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Antisemitism in Spain | Antisemitismus |

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Antisemitism in Spain

Alejandro Baer

/ 15 Minuten zu lesen

Comparative international survey studies have identified Spain as one of the countries in Western Europe in which antisemitism is the most pronounced. Four decades after the demise of General Franco’s National-Catholic dictatorship, opinion polls continue to reveal deeply rooted antisemitic clichés.

Far right supporters salute as they shout the Nazi slogan Sieg Heil at the bottom of Columbus statue in Barcelona during Spain's National Day (October 12, 2020). (© picture-alliance, | Jordi Boixareu)

Spain is a country where Jews represent approximately 0.1% of the overall population, and yet there is an outsized acceptance and historically unabated indulgence of antisemitic stereotypes. Even four decades after the demise of General Franco’s National-Catholic dictatorship, opinion polls continue to reveal deeply rooted antisemitic clichés and these seep periodically into public discourse. Spain’s struggles with prejudice against Jews cannot be lumped into a one size fits all explanation of European antisemitism. In the Spanish case, mainstream society’s tolerance for antisemitic rhetoric has not occasioned an uptick in antisemitic incidents.

Historical background

Since the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon in 1492, Spain never again regained a significant Jewish presence. A trickling of Jewish families settled in the late XIXth century. The Spanish Jewish population expanded to 7.000 in 1966 with the immigration from the Sephardic communities from Morocco and by the end of the century grew to around 20,000 as the country experienced a new wave of immigration of Jews from Latin America. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain estimates the current Jewish population in the country at 40.000 to 45.000 people.

The bitter traces of centuries of anti-Jewish hostility did not disappear with the expulsion of the Jews. Age old pejorative motifs of a religious nature – Jews as Christ-killers, accusations of ritual crimes and of profanation of Christian symbols –remained firmly entrenched in Spanish cultural memory, through language, literature, and popular traditions. Antisemitism went well beyond the confines of strictly traditionalist Catholic thinking in the late XIX century and it was revived with the arrival of the Second Republic (1931-1936). Now Jews became part of the "anti-España", the alleged puppet masters behind communist, liberal and separatist forces in the country. Different conservative anti-Republican forces imbibed with zeal modern antisemitic discourse, a toxic cocktail drawn from French anti-republican literature and Nazi propaganda (via the Spanish Fascist party Falange) . During the Civil War, the Francoist side applauded German and Italian antisemitic policy which it justified by relating the "wise decision" of Catholic Kings Isabella and Fernando in the XV century. Even if no racial policy was pursued, Der Stürmer-like anti-Jewish rhetoric was freely adopted or directly reproduced from German sources. This was shown, for instance, in the treatment given to the news of Kristallnacht in 1938, when Spain was still divided into two belligerent camps. While there were firm condemnations of the Nazi actions, as well as solidarity expressed with the German Jews by Spain's legitimate government, the Francoist side received the news with approval and, indeed, glee. A mixture of religious and modern anti-Jewish motives has come to define Spain’s specific brand of antisemitism, the traces of which can be identified in the present day.

From 1945 onwards, in order to bolster its international position, the Franco regime went to great pains to present a congenial face to distance itself from its past links with Nazi Germany. This included reeling in Nazi-like public antisemitic incitement and removing Jews from the crosshairs of Spanish political propaganda. However, the more traditional and religious dimensions of Jew-hatred remained untouched. The stereotype of the Jewish usurer and legends of Jewish ritual crimes were widespread, and schools and churches kept propagating these myths. As Hispanist Jon Juaristi has aptly noted, "Under Franco´s regime it was possible to maintain this castizo (traditionalist) version of antisemitism, ignore the destruction of European Jewry and at the same time boast about having saved thousands or even millions of Jews during the Holocaust". As the Franco regime relaxed its grip, Jews were allowed to immigrate, synagogues were opened and the communities could hold discreet activities.

How did the democratic period turn the page on past horrors? Important transformations took place at the institutional and legal level. In 1980 the Law of Religious Freedom implemented the new constitution’s provision for freedom of religion. In 1992, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion, the Spanish King Juan Carlos I visited the Madrid synagogue in an act filled with great symbolism. In 2015 the government approved a law that allowed the acquisition of Spanish citizenship for 15.000 Sephardic Jews that are descendants of Jews expelled in the 15th Century. At the same time, as a result of the guard rails set up to guide Spain’s transition to democracy (1975-1978), those that shepherded the nation through this time bought into the notion that silence is the key to paving the way to peace and stability. This left also the issue of antisemitism unaddressed and unacknowledged. Thus, due to a lack of clear unequivocal condemnation of this way of thinking, prejudice continued to rear its head in both predictable and also unexpected ways.

