Amid the splendour of Madrid’s El Pardo Palace, the jovial head of Royal protocol is working the room like few others can.
With kisses, hugs and warm handshakes he greets the visiting delegation of forty rabbis from around Europe and an assortment of civil society leaders, stopping to express the Royals’ honour at hosting the gathering.
The scene couldn’t have been further removed from the 1492 decree by former monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella that saw hundreds of thousands of Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism or flee the country.
More than 520 years later, the Conference of European Rabbis were welcomed to Madrid like returning friends for a ceremony honouring the current monarch Felipe VI for his efforts to address an episode the government has described as an “historic mistake”.
Dedicating the Lord Jakobovits Prize of European Jewry to the “generations of Sephardim who taught their children to love the memory of Sepharad”, the King said the CER’s work was particularly important at a time when the Continent is facing such uncertainty.
“European identity cannot understood without taking into account the decisive contribution of the Jews, who have lived in the continent since the dawn of history,” he told the gathering. “Now – as it did then – Europe needs the invaluable cntribution of its Jewish communities, because we need to be honest and respectful to both our common Judeo-Christian values and origins, and also with the broader sense of human values we are trying to defend worldwide amidst horror and hatred.”
The Monarch pushed for a change in the law, enacted last year, that enables descendents of those who fled to gain Spanish citizenship while holding a second passport. He has also been praised for his “magnificent” support for Israel including attending last month’s funeral of Shimon Peres and leading from the front on Holocaust commemoration.
He said: “All of Spain’s efforts in recent years to return the country’s Jewish culture to its rightful state are simply a duty in the name of justice. All of the Sephardims’ unyielding love and loyalty towards Spain represents a powerful example for all people’s. It certainly deserves our deepest, permanent and most sincere gratitude.”
He hailed the work of the small town of Castrillo, whose mayor Lorenzo Roriguez Perez, was invited to the ceremony, as “a symbol of the fight against anti-Semitism”. Under his leadership, the town voted in 2014 to change its name from ‘Camp Kill Jews’ – which dated back to 1627 – to the original ‘Jews Hill Camp’. Perez – who has also overseen excavations across 80,000 square metres to uncover Jewish history – described the Royal recognition as a “high point” of his campaign.
Presenting the award, CER President Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt described the monarch as a “pillar of support for the Jewish community. Your attendance at Holocaust commemorations sends a powerful signal that that tolerance can never again be tolerated”.
The Chief Rabbi of Moscow stressed the responsibility of religious leaders to take the lead in combatting extremism. “We set the tone for our communities and we can help leaders around the world to combat this evil. However, in an era where anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe, Spain has taken extraordinary measures to make its Jews feel welcome. Not only did the Minister of Justice acknowledge the expulsion of what he has called an ‘historic mistake’, he ensured that action was taken to rectify it.”
Since Rabbi Goldschmidt took on the presidency five years ago, France’s Manuel Valls and Germany’s Angela Merkel have also received the CER prize, created in memory of the former UK Chief Rabbi to recognise leading figures who have defended religious rites and combatted anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the UK, said more than a dozen people in the UK have sought information on their lineage in the hope of gaining citizenship. He described the event as “very moving and meaningful to hear the king speak so highly of Jewish people and sephardim in particular”.
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