What do the Jews think of Catalonian independence?
Spain’s tiny Jewish community reveals its divided opinions
Two Jews, three opinions, so the saying goes. This couldn’t ring more true when it comes to the controversial and divisive subject of the October 1 Catalan independence referendum, which has caused unrest across the country. Sometimes, silence indeed speaks louder than words.
“The [Jewish] community will not make political declarations about the referendum. There are many opinions within the community and we respect them,” said Victor Sorenssen, director of the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, the Barcelona Jewish Community.
“We are apolitical,” echoed Barcelona’s Chabad Rabbi David Liberson.
Indeed, none of the various synagogues and communities in the Catalan capital officially expressed a stance. However, within the communities, as across the general population, there is a raging debate. Individual Jewish Catalonians were willing to express their opinions, while emphasizing that they speak only for themselves.
One woman requested to remain anonymous, as she and her family have already been targeted over her expression of anti-separatist opinions on social media. She affiliates with the “Jews of Catalonia,” a group that has been rejuvenated in light of the referendum debate, expressing its loyalty to Spain.
“We are Jews of Catalonia, Spanish citizens, respectful of the institutions and laws that protect us in our country, Spain,” the group’s description reads on Twitter.
She has fallen out with friends over the issue and even left the Conservative Jewish community of Atid several years ago, “because they started to promote nationalist events. They’re not the most nationalist and I don’t know if they stopped.
“Given the circumstances, it was important to openly express our loyalty. It’s very Jewish to be loyal to the local laws of the countries where we live, especially when we live well, and this must be said now. We are Spanish, Spain is our home,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
“We are people from different communities or none( as myself), observant or not, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, but all of us are aware of the past history of Spanish Jewry,” she said in reference to the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. “We want to be considered as any other citizen. In fact, this is what we are. We don’t want the privileges Catalan nationalists demand for themselves. We don’t want the rest of Spain to think that being Jewish is being separatist.”
This is a message loudly and clearly expressed by official representatives of the Spanish Jewish community based in Madrid.
“Today, living in a democracy is the only guarantee for Jews to live safely ...our loyalty to Spain is vital,” David Hatchwell Altaras, the president of Madrid’s Jewish community, told the Post on Monday.
“It is our halachic obligation to respect the local law,” agrees Angel Mas, president of ACOM, a pro-Israel Spanish organization that combats BDS and modern antisemitism.
Mas expressed “extraordinary concern” that a separatist victory would ultimately amount to nullifying the Spanish Constitution. “This Constitution gave us [Jews] our rights back and we should be concerned about changes to the framework that allowed us to prosper in this country,” he told the Post. “If ever there is in Spain an association between being pro-Israel or Jewish with a lack of loyalty to our democratic institutions... then we’re done in Spain.”
Mas, who has a Catalonian surname and family roots, also protests that Catalan-born citizens living elsewhere in Spain were not entitled to vote in the referendum, while recent non-national immigrants were. “On that basis, they want to break our country,” he charges. “How can they tell me that I will be a foreigner in part of my own country?”
But Hatchwell views an independent Catalonia as an impossibility, due to Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which says that “the government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the self-governing communities” if one “does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain.”
He added that he does not see an independent Catalonia as “a good place for a Jew,” pointing at pro-independence parties which support BDS. “Several municipalities in Catalonia have been approving BDS initiatives in complicity with the Podemos radical-left party that is financed by Iran and Venezuela, “he said.
For example, the Catalan party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) disinvited a prominent German ecological left-wing activist to its conference in May, because of her defense of Israel’s existence and opposition to the BDS movement targeting the Jewish state. Also that month, the city of Barcelona subsidized a radical literary event that hosted convicted Palestinian terrorist and BDS advocate Leila Khaled.
Mas told the Post at the time: “This is yet another demonstration of the extremism of far-left pro-independence forces that have become mainstream in Catalonian politics and how central and core their rabid antisemitism is to them.”
Today Mas continues to drum home this message, describing Catalonia as a “hotbed of anti-Israel activity” and accusing pro-independence groups of promoting it as such. However, various parties and players make up the pro-independence camp and while some components are perceived as anti-Zionist, others see the Jewish state as a model.
“Many Catalan Jews have seen their reflection in the State of Israel,” says pro-indepence Moriah Ferrus, a member of Barcelona’s masorti Jewish community. “If Israel managed, we will succeed as well. Since the year 1714, when Catalonia lost all right of sovereignty over its land, many generations have longed to return to a status of Catalan sovereignty. Catalonia has never lost its desire for freedom.”
However, Hatchwell argues that the Catalan movement was historically nationalist, rather than pro-independence. “I have a lot of friends who are Catalan nationalists and feel very comfortable about the revival of Catalan identity and that are perfectly happy with their Spanish identity too,” he continues.
“This was clear in the demonstration [on Sunday], where one million people expressed their love for Spain and Catalunia. We as Jews know very well that we can love Israel and the countries where we are citizens. This is perfectly coherent in democracies.
“You should not be forced to choose between different layers that compose a person’s identity. For many years, the Catalan nationalist movement saw the revival of Jewish peoplehood in their nation state as something to emulate. So the Catalan nationalist movement, through the CiU party, was very close to Israel,” he says. “But three years ago, when the party veered toward pro-independence, this is where this proximity to Israel started to become something different.”
In Hatchwell’s view, “The great majority of Jews in Spain are not separatists. This is not a position the Jews feel conformable with at all. I don’t see it as a force that is positive for the type of Spain that I believe in.”
Given the small size of Spain’s Jewish population, opinion polls are not conducted, and thus there are no statistics available. Nevertheless, the view from Catalonia looks different and Barcelona’s Sorenssen disagrees that one can pigeonhole Catalan Jews with regard to independence.