Negative Opinions of "imaginary" Jews

Comparative international survey studies conducted since the turn of the century have identified Spain as one of the countries in Western Europe in which antisemitism is the most pronounced. The 2009 released study by the Externer Link: Pew Research Center's Pew Global Attitudes & Trends noted that 46 percent of the Spanish population rated Jews unfavorably. Spain was the non-Muslim country with the most negative views of Jews. A more recent Externer Link: 2018 Pew study did not include that specific question, but Spain still ranked as the second country (after Portugal) in Western Europe with the highest percentage of respondents (36% and 32% respectively) agreeing with an indisputably antisemitic statement, namely that "Jews always pursue their own interests and not the interest of the country they live in". These results echo a trend shown by the ADL studies on Externer Link: Attitudes toward Jews and the Middle East, and the more recent Externer Link: ADL Global 100 Survey from 2019. While the proportion of negative and stereotyped views seems to be diminishing among Spaniards, this latter study situates Spain with an Index score of 28%, the highest percentage of tested antisemitic stereotypes among Western European countries in 2019. At the same time, according to the 2018 Pew study, Spain is the country ranking lowest in terms of the population’s knowledge about Judaism, and where the fewest respondents (only 18% of the sample) actually knew personally someone who is Jewish.

A study based on discussion group methodology that I conducted in 2009 showed the extent to which Spanish antisemitism can be directly related to the absence and invisibility of Jews in the country . Contrary to other religious and ethnic minorities (such as Muslims of Moroccan immigration background), non-visibility, the absence of differentiation of the Jewish minority (few in number and also indistinguishable) is accompanied by fantasies and suspicions. And it leads to discussions about Jews that frequently rely on stereotypical antisemitic images: the attribution of their secrecy, their hiding under different flags, their duplicitous behavior used to advance special interests: "Behind the scenes, they pull all the strings . . "Well you see, we never really know. . . . There are Jews everywhere" "They plot . . . and you don't even know it" … "They've got the world by the rope . . ."

These statements were made by very different types of groups, among middle aged and elderly, urban, middle- to lower-middle class, conservative and progressive. The qualitative study has shown that in Spain discussion about "the Jews" operates in categories of thought whose only substantiation is the repetition of unreflective and unprovable declarations of a negative kind. Still, we have identified decline of explicit religious-based antisemitic expressions (espoused in our sample only by older people in small or medium scale rural settings). What constitutes a hallmark of the situation in Spain is the sheer level of intensity of these discourses as well as their widespread usage across a broad swathe of socio-economic, political and cultural milieus.

Even if the (explicit) religious element is diluted, it acts as a lens or underlying framework for all the other discourses and encompassing Israel-related antisemitism (as we will see below). While there is a weakening of Catholicism at the level of religious practice, secularization and modernization has not yet dampened its symbolic value and the emotions it triggers. In this respect, we may also say that with the passing of time, "exculturation", the process by which Spanish culture and identity uncouples from Catholicism, will have a direct influence on the issue of antisemitism in Spain, weakening inherently antisemitic semantics and argumentative structures.

Antisemitic Israel-critique

Both the survey data and the kind of topoi and language identified in the qualitative study point to the fact that in Spain there is no taboo on speech that would demand restraint on these types of expressions (methodologically, a relevant factor to explain the Spanish data in comparison to that of other Western European countries). In Spain, openly derogatory, stereotypical comments remain in use and are tolerated. "Traditional" manifestations of antisemitism, or anti-Judaism, continue to exist and occasionally appear in popular and religious culture in Spain. But the bulk of anti-Jewish expressions in public discourse rear its head predominantly in media representations of the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict. These usually take the form of criticisms, accusations and condemnations that extend above and beyond the State of Israel (its government, its institutions, representatives, etc.), depicting "the Jews" as a monolithic, homogeneous bad actor with its clutches on every inch of the globe. Cartoons have become a particularly apt vehicle to pinpoint specific "Spanish" interpretations of the conflict. During the years of the Second Intifada, throughout the Lebanon war of 2006, and the Gaza conflicts in the last decade, newspapers and magazines published a great many cartoons in which Israelis, Israel as a whole, or Jewish symbols were linked to the killing of children and to themes of vengeance and cruelty. The depictions echoed ancient anti-Jewish imagery in the Iberian Peninsula and also incorporated stereotypes of modern antisemitism such as charges of sowing disorder, the subjugation of others, and the evocations and analogies between Israelis and Nazis. While clearly more pronounced in left wing and left-leaning papers, antisemitic Israel critique can be found as well in conservative outlets such as La Razón or El Mundo.

