What springs to mind when you think of Gibraltar? An insurance company, or an over sized rock jutting into the Mediterranean Sea edged by a thin strip of land where 300,000 people jostle for space. Due to space constrictions, one of the town’s busy roads thrusts straight across the runway of the town’s small airport. This is the only place in the world where drivers get the pleasure of stopping to wait for take-offs. Gibraltar is also unique for having hosted the first and only community of converso Jews, for providing a home to Jews on Spain’s doorstep during centuries when no Jews were allowed into Spain.
First and Last Converso Town
Gibraltar was originally named Jibr el-Tariq, the Mountain of Tariq, in honor of the Muslim general, El Tariq, who boated across the fifteen miles of sea separating Morocco from Spain in the 8th century, captured the Rock from its Visigothic Christians, and swept north to Córdoba and Toledo, beginning eight centuries of Muslim rule over the Spanish peninsula. How the name Jibr el-Tariq morphed into Gibraltar is anyone’s guess.
When tens-of-thousands of Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism in the late 1300s to escape vicious persecution, they soon discovered they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. As Christians, they were now vulnerable to accusations of heresy whenever someone caught or even suspected them of being involved in Jewish practices and prayers. A huge proportion of such accusations were inspired less by religious zeal and more by the opportunity of denouncers and the Church to confiscate accused conversos’ wealth. The conversos yearned for a refuge where they might live without persecution.
In 1476, twelve years after the Duke of Medina-Sidonia captured Gibraltar from the Moors, persecuted conversos of Seville and Cordoba offered him a generous yearly income in return for permission to establish a converso settlement at the foot of the rock. They would buy houses in Gibraltar, build new ones, and maintain a Spanish garrison there at their own expense. The duke’s advisers warned against the plan. The Jews were too lazy and unworthy to settle successfully there, they argued. Alone on the rock they would be free to pursue their “perverse rites and Jewish superstitions,” and unsupervised Jews could easily flee from Gibraltar to Muslim controlled territories like Egypt or Palestine.
In the end, the smell of the Jews’ money prevailed and the duke gave the idea his blessing. Thousands of conversos moved to their new home accompanied by 350 cavalrymen and 2000 foot soldiers. But the experiment was short lived. After two years, the duke closed down the project, and every one of the 4,350 conversos living on the rock was expelled back to Spain.
Treaty of Utrecht
From that time, Gibraltar remained Judenrein for 228 years. In 1704, an Anglo-Dutch force captured it from Spain, culminating in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ceded the territory to Britain “in perpetuity.” This enormously enhanced England’s reputation as Queen of the Waves, for the country that controls Gibraltar controls the movement of the thousands of ships traversing the narrow passage between the rock and Africa. However, having thrown out all its Jews in 1492, Spain was insistent that Gibraltar too must remain Judenrein for all time. The treaty specifically barred Jews and Moors from the territory, stating, “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.”
Despite her solemn promise, England never observed the treaty. Pragmatism bred contempt. Due to Spain’s refusal to trade with Gibraltar, fresh provisions, horses, and building materials all needed to be imported from Morocco, and this needed the knowledge, skills and contacts of Morocco’s Jewish merchants. The Moroccan Jews did what any Jew would do after finding that the easy-going English were easier to live with than their Muslim overlords: they left Morocco and settled in Gibraltar. So many of them settled on the rock that within five years of the treaty, three hundred Jews were living in Gibraltar and had built their first shul. Indeed,England’s quiet abrogation of the treaty was one reason Spain tried to take the rock back in an unsuccessful siege in 1727.
In 1729, England openly broke the treaty, officially permitting Moroccan Jews to move in under terms of a treaty with the Sultan of Morocco that stated, “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… Every person … whether Spaniard, English or otherwise … living or residing there shall be esteemed as natural born [British] subjects “
In 1749, more or less coinciding with the arrival of Isaac Nieto, the town’s first rov, and the establishment of their first kehillah, Shaar Hashamayim, all Jews received the right of permanent settlement. By now, six hundred Jews constituted a third of the rock’s civilian population, the highest Jewish proportion of the population ever achieved. Numerically speaking, the Jewish population peaked at 1,533 in 1878, just in time for Spain’s four-year Great Siege of Gibraltar, which subjected the residents to starvation, disease, and bombardment.
