What do the Jews think of Cat­alo­nian in­de­pen­dence?

Spain’s tiny Jewish com­mu­nity re­veals its di­vided opin­ions

Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By TAMARA ZIEVE

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.

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