Last week, the Mediterranean resort city of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, was the scene of a remarkable historical event. After centuries of denial, a Spanish regional government condemned the Inquisition, and its persecution of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism.
At a special ceremony, Frances Antich Oliver, president of Spain's Balearic Islands, uttered words that no Spanish leader before him had ever had the courage to declare.
The burning of Jews at the stake by the Inquisition was, he said, "our worst sin. It horrifies us, but we must always remember it so that it never occurs again." Highlighting the maltreatment meted out to the Chuetas – as descendants of Mallorcan Jews who were compelled to convert in the 15th century are known – Oliver said in no uncertain terms that they had been subjected to "a grave injustice."
This marked the first time that a Spanish official had spoken so boldly in denunciation of the Inquisition's crimes, signaling a possible turning point in the process of Spain coming to terms with the horrors of its past.
The timing of the ceremony was rife with meaning.
It was held on the 320th anniversary of the infamous Auto-da-fé of May 6, 1691, when the zealots of the Inquisition put 37 Chuetas to death in Palma for secretly practicing Judaism. Three of the victims were burned alive in front of tens of thousands of enthusiastic locals in the city's Gomila Square.
One of them, Rafael Valls, was the secret rabbi of the Chuetas, and despite the torture to which he had been subjected for the previous three years, he refused to renounce his faith in the God of Israel, even as the flames engulfed him.
Another victim, Raphael Benito Terongi, also demonstrated incredible fidelity to the heritage of his ancestors. While sitting in the Inquisition's prison awaiting execution, Terongi found a piece of glass and, in a staggering act of defiance, used it to circumsize himself. He too, along with his sister Catalina, was cast onto the pyre.
Looking back on their sacrifice, one can only marvel at their valor and determination. Valls and the Terongi siblings – and others like them – were Jewish heroes, and their memories should be preserved.
THE PALMA ceremony came about as the result of a meeting I held three months ago with Oliver's top aide, Albert Moragues. Accompanied by Rabbi Yossi Wallis, head of the Arachim organization and a direct descendant of Rafael Valls, we proposed the idea for the ceremony and, much to our surprise, the government consented.
The event drew hundreds of local participants, and generated a great deal of discussion in the local press about the misdeeds of the Inquisition and the suffering that had been inflicted on the Chuetas.
It compelled Majorcan society to take an honest look at itself, and helped educate a new generation about this dark chapter in the island's history.
In the popular imagination, the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain are intertwined, and often confused, even though the former began before 1492 and continued long afterwards.
Among other things, the Inquisitors were hunting down Bnei Anusim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term "Marranos") because they clung to their Jewish faith in private even as they professed Catholicism in public.
According to the late historian Cecil Roth, the Inquisition's henchmen murdered over 30,000 of these "secret Jews," while countless others were condemned for covertly preserving Jewish practices.
Their descendants now live throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese- speaking countries, with many now seeking to return to the Jewish people.
IN LIGHT of the success of the Palma event, I think it's time for other regions of Spain, as well as the Spanish national government, to hold similar ceremonies.
Spanish officials should apologize for the Inquisition, and its state-sponsored violence.
Even after the passage of so many centuries, it is not too late for Spain and its government to seek atonement for the sins of their past against the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II apologized on behalf of the papacy, so why shouldn't Spain do so as well? Some might think there is little point in revisiting the events of so long ago. Why open old wounds? But such an attitude only compounds the wrong done to generations of hidden Spanish Jews and Bnei Anousim. They and their descendants deserve an official apology and an act of contrition.
The tenacity they demonstrated in the face of the Inquisition is a living example of the power of Jewish memory, and of our people's refusal to succumb, submit or surrender.
Many gave their lives for the sake of their Jewish identity.
The least we can do is to ensure that their sacrifice is never forgotten.