Spain Makes Amends, And So Should We


“It’s difficult to issue an apology and sometimes it’s difficult to accept one… [but] once you put those differences of the past aside, perhaps the next step is, can you do any better in this round?... The real question is, what happens from this day forward?”

— Chad Smith, Former Chief, Cherokee Nation

Nobody ripped on simplistic, pop-history narratives of how America became America quite like Howard Zinn. The progressive-populist historian did not suffer well tribal myths crafted and kept in force by the privileged, excoriating those that point to the year 1492 as the true “seminal event” in the nation’s formulation.

Indeed the socialist Zinn made a career railing at 1492 and the devastation unleashed upon the world in that portentous, kairotic year of Columbus’ first journey to the “New World”.

Sadly Zinn died before the US Government’s tardy amends for myriad woes visited upon Native Americans by oppressive policies and genocidal ends. But even had he been present at the 2010 reading of the official apology in Washington, it’s unlikely Zinn would’ve taken much solace in something as abstract as a congressional resolution. The prophet in him was not given to words over reparations. Or style over substance. Withering though the Spanish-sponsored expedition of 1492 would prove for native populations in the Americas, Spain’s ruling monarchs had 14 years earlier set course on another broad and destructive initiative – one aimed not at expanding wealth but forcing adherence to a dominant faith.

The early history of Spanish (Sephardic) Jews is not unlike that of Portugal and other post-Diaspora European regions: Relative tolerance until third-century (and subsequent) church councils imposed incremental sanctions of increasing severity.

By the ascension of Ferdinand II and Isabella I in 1469, Spain’s anti-Semitic fervor gave rise to full-scale inquisition, requiring Jews and other non-Catholics to convert to Catholicism, leave Spain or risk tribunal execution. (Accurate numbers for the three categories are elusive at best, but generally accepted estimates of the executed hovers at 5,000, most executed in public settings by secular authorities.)

Jewish suffering was accompanied by yellow stars publicly worn by Jews (actual or accused), heritage “tests” and wholesale absorption of Jewish possessions and economic means – methods Hitler and Himmler chillingly replicated when designing the Final Solution.

The Spanish Inquisition begun in 1478 waxed and waned until the reign of Isabelle II in 1834. There would be no official attempt to come to terms with these horrors until just last year when the Spanish parliament approved full-fledged citizenship for descendants of Jews persecuted during the Inquisition – a process fraught with complications and made to appear even more diffuse by the streamlined Portuguese approach to reparations for that nation’s attempts to impose religious purity – but nonetheless on track to take effect this month.

Upon receiving news of Spain’s starkly contrasting plan to come to terms with these sins of its past, Americans should be perplexed by mere government mea culpas as a means to true redemption for its own crimes against humanity – no mean feat at a time when anything approaching culpability is met with questions of one’s patriotism. Yet there have been on-and-off stirrings regarding practical ways for this nation to do some atoning, including but not limited to reparations for the near extinction of its indigenous peoples; sustained and institutionalized social, political and economic lawmaking aimed at silencing the modern-day ghosts of chattel slavery and; immigration policies that take into account refugees left behind in every modern-day American military engagement.

Those who parse historical psychology are quick to point out trauma’s effect on all parties: aggressor and victim, oppressor as well as the oppressed. And literature on societal trauma suggests a perversely mutual “shared stuckness” bonds the two long after the precipitating event. No one on the Niña, Pinta or Santa Maria had the psycho-spiritual awareness to anticipate the long-term effects once they weighed anchor in the Caribbean. Yet as they made land a trauma was done, one that begat scores of others.

Per Spain’s lead, we can’t undo them en masse. But I’ll bet Howard Zinn would pleased to hear we at least got started.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2015

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