The Jews of Gibraltar

If I am asked which, in my opinion, is the most charming Jewish community out side of Israel, I will without hesitation say: Gibraltar! There, at the southernmost tip of Western Europe, and within viewing distance of Africa, is a unique enclave, remote from anything one usually associates with European Jewish communities. It is, in fact, an historic hybrid of Spanish, British and Moroccan communities, which, over the span of centuries, has developed its own gentle and hospitable character. The character of Gibraltar’s Jewish community is only matched by the breathtaking scenery provided by its unique geographic location (including the monkeys which have inexplicably settled there for centuries). In olden days called “The Pillars of Hercules,” the Rock of Gibraltar is a steep rock bluff, protruding out of the Spanish plains, which is surrounded by a small piece of land, just enough to hold its population of some 29,000.

My first encounter with Gibraltar goes back some 53 years. In May, 1940, I was on my way out of Europe. As a 17-year-old, I had travelled alone from Sweden through Nazi Germany. The Blitz against the West was then at its fiercest. I could not travel at night, so after a train trip from Sweden to Berlin, I was forced to stay overnight in a hotel. The next day I got as far as Munich, and again stayed at a hotel overnight. The Nazis, probably knowing that I was a Jew, still honored my Swedish passport and gave me no trouble. Yet, at every railroad station, I heard the voices of one or two Jews, hidden from view, calling out to me, thinking I might be a Jew fleeing persecution whom they could help and shield.

In this manner I personally experienced the extent of Jewish self-help during the height of the Holocaust. I have often wondered what happened to those self sacrificing, heroic Jews, whose brotherly love motivated them to take such risks in the face of ferocious Nazi persecution.

From Munich I crossed into Italy, where I spent a few days with relatives in Milan. Finally I reached Genoa, where the U.S.S. Washington, on its last sailing, was to take me to New York. Two days into the Mediterranean we were stopped at Gibraltar. British warships ordered the giant American ship to stop, and for a whole day the ship was searched for Nazis or war contraband. America was not yet involved in the war, and as a “neutral” nation, it had relations with both Germany and the Western Allies.

I had time to admire the scenery. South of us were the gentle Moroccan mountain ranges, veiled in an azure hue. North of us stood the imposing Rock of Gibraltar. It was several decades before I visited Gibraltar again. It is a visit worth recommending to any traveller who is looking for natural beauty, historic sites and a warm Jewish community.

The name Gibraltar is a contraction of the Arabic words “Jibr el-Tariq,” the Mountain of Tariq, named after the Moslem hero who invaded Spain in the 8th century and established Moorish rule over the Iberian Peninsula, which lasted till 1492. Geographically, it is part of Spain, but militarily and politically it is vital for Britain, which has fought many wars over the tiny territory, and has held on to it to this day.

It was in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 that Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain. But since Jews were banned from Spain after the Expulsion of 1492, the Spaniards inserted a clause in the Treaty reading: “Her Britannic Majesty, at the request of the Catholic King, does consent and agree that no leave shall be given, under any pretext whatsoever, either to Jews or Moors to reside or have their dwellings in the said town of Gibraltar.” These may be called Spain’s “famous last words” because Jews, in fact, did live in the shadow of the Rock, before and after 1713, although Britain did try to live up to the vicious Catholic attempt to extend the Church’s deathly campaign against the Jews even beyond Spain’s boundaries.

As an isolated outpost of Britain’s colonial Empire, Gibraltar was dependent on nearby Morocco for food supplies. Since the Kingdom of Morocco was traditionally friendly toward its Jewish citizens, Morocco helped the local Jews circumvent the restrictions on Jews living in Gibraltar as a condition for supplying the British garrison on the Rock with food.

