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'Kill Jews' Town Highlights Spain's Struggles with Anti-Semitism

Spain has not yet completely erased traditions that are directly linked to the extinction of a once-thriving Jewish culture in the country.
Image: A car passes by the road sign at the entrance of the small Spanish town of Castrillo Matajudios
A car passes by the road sign at the entrance of the small Spanish town of Castrillo Matajudios, which means "Kill Jews" in English, on April 21, 2014.The 56 residents of the town, which lies near the northern city of Burgos, will vote May 25 on whether to change the name and instead celebrate the location's Jewish heritage, Mayor Lorenzo Rodriguez said.CESAR MANSO / AFP - Getty Images

It is a case of better late than never: Centuries after thousands of Jews were forced to convert, burned at the stake or expelled, Spain is still grappling with its brutal and deep-seated anti-Semitic past.

The 56 residents of Castrillo Matajudios, which is near the northern city of Burgos, are set to decide on May 25 whether to change the village's name, the second half of which translates to "Kill Jews."

Matajudios is also still a surname and remains an expression in Spain used to say that someone's "a bit of a Jew."

“In some ways the name of the town tells us so much about Spanish history,” said Fordham University Professor Doron Ben-Atar. "Part of what Spain is, Spanish nationalism, is defined by its hostility to Judaism."

The looming vote does not obscure the fact that the country has not yet completely erased traditions that are directly linked to the extinction of a once-thriving Jewish culture in Spain.

Jews existed alongside Christians for centuries in Spain, often uneasily, until Roman Catholic forces expelled the ruling Muslim Moors in the 14th and 15th centuries. After that, being Jewish was deemed unacceptable.

Residents of the small Spanish town of Castrillo Matajudios, which means "Castle Kill Jews" in English, chat on Monday.CESAR MANSO / AFP - Getty Images

"I always tell my students that the expulsion from Spain -- one doesn't even want to think about it -- would be like the expulsion of Jews from the United States today," said Moises Orfali, a professor of Jewish history at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

Jewish-Christian conflict appears to have started pretty much from day one on the Iberian Peninsula where modern Spain is located.

"The Jews were being set upon by Christians early on"

In 308 A.D., bishops issued a decree preventing Christians from marrying and dining with Jews, says Elizabeth Drayson, who specializes in medieval and early Spanish literature and cultural history at Britain's Cambridge University.

“The Jews were being set upon by Christians early on,” she said. “What is interesting is there is a tale of Jewish treason that establishes itself from those times in the Christian cultural memory."

A concept of Christian purity which grew from the unification of Spain when the Moors were driven out and then brutally enforced for centuries by the Spanish Inquisition, continues to this day, according to Drayson.

“There is an element of denial of how appalling that sort of prejudice is in Spain,” Drayson said. “There is still a very strong right-wing faction that wants to foster that idea that it was a great thing that Christianity conquered the other two religions and drove out the Muslims and Jews from the peninsula. It is part of a kind of ethos of purity in Spain among some high-ranking academics and politicians.”

Indeed, this strict Christian view of Spanish history extends to the way the Moors are dealt with. Statues and other depictions of St. James the Moor-slayer, or "Matamoros," dot the country.

It isn't clear exactly how Castrillo Matajudios got its now-offensive name -- historic chronicles are notoriously unreliable.

Castrillo Matajudios Mayor Lorenzo Rodriguez Perez speaks to Spanish TV on Tuesday.EFE TV via EPA

It is thought that the town's original name, which translates to "Hill or Mount of Jews," came about after dozens of Jewish men were slaughtered by Christians in the neighboring town of Castrojeriz in 1035.

Fleeing families took refuge on the hill and the town’s name was born, and in a significant nod to its past, the town’s crest contains the Jewish star of David.

But in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled or burned at the stake Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism.

"The reality is that European Jews feel terribly unsafe."

The town only changed its name to Castrillo Matajudios in the early 17th century. One version of the story is that the name was mis-transcribed onto official documents -- Matajudios is only one letter away from Motajudios -- which means "Hill of Jews."

Another version is that the town intentionally changed its name amid the intense pressure to conform to the ideal of Christian purity that had become central to Spanish identity, according to experts.

The town is only about 30 miles away from Burgos, a city renowned for its elaborate cathedral and being a major stop along the Camino de Santiago, one of Europe's most popular Catholic pilgrimage routes.

Regardless, the name seems to hit on the fact of persistent and some say growing anti-Semitism throughout Europe (a recent study found that 76 percent of respondents felt that anti-Semitism had worsened over the past five years).

“The reality is that European Jews feel terribly unsafe,” Fordham University's Ben-Atar said.

Orfali, the Jewish history professor, notes that the word "Matajudios" is not just a name.

"It is a tradition to drink on Easter during the festivals of Good Friday, a special sort of sangria and toast saying 'killing Jews,'" he added. "'Matar judios' does not mean to kill them physically but to have this drink. The connotation of this is to remember other times in the Middle Ages in which Jews were afraid to be seen in public by Christians."

And while the mayor of Matajudios, Lorenzo Rodríguez Pérez, is making moves to come to terms with the village's past -- he wants to commission excavations to look for Jewish history, for example -- the proposed name change might not have enough support at the ballot box.

"Let's see what the voters say," Orfali said.