The influence of Gibraltar’s Jews on their town is reflected in their imprint on the town’s Spanish based vernacular know as Llanito. Just as New York English is peppered with Yiddishisms, so Llanito boasts some five hundred Hebrew words. It is also influenced by Haketia, a Judeo-Spanish language spoken in northern Morocco and parts of Spain.
The Nazi who Changed His Stripes
During World War II,England evacuated the civilian population and transformed the rock into a fortress to restrict the entrance of German shipping into the Mediterranean. The only Nazi craft that could sneak through were submarines. Aware of the rock’s importance,Germany plotted to seize it in the early stages of the war in a strategy they code-named Operation Felix. The plan was foiled, chiefly due to the reluctance of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, to join the Nazi war effort. He remained resolutely neutral for the course of the war.
A major reason Franco refused to throw in his lot with Germany was the influence of one of the most unlikely heroes of World War II. Some have tried to register him as a righteous gentile at Yerushalayim’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum due to his part in saving Jews from deportation and death during the war. Unbeknownst to Hitler, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (German Secret Service) from 1935 to 1945 was a fifth columnist. By 1938, he had figured that Nazi goals would lead to Germany’s ruin and began doing all he could to foil their plans.
Thanks to his fluency in Spanish, Canaris was one of the key diplomats sent to persuade Franco to throw in his hat with the Nazis. But true to his changed convictions, Canaris consistently warned Franco that allying with Germany would be a fatal mistake. Allied victory was almost guaranteed, he told him. He warned that helping Germany might lead to a British invasion of Spain, and that there was little danger of Hitler invading Spain in revenge because Hitler was plotting to invade Russia. Knowing that Germany did not have 15 inch assault cannons, Canaris advised the German army that Gibraltar would never be cracked without this specific weapon it did not have.
England sweetened the deal for Franco and his generals by depositing significant sums for them in Swiss bank accounts. As a result of all this, Hitler’s negotiations with Franco were painful. As he famously remarked after one meeting, “I would rather have four of my own teeth pulled out than go through another meeting with that man again.”
German failure to gain control over Gibraltar considerably weakened its power in the Mediterranean and probably contributed to Rommel’s failure to sweep through to Palestine.
It took the Nazis a long time to catch up with Canaris. He was executed on9 April 1945, only a few weeks before the end of the war.
A less vital incident of the war concerned a legend that when the Barbary Apes (or tailless Macaques) that inhabit the rock leave, so too will the British. When Sir Winston Churchill heard that only seven apes remained on Gibraltar, he had another seven rushed in from North Africa.
Post World War II
After the war, Yiddishkeit slackened among the 600 Jews who returned from their exile abroad. The person most responsible for revolutionizing the rock’s education and observance was Rav Yosef Pacifici, a graduate of the Gateshead Yeshiva in England. Thanks to his efforts, all Jewish businesses in Gibraltar’s city center are closed on Shabbos till this day. Rav Ron Hassid became rov of the rock in 1984 and has remained there ever since, working endlessly to strengthen the Yiddishkeit of the 750 members of today’s kehillah. Presently, the community has a Talmud Torah, separate boys and girls schools, a small kollel, four shuls, and a mikvah.
Taken all around, the Jews of Gibraltar have always enjoyed prosperity and almost no official anti-Semitism, inspiring Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, to declare at Gibraltar’s tercentenary celebration of the English takeover of the rock, “In the dark times of expulsion and inquisition, Gibraltar lit the beacon of tolerance,” and that Gibraltar “is probably the community where Jews have been the most integrated.”
Not bad for a place whose total area includes a grand total of only 2.6 square miles.