Only a few years elapsed before a treaty was signed between Britain and Morocco in 1721, which clearly guaranteed the right of Jews to live in Gibraltar. The corresponding clause is couched in flowery language: “The subjects of the Emperor of Fez and Morocco, whether Moors or Jews, residing in the dominion of the King of Great Britain, shall entirely enjoy the same privileges that are granted to the English residing in Barbary.” In other words, this was a reciprocal agreement: Englishmen were permitted to live in Morocco (Barbary), and Jews were allowed to live in British Gibraltar.

But the Spaniards did not give up. In 1726 Spain claimed that Britain had violated the Treaty of 1713, because she “had permitted Jews and Moors, enemies of the Catholic religion, to reside in the city.” This claim became a pretext for Spain’s attack on Gibraltar, a siege that lasted from 1726 to 1727. The Jews of Gibraltar excelled in their heroism and patriotism in the defense of their beloved Gibraltar. The cooperation between the Jews and the British Government led to long-lasting historic ties till this day, as well as close ties between the Spanish-Portuguese Congregation of London with their brethren on the Rock.

In 1749, Gibraltar’s first rabbi or chacham, Isaac Nieto, came from London to found the first synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, which is still in use today. Many other talmidei chachamim have served the Gibraltar community over the years. Gibraltar was the home base of Lord Nelson’s fleet before its engagement nearby in the Battle of Trafalgar. In fact, Lord Nelson’s closest friend there was a wealthy Jewish merchant, Aaron Cardozo. When I visited the cemetery along Gibraltar’s main street, I noticed graves of sailors who had died in the Battle of Trafalgar.

As the Jewish community grew, more synagogues were built: Nefutsot Yehuda (one of the most beautiful and richly decorated of Gibraltar’s synagogues) in 1781; Etz Hayim in 1781; and Abudarham in 1820.

During World War II, Gibraltar was an indispensable part of Allied strategy. Since Gibraltar guarded the entrance to the Mediterranean, any convoy of supply ships trying to reach Malta or Egypt had to pass Gibraltar. The danger of Spain under Franco, Hitler’s friend seizing Gibraltar, was ever-present, and would have placed a fatal stranglehold on the Allies’ War effort. It could also have threatened the survival of Eretz Yisrael during the War, especially with Nazi General Rommel standing near her gates. Providentially, Franco (who was aware of his Marrano roots) desisted from any hostile action. As for the Jews, he even reportedly extended an invitation to any Jew of Sephardic origin to come to Spain for protection.

Most of Gibraltar’s Jews were evacuated during the War. On their return, it was noticed that their religious practices, of which Gibraltar had always been so proud, had slackened. Judaism was on the decline. But then a radical change set in, due mostly to one man, Rabbi Josef Pacifici, the son of a prominent Italian thinker and lawyer, a graduate of the famed Gateshead Yeshiva in England. Rabbi Pacifici assumed the rabbinate in Gibraltar in the late 1950’s, and totally revolutionized Jewish education and religious observance in the 600-member community. He made sure that the young, future leaders of the community attended yeshivot abroad; once they returned, they gave Gibraltar a practically 100% Orthodox character.

When I first came to Gibraltar I was immensely impressed with the piety and enthusiasm of its Jews. First, Sir Joshua Hassan, the Mayor—and later Chief Minister for more than 30 years—was an honored member of the Jewish community. Also, many of Gibraltar’s Jews have served as Cabinet Ministers, and several have been appointed as diplomatic representatives of various foreign rulers as well.

When I first met Sir Joshua, Levi Eshkol was Israel’s Prime Minister. I therefore made a pun on the famous words of the immortal Spanish Jewish bard, Yehuda Halevy, who lamented, “Libbi bemizrach ve’ani b’sof maarav”” (My heart is in the East, but I am at the very edge of the West) by suggesting “Levi bemizrach ve’ani b’sof maarav” as there were now two Jewish heads of state, one at each end of the Mediterranean, Levi Eshkol in the east, and Sir Joshua in the west.