In sum, given the faint presence of Jews in a country with a substantive and lengthy antisemitic tradition, Israel and the conflicts in which it is embroiled in has very often become the lightning rod in which attitudes and opinions regarding Jews converge. In other words, the conflict in Israel feeds and paves the way for flare-ups of long-simmering prejudices where the situation is interpreted through a prism that leans heavily on anti-Jewish stereotypes, which are rarely questioned (precisely because they surface predominantly in the context of the conflict).

The analysis shows, however, that over the last decade the number and intensity of this kind of unambiguous antisemitic rhetoric in the mainstream media is declining. Part of this shift is due to the critical voices raised from within the media by a cohort of younger journalists and also efforts made by a more vocal and publicly active Spanish Jewish community .

Blindness to Antisemitism in Spanish Politics

On the occasion of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Spain in July 2016, the Madrid branch of the party Izquierda Unida (United Left) tweeted an image of a thick-lipped Obama hugging an Orthodox Jew and grabbing a wad of money bills from his pocket (corresponding image see Externer Link: here). It used the hashtag #ObamaGoHome. To criticism regarding this racist unabashed anti-Jewish propaganda the party responded that it never intended to offend Jewish people, "but to denounce the role played by the State of Israel."

The incident illustrates a threefold characteristic particularly pronounced among sectors of the Spanish left. First, that critique of Israel continues to embrace periodically, without any inhibition or intellectual contradiction, the stereotypes that once were the exclusive components of classic antisemitism: Jews are rich, manipulative and mean-spirited. Secondly, the blending of Israel critique with anti-American/anti-imperialist ideas. Thirdly, the reaction captures one of the hallmarks of antisemitism in Spain: its non-recognition. Israel and the conflict not only blocks reflection on antisemitism but allows its rationalization and justification. A particular myopia persists among the left that considers antisemitism a problem of the past: linked to Nazism, the Spanish dictatorship and its nationalist and religious manifestations. Everything that is grouped under the rubric "anti-Zionism" would be free of such accusations and condemnation, even if it traffics in unequivocally antisemitic cultural understandings .

The international Externer Link: Matisyahu controversy of the summer of 2015 also substantiated the problem of unacknowledged and normalized Spanish left-wing antisemitism. The American reggae artist Matisyahu was vetoed from performing at an international music festival in Valencia because he refused to issue a statement endorsing a Palestinian state. Only from this singer, who is Jewish, the festival organizers demanded such a declaration.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Spanish conservatism has undergone a significant transition in regards to Israel and Jewish matters. We must note that an inherent ready-made bias against Israel was part of the legacy of the dictatorship, and this perspective did not vanish with the blink of an eye. Spain was the last European country to recognize Israel, in 1986, and this took place during Prime Minister Felipe González government, who had been elected on a social-democratic platform (PSOE) four years before. Nowadays, the conservative People’s Party (PP) is declaratively more pro-Israel, even if its foreign policy has not differed significantly from that of PSOE (the two parties have alternated in government for most of the democratic period). As the political parties jostle for power, new tactics emerge and the accusation of antisemitism has become a charged tool employed by conservative politicians against their adversaries (with or without proper foundation). But at the same time, old cringeworthy antisemitic expressions in the Spanish language occasionally see the light day in public statements, across the political spectrum. For instance, in February 2014, the President of the Regional Government of Extremadura, Jose Antonio Monago, who belongs to the People’s Party, referred critically to the fiscal balances in the country as "a market of Jews".

The strong rise of the ultranationalist party Vox in 2019 opened the door to the anti-globalist discourse with its concomitant myths and falsehoods. Echoing several other right-wing populist parties in Europe, Vox is openly pro-Israel and is quick to denounce left-wing antisemitism. At the same time Vox indulges in conspiracy theories invoking the demonized figure of the Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros, whom they accuse of supporting Catalan separatism and financing irregular immigration in Spain .

In February 2021, during a Externer Link: demonstration of more than 300 neo-Nazis in Madrid, an 18-year-old activist named Isabel Peralta addressed the crowd and said, "the enemy will always be the same albeit wearing different masks—the Jew." The rally was held to pay tribute to the Blue Division, the Spanish volunteers who fought alongside the Nazis in World War II. On this occasion, antisemitism was consensually and unequivocally condemned across the political spectrum. However, the condition for its recognition and rebuke was that it manifested in its most blatant and radical form.

Holocaust carnivals and (ab)uses of memory

When Spain emerged from the grip of the Franco regime in the late 70s, the history of the Holocaust and its legacy -banned by the dictator- was simply abandoned by the nascent democracy. Initially the Holocaust only gained the public’s attention when the American film and TV series hit the airwaves, but it is only in the last fifteen years, that Spain has gradually joined the wider European debates about World War II and the memory of the Holocaust.

This still peripheral connection to the events and their memory is an additional factor explaining the problem at hand. Whereas in most Western European countries the memory of the Holocaust is more likely to safeguard against explicit forms of antisemitism, Spain typically has existed on the margins of these European sensitivities. The following example serves as further illustration. In February 2020, a Holocaust-themed carnival parade in the Castillian town of Campo de Criptana hit headlines across the globe . The performance featured people dressed as Nazis, lines of dancing Jewish concentration camp inmates, children wearing yellow stars and a parade float designed like a crematorium (for instance see Externer Link: here: Holocaust-themed carnival float in Campo de Criptana, Februray 2020).

In this case, the town council replied to the outcry – which included the Spanish government, the Jewish communities, and the state of Israel – claiming that permission for the act had been granted on the understanding that it would honor the dead of the Holocaust. It became clear that there was no deliberate malicious intent, but the case also showed the extent to which among the general populace there are still few inhibitions in Spain in freely speaking about or depicting Jews or the Holocaust that cross the line leading to outrage or shame.

In 2008 Spain joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Since then numerous educational initiatives, including cultural programming and teacher training seminars, have been undertaken by Externer Link: Centro Sefarad-Israel, a Spanish public institution. In July 2020 the Spanish government adopted the IHRA´s working definition of antisemitism. The country also holds an annual official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, in accordance with its IHRA commitments. But these developments are also setting up an inevitable clash between the transnational imperative to remember the Holocaust and the national directive embraced in the Spanish Transición, that called for forgetting Francoism. An exceptionally heated and polarized political debate between the left –advocating for the recovery of historical memory of the dictatorship and the Civil War– and the right, who vehemently opposes so-called "memoria histórica", serves today as the backdrop for a set of specifically Spanish narratives in relation to the Holocaust and, indirectly, Jews . These range from the appropriation and instrumentalization of memory to an outward rejection of its current form. Conservatives, and even Vox, have embraced the tenets of Holocaust remembrance in the country, while conveniently stressing the Shoah's singularity and incomparability. At the same time, left-wing and Catalan separatist parties have emphasized Franco’s role as a Nazi collaborator and fused the memory of Spanish Republicans to that of the Holocaust. But such presentations can lead to historical distortions that are not devoid of antisemitic undertones. For example, on Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th of 2020, Pablo Iglesias, Second Deputy Prime Minister of Spain and Secretary-General of the left-wing Podemos party, managed to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz without mentioning Jewish victims. "Tens of thousands of people were murdered there (sic)", he wrote in a Tweet, "including hundreds of Spanish Republicans who were marked with an inverted red triangle. Memory so as not to repeat history. Fascism never again." Iglesias subsumed Auschwitz under the generic term Fascism and voided remembrance entirely of its Jewish specificity and significance.

The Spanish Paradox

Even if there are occasionally incidents of threatening graffiti on Jewish community facilities (the latest one in December of 2020 at the Jewish cemetery of the Jewish Community in Madrid ), physical attacks on Jews and more violent incidents of antisemitism have been very rare occurrences in Spain (for instance see Externer Link: here: Graffiti reading "Raus" and "Holohoax" written on the wall of the Jewish cemetery near Madrid in December 2020..

There is a significant gap between the strong antisemitic rhetoric and the rather scarce number of confrontational destructive antisemitic acts. Most Spanish Jews will confirm this paradox: Jews usually live a free and integrated life in Spanish society and, at the same time, are exposed to antisemitic clichés in everyday situations. The dominant strand of antisemitism that exists in Spain in its various modalities can thus be considered, not secondary, but primal. To this day antisemitic statements can be openly aired (often in ignorance that they are actually antisemitic) and the term "antisemitism" itself is still largely unknown by the general public, as the following anecdote illustrates. During a public seminar on antisemitism organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain in 2011 in Madrid, the facade of the assembly hall where the meeting was held was vandalized overnight with anti-Jewish graffiti. As a result of this incident, a police patrol guarded the place during the second day of the event. When the conference participants left the building in the evening, I could not overhear one policemen telling his companion: "the antisemites are leaving".

Alejandro Baer is a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, where he is also director of the "Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS)".