On Judaism in Spain

My uncle asked me if I had noticed anti-Jewish sentiments in Madrid; I’m aware that political correctness isn’t a priority in Spain..

Jews in Europe are facing increasing hostility motivated by anti-Semitism. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews in Europe are facing increasing hostility motivated by anti-Semitism.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation on Skype with my mom while she was visiting my grandparents in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She was seated with my uncle, who had made the trip to the east coast from his home in California. My uncle asked me if I had noticed anti-Jewish sentiments in Madrid, especially in light of the reignited conflict in Gaza. In Paris several synagogues were vandalized, and in Berlin protesters were chanting and calling for a second Holocaust. Germany and France are both countries that have sizable Jewish communities with thriving businesses that are now being met with hostility. I answered my uncle by telling him that there simply are not enough Jews in Spain for there to be any comparable tensions.
There’s plenty of graffiti that expresses sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, or that condemn the actions of Israel, all without using derogatory language or threats.
I shared a workplace anecdote from earlier this year, back when Dylan Farrow’s accusation against Woody Allen were circulating in the press. A Spanish co-worker made an awkward joke, questioning me publicly whether Woody Allen’s alleged behavior was typical of Jews or New Yorkers, knowing that I am Jewish and from New York. It was certainly unpleasant, but I shrugged it off without responding because I’m aware that political correctness isn’t a priority in Spain. I’m aware of my privilege – some of my African-American friends have encountered an appalling amount of disrespect and hostility during their time abroad.
I didn’t react although I was surprised that this teacher would choose to make a joke like that at all, especially because we didn’t share a history of playful banter. This would be excusable if she were a dinosaur and stuck in her ways, but this woman was young and educated.
The suburb where I was a teaching assistant was quite isolated and lacking in diversity. This teacher learned my religion earlier in the year when I had shared a PowerPoint presentation on Thanksgiving in which one slide was devoted to mentioning that Hanukka was occurring simultaneously that year, and that families were finding unique ways to combine the cuisines typical of both holidays, for instance stuffing the turkey with matzo balls and serving latkes with gravy. I didn’t think twice about doing this at the time, but after I finished the presentation, the coordinator requested that I remove that slide from the presentation.
Most recently there was an outcry over social media against the Spanish clothing company Zara, for distributing a pair of children’s pajamas that closely resemble uniforms worn by the prisoners in concentration camps. Perhaps this was an unintentional act of insensitivity and lack of awareness on the part of the fashion designers at Zara, rather than an act of malice. However, it is disconcerting to me that this product made it through all of the stages of production and distribution. Moreover, unfortunately this was not an isolated incident. Zara had previously exhibited a ladies’ handbag that subtly incorporated swastikas in its design.
That these products only received criticism once they were distributed in other countries is indicative of just how underrepresented Jewish people are in Spain. My neighborhood, Lavapies, was the Jewish quarter of Madrid prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 – an expulsion that was only formally addressed by the Spanish government within the last two years.
The government of Spain now intends to offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews as a form of reparations.
Their motivation to do this now are unclear. Perhaps it is out of the goodness of their hearts, or perhaps they are hoping that the offer will attract entrepreneurs and business-savvy minds to help dig the country out of the current economic crisis.
The proposal has been passing through all of the proper channels successfully, which seems like a huge step in the right direction. Ideally, this will happen while I’m still living in Spain so that I can claim it for myself and for my family. With my surname being Catalan, and the evidence that my father’s side of the family can be traced back within Mexico’s Jewish community for generations, I think my claim for Spanish citizenship is airtight.
It is not yet clear how many Sephardim will relocate to Spain and reestablish a community here once the doors open to them. It is also unclear how well they would be received and if their arrival will affect the political and economic climate in this country. I however am most anticipating how this will effect cuisine. Latkes would do well with bravas sauce and a bagel bocadillo de calamares isn’t such a wild stretch of the imagination.
The writer is a Jewish English teacher and writer who has been living in Madrid for two years.