The history of the Jews and Spain was rocky for centuries, with Spain giving Jews a “choice” of expulsion, forced conversion or death in 1492. But a new chapter opened 25 years ago when Spain and Israel established diplomatic relations on January 17, 1986. It was the first time that Spain recognized the State of Israel, and it was a watershed moment for both nations.
What has happened since? The relationship between Spain and Israel, and Spain and Jews has hit a rocky, but hopefully not irreversible, patch.
In what could be a more than problematic development, Spain upgraded its diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian Authority this last fall, perhaps foreshadowing its recognition of a Palestinian state. That possibility, outside of bilateral negotiations, would undermine and jeopardize an already precarious peace process by removing Israel from the equation.
Another disturbing sign of trouble: the Pew Research Center’s 2008 Global Attitudes Project found 46 percent of Spanish residents held an unfavorable view of Jews. Just three years earlier, 21% held an unfavorable view of Jews in a similar survey. These shocking numbers propelled Spain to the top of the list of European nations with a poor view of Jews.
To be sure, this is a distressing development.
But the poll cannot be used only to define the relationship between Spain and Jews and Spain and Israel.
These broadly held attitudes must also be viewed as a teachable moment.
TO SOME extent, the Spanish government has acknowledged the problem of
anti-Jewish sentiment. In February 2007, Spain launched Casa
Sefarad-Israel in Madrid to teach the public about Judaism and Jewish
culture. The center also studies the Sephardi culture as “integral” to
Spanish culture, and aims to “promote the development of the ties of
friendship and cooperation between Spanish and Israeli societies.”
Upon its launch, Casa Sefarad-Israel was described by Spain’s foreign minister as “an instrument of public diplomacy.”
Such a program is vital in a nation with only 40,000 Jews out of a population of nearly 46 million.
It is important to review history in considering the
Spanish-Jewish-Israel connection. At the time of the Inquisition, Spain
was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, and Jews
had a deep impact on all aspects of society. Even now, more than 500
years later, the imprint left behind by Spain’s Jews is vital to
understanding the country.
With so few Jews in the country, it is highly likely that most Spanish
citizens never encounter them, and that could account for some of the
negative views. Personal contact could help change hearts and minds.
That’s where nongovernmental organizations, civil society and Jewish
groups come in. These groups must work to bridge the knowledge gap
through community outreach and educational endeavors.
It is incumbent on the whole of Spanish society to partner with these
groups to teach tolerance and understanding. The media can also be
helpful in that process.
While many leaders may appreciate Jewish contributions to Spain, an
understanding of the larger Middle East picture is less apparent. Given
the choice, Spanish governments have too often chosen to view the
Israel-Palestinian issue through a narrow lens, which more often than
not does not appear to be objective. The continuing impression is that
too often the relationship is with the Arab world to the exclusion of
This narrative presents a misguided path that government leaders must be careful to avoid.
Former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar’s defense of Israel, and his
understanding of its predicament as part of the broader Middle East,
embodies the best of what future relations could be. Last June, he wrote
a powerful defense of Israel’s predicament for The Times of London.
At the same time, he launched the “Friends of Israel” group to offer a
strong counterpoint to what often seems like an international campaign
to demonize and delegitimize Israel.
A friend like this emerging from Spain is perhaps the best chance for an
attitude adjustment within Spain. Even out of office, such leading by
example can help reset the tone for his country.
The 25th anniversary of the formalization of Spanish-Israel relations
marks a great opportunity to renew and review and remember a sometimes
glorious and sometimes tragic history in Spanish-Jewish relations, while
looking ahead to future collaboration.
The writer is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.