[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 9 July, 2004, 21:32 GMT 22:32 UK
Jews of Gibraltar reflect on their roots
By Penny Spiller
BBC News Online

The Rock of Gibraltar - a tiny outcrop at the tip of southern Spain - is marking 300 years as a British territory this year.

So too is the territory's small Jewish community, whose ancestors arrived at almost the same time as British forces in 1704.

Gibraltar - rock and harbour
The Jewish community is a small but integral part of life on the Rock

An exhibition just opened at the Jewish Museum in London recounts Jewish life on the Rock over the last three centuries.

In the early days, many sailed across the Mediterranean from North Africa to trade with the troops who were turning the strategically important Gibraltar into an impregnable fortress.

A few years later, in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht - which formally ceded Gibraltar to the British - made clear Jews and Muslims should be banned from the Rock.

It did not work. A century later - in 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar - Jews made up more than half the civilian population.

But the community's very survival was threatened when many were evacuated to Britain during World War II and chose not to return.


Today, there are just 600 Jews, making up 2% of a population of 30,000 Gibraltarians who share a stretch of peninsula measuring 4 sq miles (10 sq km).

While their numbers are small, the community says it is happily interwoven into the fabric of daily life on the Rock.

Isaac Hassan and his sister Rebecca Benggio
Isaac and Rebecca's family came from Morocco in 1717

"Gibraltar is a very united community. It has a long tradition of respecting different religions and cultures. We get along together very well," says Rebecca Benggio, 36, an administrator for one of two Jewish primary schools on the Rock.

Banker Abraham Marrache, 54, whose family has lived in Gibraltar since 1720, believes it has something to do with living in a confined space.

"My feeling is that with such limited space, people have got to get on with each other," he told BBC News Online.

"You have to develop social skills you don't necessarily need if you live in wide open spaces. You are living cheek by jowl with everyone."

Flourishing schools

Nevertheless, Gibraltar's Jewish community has seen a move towards a stricter observance of religion in recent years.

Nearly all civilians in Gibraltar were evacuated during WWll. Most Jewish families went to the UK, where they experienced a different, more liberal way of life.

Many chose not to return after the war, causing concern for the survival of the Jewish community on the Rock.

In the late 1950s, a young charismatic Italian rabbi called Joseph Pacifice arrived and influenced many young Jews to pursue religious studies abroad.

They returned with new ideas and a vigour that not surprisingly left its mark on their community.

The flourishing of two Jewish primary schools and a high school - as well as four synagogues - sparked fears of a separatism not previously known in Gibraltar.

But Isaac Hassan, 35, brother of Rebecca Benggio, who now lives in London, believes things are settling down.

"I see it as a pendulum effect. After the war, there was a swing very much to the left," he said. "Gradually, with a new generation, it moved to the right. Now I think we are slowly seeing a swing to somewhere in between."

Moroccan roots

Many of the Jews of Gibraltar have their roots in Morocco - where their ancestors fled after the mass expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Isaac and Rebecca's ancestors arrived in Gibraltar from Morocco in 1717 to supply the British fortress there.

Gibraltar map
Although the Treaty of Utrecht banned Jews from the Rock, their ability to speak the language was crucial to daily life there at the time.

The rituals and customs of Moroccan Jews live on to this day. Henna parties are still held the night before a marriage, and many songs sung in synagogues have their origins in the northern city of Tetouan.

Many personal and religious artefacts passed down through the generations have been loaned by local families to the exhibition.

The exhibition runs at the Jewish Museum in London until 31 October.

Regions and territories: Gibraltar
29 Jun 04 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific