Why Israel should oppose the Catalonia referendum

Should Catalonians be able to decide their own future?

Students in Catalonia march in support of the region's independence, September 2017 (photo credit: JON NAZCA/ REUTERS)
Students in Catalonia march in support of the region's independence, September 2017
(photo credit: JON NAZCA/ REUTERS)
In September 1962, the US Supreme Court ruled, against racist state legislation, that the black citizen James Meredith was entitled to study at the University of Mississippi.
When, in spite of that, angry mobs prepared to take to the street to prevent the implementation of the ruling, JFK, then US president, sent the National Guard to enforce the court decision.
To justify his actions, JFK stated: “Americans are free to disagree with the law, but not to disobey it. For in a government of laws and not of men, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law.
If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men, by force or threat of force, could long defy the commands of our court and our Constitution, then no law would stand free from doubt, no judge would be sure of his writ, and no citizen would be safe from his neighbors.”
Believe it or not, there are strong parallels between those historic days in Mississippi and the Catalonia of 2017. As then, today the Spanish government has been forced to deploy the national police to the northeastern region to enforce the law of its democracy and the ruling of its Constitutional Court.
Today, as then, those security forces have to face radical crowds who abuse them, while local police sometimes are not as decisive in upholding the public order. And, as in the 1960s Mississippi, in modern-day Catalonia an angry, vocal segment of the population pretends to speak for everybody while intimidating the peaceful, law-abiding majority.
Let’s start with the obvious: The independence movement in Catalonia is not a legitimate fight for the self-determination of an oppressed people. Catalonia has enjoyed for 40 years one of the highest levels of self-rule of any region in Europe, with its own parliament, devolved healthcare and education systems and even its own police. Catalonia is no colony, as all its citizens enjoy the same rights (and some additional privileges) as their fellow Spanish compatriots. Catalonia has no historic basis for independence as it was a foundational part of Spain and at no time was it ever an independent political entity. And Catalonia has little reason for complaint, being one of the richest regions in Spain, enjoying a high standard of living.
What then is happening in Catalonia? The secessionist regional minority government, with its well subsidized network of supremacist groups and associations, is the one pushing for an illegal referendum on independence. Catalonia has been led by a corrupt and radical elite that sees the national institutions of Spain, its judiciary and police, as a menace. That clique has spent decades manipulating the history lessons in schools, promoting disaffection with Spain, fostering xenophobia and hatred with its publicly funded media outlets, and creating a system of cultural and social bullying against those who disagree with its plans.
This leads us to this weekend’s showdown where, in an illegal vote in Catalonia, courts of law are defied and democracy is in danger.
And why is the vote illegal? Why should the Catalans not be allowed to vote? First, no group can decide regarding something that it does not own. A part cannot rule over the whole. And, as in any trust or mutual enterprise, a portion of its members cannot vote on decisions affecting all of them, much less when they do not allow the rest to vote. A portion of Catalonians cannot decide for themselves to derogate Spain’s Constitution and make most Spaniards foreigners in part of their own country.
Spain’s democratic system allows for these discussions, but in the context of a national parliament decision and a national vote. A vote that, unlike the proposed illegitimate referendum, would be based on an official census, full procedural guarantees and, most likely, a required minimum participation and qualified majority, as one should expect when talking about breaking a country.
Banning this illegal referendum should not be considered a restriction of political freedom.
A governor of the US or the president of a regional council in Israel would be in jail by now had he pushed for such an illegal action.
Since the advent of democracy in Spain, Catalans have enjoyed freedom and a recognition of their regional peculiarities. Secessionists have been free enough to remove Spanish national symbols from the institutions they control, without consequences.
They have also been able to banish the Spanish language (spoken by a majority of the local population) from education and official documents and transactions, from the local public TV and radio stations, substituting it entirely with the local Catalan language, with no consequences. In short, we are now experiencing the consequences of secessionists being, for decades, not oppressed, but rather allowed to do as they please.
The pretended oppression of Catalan self-governing aspirations reaches a point of farce when a sitting regional president, Carles Puigdemont, calls on the population to subvert the national constitution and legal framework that are the only sources of his legitimacy as senior representative of the state in the region. Mr. Puigdemont never won an election (he was not the candidate) or the majority of the people’s vote. That compelling is the credibility of his position.
In this context, Spanish Jews are subject to the same tribulations as the rest of the country: Discussions in the community centers and at social gatherings have a somber tone of concern and preoccupation. Spain is a young democracy and this very serious institutional and constitutional challenge might have unbalancing consequences affecting everybody’s lives. It is well-known that historically moderate Catalanism was sympathetic to Israel and generally pro-Jewish. A lot of Catalonian Jews voted and supported those regionalist parties.
However, the political landscape abruptly changed, and the public face of the pro-Israel movement in Catalonia is radical nationalists who use the Israel cause as a vehicle and excuse to promote their own local interests, even at the expense of Israel’s.
Furthermore, as moderates lost prominence, the independence movement is led by violent radicals who are as anti-Israel as they are anti-Spanish. They are members of BDS-supporting parties like those that have approved boycotts against Israel in many of Catalonia’s cities or invited infamous terrorist Leila Khaled to speak at a Barcelona City Council-sponsored event.
An independent Catalonia would be in the hands of extreme anti-Israel groups. In contrast, the constitutionalist camp is solidly pro-Israel.
While the local Jewish communities prospered in democratic Spain, they also pushed for the betterment of relations between Spain and Israel. The pro-Israel groups also promoted a more vocal and resolute denunciation of Palestinian terrorism and their delegitimization tricks in international institutions by the administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. And some organizations, such as ACOM (Action and Communication on the Middle East), have vigorously fought against anti-Israel BDS campaigns and their funding, politically and legally.
Sometimes Spain abused an asymmetric relationship with the Jewish state. Yet, Israel still considers Spain as an ally in Europe and the Mediterranean, and it cannot sit neutral between legitimacy and sedition or be equivocal about the illegal independence process in Catalonia. As a liberal democracy, Israel should favor the rule of law in Spain, and make its voice heard, together with other Western allies such as the US, the EU, France and Germany, in support of Spain’s constitutional order. And it should hope Spain recognizes the signs of friendship and responds in kind with a more reliable friendship.
In doing so, Israel will also ensure that at no point will the Spanish Jewish communities, strongly Zionist, be accused of incompatible loyalties between Spain and Israel, and targeted by those who always look to claim dubious fidelity of Diaspora Jews toward their legitimate national governments.
In these uncertain times we remain hopeful that reason will prevail, and confident in the triumph of the moral solution. And we remember those days in Mississippi, and the victory of the rule of law and democracy over hatred and illegality.
The writer is a member of the Spanish Congress from Barcelona on behalf of the Ciudadanos Party.