Spain, Jews and Israel: 25 years after formal relations

The 25th anniversary of formalization of Spanish-Israel relations marks great opportunity to renew, review, remember sometimes glorious and sometimes tragic history.

Israel_Spain_311 (photo credit: Ohad Kaner)
(photo credit: Ohad Kaner)
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 Israel.
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.