Guest Voices

Isabella Monuments Must Go

Shloime Perel, a resident of Montreal, sent the following e-mail to the elected councillors of Montreal’s Snowdon/NDG borough; his MP, Irwin Cotler; his local MLA, Lawrence Bergman; the Communaute Sepharde, the main Jewish Sephardic organization in the Montreal area; and three local rabbis.

Dear friends:

I was surprised to discover a monument in a public park in Snowdon, MacDonald Park, celebrating Queen Isabella of Spain (on the occasion of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas), with an elaborate flower bed on its side.
The monument is located alongside Isabella Avenue, itself named after Queen Isabella, on the northwest corner of Earnscliffe and Isabella. We also have a second monument to Isabella and Columbus in Laurier Park, dedicated in 1959, one year after the one in MacDonald Park.

Isabella St.

I am writing this as a personal statement. My wife and I live close to MacDonald Park, which means we live very close to a street and monument which honor a major perpetrator of one of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history.

Queen Isabella was one of the main perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition and of the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

The Edict of Expulsion, signed by Isabella and Ferdinand on March 31, 1492 stated: “. . . we order all Jews and Jewesses of whatever age they may be. . . that by the end of July next of the present year, they depart. . . along with their sons and daughters. . . they shall not dare to return. . . if they do not perform and comply with this command. . . they incur the penalty of death and the confiscation of all their possessions . . . without further trial or declaration.” [Signed] I, The King, I The Queen (Online source: The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture)

The city of Montreal, then, has two monuments and a street commemorating a ruler who threatened massive numbers of Jews with execution, some of whom were indeed later burned ot death and/or tortured, accused of practicing Judaism in spite of their conversion.

How can Montreal morally continue having such monuments and such a street name?

I would like to suggest that the two monuments belong in museums and be replaced by sculptures dedicated to peace, and that Isabella Avenue be renamed after the Montreal poet A.M. Klein, who dedicated much of his life to working for the Jewish people and for social justice.

A.M. Klein
A.M. Klein

By the time of the Edict of Expulsion, thousands of Jews had already been killed in Spain. In 1475, Isabella and Ferdinand decreed that the Jews under their rule must wear a blue patch on their right shoulders and that Muslims must wear a green patch.

Does this not sound familiar, a predecessor to the yellow patch of Nazi Germany? In her introduction to the book History of a Tragedy: The Expulsion of the Jews of Spain, by Joseph Perez, Helen Nader writes: “Year by year, Fernando and Isabel’s policy became harsher. Jews had always lived where they chose in Spanish cities and towns; there were no ghettos in medieval Spain. In 1480, however, Queen Isabel ordered all Jews to move into designated neighborhoods of their home cities, and she instructed each city to erect walls around these newly formed ghettos. When Fernando and Isabel conquered the Muslim city of Malaga in 1487, they enslaved all the inhabitants, including six thousand Jews, whereas royal practice during the medieval Reconquest had been to incorporate defeated Muslims and Jews into the newly formed Christian city. Finally, within 20 years of the Cortes of Madrigal, Isabel and Fernando (who had succeeded his father as King of Aragon in 1479), ordered all Jews, and another ten years later all Muslims, to convert to Christianity or leave Spain.”

The final day Spanish Jews were given to leave Spain, if they wanted to remain Jews and not be executed, was July 31, 1492, which fell on Tisha B’av, a major Jewish fast day to memorialize many calamities which are supposed to have happened on the day of the Jewish calendar, the ninth of the month of Av.

It is not surprising that Queen Isabella, as a major force behind the Inquisition and the expulsion of Spanish Jewry, wrote to her representatives in Rome: “I have brought about the destruction of cities which I emptied of their inhabitants, and I have laid waste whole regions. All this I did solely out of love of God and His Holy Mother. . . .” (Quoted in Haim Beinart in The Expulsion of the Jews of Spain, chapter 2, footnote 45).

Again, it’s surprising that we have two monuments in Montreal honoring Queen Isabella and not only Isabella, but Christopher Columbus as well. The Isabella monument in Laurier Park is on Laurier Avenue, corner Christophe Columb. Columbus was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in the Caribbean, as well as kidnapping and enslaving others, most of whom died en route to Spain.

It is a bitter irony of history that Christopher Columbus first sailed on the day of the lethal deadline for Spanish Jewry. In the port from which he sailed, Palos de la Frontera, there were ships filled with Jews escaping Spain.

A witness, Bartholomew Senaregoa, wrote: “It was pitiful to see their sufferings. Many were consumed by hunger, especially nursing mothers and their babies. Half-dead mothers held dying children in their arms. . . . I can hardly say how cruelly and greedily they were treated by those who transported them. Many were drowned by the avarice of the sailors. . . . ” (Quoted in The Conquest of the New World: American Holocaust by David E. Stannard, p. 62.)

Columbus and I mention ause the two monuments also honor Columbus) brought devastation wherever he went. On his second voyage, he went to Hispaniola, the new Spanish name for the island comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The historian David Stannard writes, “In March of 1495 he [Columbus] massed together several hundred troops, cavalry and a score or more of trained attack dogs. They set forth across the countryside, tearing into assembled masses of sick and unarmed native people, slaughtering them by the thousands. The pattern set by these raids would be the model the Spanish would follow for the next decade and beyond.”

The native population of Hispaniola, estimated to have been eight million in 1495, was practically non-existent by 1535. What can we call this but genocide? The Spanish also brought the Inquisition to the southern part of the Americas, and Jews, among others, were executed.

It is surprising that the two Isabella monuments have been in place without their presence becoming a public, controversial issue. By the time the Isabella monument was dedicated in McDonald Park, the Jewish population of the Snowdon area was obviously increasing.

Shloime Perel
Shloime Perel

After 50 years of the two Isabella monuments in Montreal parks, it’s high time that their presence should become a public issue. How this might be done I don’t know, but this is one discussion that should take place. If we want to remember and honor the victims of the Spanish Inquisition and of the expulsion from Spain, we can do no less, in my opinion, than to work for the removal of the monuments.

Shloime Perel is a researcher and organizer for the Refugee Research Project in Montreal.