Sir Joshua’s nephews include Rabbi Abraham Levy, who is now the head of the Spanish-Portuguese Congregation Shaar Hashamayim in London. He is also the author of an excellent book titled The Sephardim, which has just been published and which is a “must” for every student of Jewish history.

Another nephew, James (Chaim) Levy, a lawyer, is president of the Jewish community in Gibraltar. Moe Garson, a prominent accountant, is the mainstay of Gibraltar’s religious activities. He helped establish a kollel there, which naturally had an enormously strong influence on the community. A local school and kosher restaurant are well established.

All Jewish stores, without exception, are closed along the main street on Shabbat-probably a record in our world today. A Shabbat in Gibraltar is therefore a very pleasant experience. After the Jews attend services in any of the four beautiful synagogues, and take their Shabbat meals, they are seen promenading along the narrow streets of Gibraltar, in a serene Shabbat atmosphere.

I had the good fortune of being the guest of the Levy family on my first visit to Gibraltar. One of the members of the family was a high-ranking British officer in the garrison on the Rock. On Friday night I observed the entire family singing the hauntingly beautiful Sephardic song “Bendigamos,” sung in Sephardic congregations around the world except in New York it is only sung once, on Sukkot, in the synagogue. Here are some of the Ladino strophes with their translations:

Bendigamos al Altísimo
Al Señor que nos crio
Dèmosle agradecimiento
Pos los bienes que nos dió
Bendigamos al Altísimo
Por su ley primeramente
Que liga a nuestra raza
Con cielo continuamente
Bendita sea la casa esta
El hogar de su presencia
Donde guardeamos su fiesta
Con alegria y permanencia

Let us bless Him, the Most High,
Bless the L-rd, for us He made.
Thanks to Him, Who did supply
The rich fare before us laid.
To the Most High blessings rise,
First, because it is our race
He Himself to heaven ties
For all time, by His law’s grace.
May this house be blessed, ’tis here
At this home, G-d’s presence stays,
And His feast we keep brings cheer,
Happiness throughout our days.

It can be noted that no Hebrew word occurs in this song, perhaps because Marranos singing it had to shield their Jewishness. Yet the pride in the glory of Judaism and its laws is evident.

On one of my visits to Gibraltar I made a unique historic observation. I have, for some time, collected “diplomas of introduction” issued in the 19th century for “shadarim,” i.e., emissaries who left the Holy Land during past centuries for Jewish communities scattered around the world to collect money for needy institutions and communities in Eretz Yisrael. Some of these diplomas are elaborately written on large parchment sheets, full of Biblical verses and rich vocabulary, describing the oppression under which Jews lived in the 19th century Turkish Empire.

One such diploma is addressed to the community in Gibraltar, along with communities in other countries, such as Brazil, Peru, Algeria, etc. The purpose of the emissary’s mission was to collect money for “Kotel Hamaaravi,” an institution for poor orphans and widows in Jerusalem, as well as for the redemption of prisoners taken by the Moslem government. When I visited the Abudarham synagogue in Gibraltar, I noticed a pushke (charity box) which had been permanently attached to the wall, bearing the name Kotel Hamaaravi. When I enquired about the pushke, I was told that some emissary had left it behind, long ago, but had never returned to collect its contents. Well, it was obvious that I knew the background of this pushke and even the name of the emissary, spelled out in his diploma: Avraham Mursiano. It was a rewarding experience to find the solution to a century-old mystery.

Gibraltar is also a role model for tolerance and good neighborliness among communities of different religions. There has always been perfect harmony between the Jews, Christians and Moslems in Gibraltar. One of the factors which binds them together is their common loyalty to the British Crown; none of them would want to come under Spanish rule. Sir Joshua Hassan has therefore earned the abiding love of his constituents for defending Gibraltar’s freedom of choice in countless international conferences.

We can all be proud of this small but vibrant Jewish community in a far-off corner of Europe, which offers living proof that a totally observant Jewish community can earn the respect of its non-Jewish surroundings, making constructive and appreciated contributions to the general welfare.