewish journey. And God waits to welcome us home.
image from the Barcelona Haggadah, Jews praying in synagogue