The Many Lives of One of Spain’s Most Magnificent Remaining Places of Jewish Prayer

Jews first settled in the city of Toledo no earlier than the 7th century CE, and in the Middle Ages it became one of Spain’s great centers of Jewish life and the home of such influential rabbis as Asher ben Yeḥiel. In the 14th century, a local grandee named Samuel ben Meir ha-Levi Abulafia—who at the time was the treasurer of the Castilian king Pedro the Cruel—built a new synagogue in the city. Mia Amram describes the remarkable history of this structure, which still stands today:

One of the many things that made this synagogue interesting was the fact that in the 14th century, Spain had actually decreed a ban on all construction of Jewish educational institutes and synagogues. However, Samuel’s close relationship with King Pedro (cruel or otherwise), meant that he was able to find some legal loopholes, and more importantly, get away with them. . . . Samuel [also] quite deliberately disobeyed the regulations requiring synagogues to be plainly decorated, smaller, and lower than churches, and once again King Pedro looked the other way.

The rectangular prayer hall has a twelve-meter-high ceiling and is decorated lavishly in a mix of styles. Hebrew inscriptions can be seen even till this day which extol both King Pedro and Samuel ha-Levi. Arabic inscriptions and Psalm passages are also apparent on the walls, next to the ha-Levi coat of arms and lots of magnificent windows.

During services, a second-floor gallery was set aside for the women. . . . Contrary to the highly decorated interior, the façade of the synagogue was constructed of brick and stone, and was relatively unadorned, in order to draw less attention to the illegal structure, despite the fact that its towering roof raised the whole synagogue somewhat above all the nearby structures.

[After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492], the synagogue was turned into a church. As if they had not inflicted enough harm already, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella donated the building to the Order of Calatrava who turned the structure into a church housing a Benedictine priory. The name “El Transito,” which honors the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, was given to the building during its stretch as a church, but ironically the synagogue has still kept this name until today, which is why it is known as the “Synagogue El Transito.”

Read more at The Librarians

More about: Anti-Semitism, Medieval Spain, Synagogues


The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law