“There is more plurality of opinions in Barcelona – in fact there are four Jewish communities,” says Sorenssen: his own Sephardi Orthodox Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona, the Lubavitch Chabad community, the progressive Beit Shalom community and the Reform Atid.
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is home to Spain’s second largest Jewish community after Madrid, with an estimated 10,000 Jews compared to Madrid’s 15,000.
A source from the Catalan Jewish community noted that the Madrid community is perceived as being close to President Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular. Members of the Catalan community have criticized their Madrid counterparts for giving an award to the Spanish security forces in January.
Indeed, following the events of October 1, both Atid and Beit Shalom released statements condemning the police violence.
“We believe that, in the current circumstances, it is essential to seek a political solution that responds to the will of the citizens of Catalonia through dialogue, respect and negotiation” Beit Shalom said in its statement. “We appeal to the Catalan, Spanish and European institutions to guarantee the rights of Catalan citizens and promote a dialogue that is respectful of democracy and the right or the people to decide.”
A member of that community, Haim G., is pro-independence, though he stresses that he speaks only for himself, describing independence as an “historic right of the Catalonians” and says that comparisons drawn between Israeli independence as Catalunia are logical.”
The parties in the Catalan government, he says, are inspired by Zionism, “from the right of the people to determine their destiny and the right of self-determination.” He notes that after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, separatists sent some representatives to Israel to investigate, for example, how the country revived Hebrew as a modern language.
He counters allegations that Catalonian separatists include strong anti-BDS forces, responding that whether it be in Spain, the UK, the EU, or UNESCO, pro and anti-Israel elements can always be found. “The overarching feeling of Catalonia is one of friendliness toward Jews and Israel,” he asserts.
“The relationship between Catalonia and Israel is very warm,” he adds, noting that there is a large presence of Israeli businesses in the region. He opines that BDS activists are a minority in Catalonia.
Maria Prieto, from the same community, voted against independence, but the most important thing for her is that the Catalans would be able to “freely and democratically decide our future. I wish we could vote as they did in Scotland, in a legal and agreed referendum, that meets all democratic standards. Unfortunately that was not possible on October 1,” she laments.
“What could have been celebrated is a non-binding consultation with the authorization of the government of Spain, but that was already tried on November 9, 2014, and as a consequence the members of the Catalan government who organized it have been convicted of a crime of disobedience,” she continues.
“I believe that the Spanish Constitution needs a reform that addresses a new configuration of the state and recognizes the right to have its citizens consulted on this new ‘territorial pact.’ If we do not do this, we run the risk of breaking Catalan and Spanish society. We need interlocutors to leave aside the electoral interests and who want to reach a fair agreement for Catalonia.”
David Aliaga, a writer from L’Hospitalet, a city south of Barcelona, who is a member of the Atid community, submitted a blank ballot. “I am no nationalist,” he declares. “Neither Spanish or Catalan, but I firmly believe that Catalan people have the right to vote on a referendum, if we are in democracy.”
Addressing the argument that it’s important for the Jewish community to be loyal to the state, Aliaga says. “I am not sure if we could ask the Jewish community to give a common response to this issue, and I respect all democratic positions, but as a Jew I think I have to stay on the side of social justice before the side of the law.
“Social justice is a mitzva. Ethics is the main commitment of the Jewish people, and it doesn’t look very ethical to forbid the Catalan people to decide our own future, nor even to open a dialogue about that.”
Paul Sanchez, a freelance journalist based in Barcelona, has a mixed Catalonian-British-Jewish identity and has been following events through the lens of his profession. He describes a “healthy variety of opinions” among the Jewish communities and agrees that they cannot be labeled, though he remarks that the Orthodox community traditionally has ties to the CiU, a party now pushing for independence.
He also makes a “quaint” observation that, while people who identity with the conservative CiU Party have been drawing comparisons with their push for independence with Israel in 1948, supporters of the left-wing socialist CUP Party draw their comparisons from the Palestinian national movement today.
Aliaga also notes that “Spanish neo-Nazis and extreme-right parties have awaken in recent weeks. They have been showing their symbols and shouting hate speech in the streets. Falange, the francoist party... has walked with it’s fascist symbols. Can you imagine this in Germany?
“That’s scary and unacceptable. We have to condemn it and to fight against it. And of course, there are lots of democrats against independence, but a number of them are not complaining about sharing space with fascists. Today they are walking beside unionist people, maybe with unionist Jews, against Catalan people, but if they’re back in the streets and get some political space, the Jews will suffer this hatred,” he warned.
Prieto also slammed the “utterly irresponsible use of the terms “Nazi” and “Nazism” as an easy and recurring insult to disqualify political opponents.” But asked if she sees an uptick in antisemitism resulting from an independent Catalonia, she says this would occur only if Israel were to support independence, “but that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.”
Sanchez agrees. “Antisemitism in Spain is often a reflection of public opinion of Israel, so it depends on whether Israel supports or acknowledges Catalan independence,” he says, adding that this is currently unlikely.
“So I think it will continue as it is today,” he concludes, “indifference toward Jews with little bit of anti-Israeli sentiment under the surface. Most Spaniards have never met Jews. They are mythological creatures in their minds.”
PROTESTERS CARRY Esteladas, Catalan separatist flags and Basque flags, during a rally in in the Basque city of Bilbao in support of the referendum for independence from Spain for the autonomous community of Catalonia.
RIGHT-WING protesters wave Spanish and Valencian flags as they try to block a leftist demonstration supporting the Catalan separatist movement in Valencia, Spain, on October 9.