Jewish visitors are being invited to explore the Sephardi history of Barcelona in the city’s first tourist campaign targeted at an ethnic or religious group.
Although numbering just a few thousand today, the city’s community dates back two millennia. The campaign, which goes under the slogan “Shalom Barcelona”, is particularly focusing on Jews in Israel and the US.
The city is also keen to attract LBGT Jews to what is considered one of Europe’s most gay-friendly destinations.
The Jewish quarter, known as El Call, occupies a group of narrow streets around the corner from the town hall on Plaça Sant Jaume. The remains of El Call’s main synagogue were unearthed in 1995 in the basement of a bar. It is now open for both visits and religious services.
But the city has a dark history of Jewish persecution.
On 5 August 1391, on the feast of St Dominic, a crowd attacked and destroyed El Call, which at the time was home to 4,000 Jews, about 15 per cent of the city’s population.
Three hundred people were killed and the rest were either forced to convert to Christianity or fled, many to southern Italy.
After the massacre, the gravestones of the old Jewish cemetery on Montjuïc were reused in the construction of the Lloctinent Palace, where the Crown of Aragón’s archives are kept.
The name of El Call’s main street was changed to Carrer de Sant Domènec to “celebrate” the massacre. In 2019, it was finally renamed after Rabbi Salomò ben Adret.
The city was also the site of a landmark medieval debate between Jewish and Christian theologists. The Disputation of Barcelona was held in the king’s palace in 1263, in the presence of the king, when the Dominican friar Pablo Chrisitiani sparred with Moshe Ben Nahman – also known as Nachmanides or Ramban – over whether the Messiah was divine or human and whether Christianity or Judaism was the true faith.
The rabbi’s brilliant intellectual display earned a prize of 300 gold coins from the king, who said he had “never heard an unjust cause so nobly defended”. There is no monument commemorating Barcelona or Catalonia’s Jewish community or its destruction, which was carried out a century earlier than in the rest of the country, when a decree in 1492 effectively ended the Jewish presence in Spain.
Acknowledging the troubling history of the city’s Jewish community, Alexandra Marcó, director of marketing at Turisme de Barcelona, said. “There have been terrible episodes everywhere but I think we should take a positive view of this legacy in the city.”
One of Barcelona’s leading Jewish figures welcomed the new campaign. Jacob Daniel Benzaquén, director of the Adret cultural centre of the Barcelona Jewish Community, said: “As a community, we support any initiative to bring more Jews to Barcelona, tourists or otherwise. Barcelona is one of the most significant cities in Jewish history and it was home to some important rabbis.”
He added: “Not only are people in general in Spain unaware of the history of Judaism in this country but the majority of Jews living here are also unaware of how important this country was for us.
“However, we’d also like to put paid to the idea that Judaism is a thing of the past in Barcelona, when, in fact, it is very much alive.”
There are several thousand Jews living in in the city, the majority “returning from northern Morocco”, according to Mr Benzaquén, as well as a number from Israel and Argentina.
While Islamic Spain boasts major tourist attractions, such as the Alhambra in Granada, for the tourist interested in Jewish history, little of substance remains. The few landmarks include the great synagogue in Toledo, long ago repurposed as a Catholic convent.
Though the Holocaust is a compulsory part of the curriculum for German schoolchildren, in Spanish schools there is little or no reference to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
The contribution of Jews to Spanish culture and history is taught in schools only in Madrid and Aragón, and in these regions only since 2020, and not at all in Catalonia, which, along with Madrid, had the highest concentration of Jews before the expulsion.