A virulently anti-Israel tribunal likened to a “lynching” by the Israeli Embassy in Madrid is the most recent in a spate of anti-Semitic incidents instigated by Spaniards. This flurry of attacks on Israel has caused us to pause and ask, What is happening on the Iberian peninsula and what can we do to combat it?
Gathering at the beginning of this month in Barcelona, which in the 13th century hosted one of Jewish history’s most illustrious communities, the tribunal, which did not include a representative of Israel, was tasked with examining “on what level the European Union and its member states are complicit in… violations on the part of Israel of the rights of the nation of Palestine.”
The Israeli Embassy said it was no coincidence that the “Rusell Tribunal,” named after British philosopher Bertrand Russell, was held in Spain and that it was funded by Barcelona’s city hall, noting the “worrying situation of anti-Semitism” in the country.
At the end of February, meanwhile, the embassy received dozens of postcards written by Spanish schoolchildren with messages such as “Jews kill for money,” “Leave the country to the Palestinians” and “Go somewhere where they will accept you.”
And in mid-February, Ambassador to Spain Rafi Shotz protested the display of two pieces of art at the International Art Fair in Madrid with virulently anti-Israel messages. One is a sculpture of a menorah sprouting from the barrel of an Uzi sub-machine gun. The other is a highly realistic polyurethane sculpture of a hassid standing on the shoulders of a Catholic priest who is kneeling on a prostrate Muslim worshiper, called “Stairway to Heaven.”
In an interview with El Pais, Catalan artist Eugenio Merino, who made both sculptures, defended his art with the claim that “Stairway to Heaven” has been bought by a Belgian Jew for €45,000.
Ambassador Shotz, who was verbally assaulted last year with epithets such as “dirty Jew,” “Jew bastard” and “Jew murderer” when he and his wife returned from a soccer game accompanied by police, chose not to demand the removal of the displays, fearing it would spark additional anti-Semitic incidents.
Spain has a long, infamous history of anti-Semitism that pre-dates the Inquisition. For centuries after the 1492 Expulsion, Spaniards enforced the ban against Jews setting foot on Spanish soil. Francisco Franco’s fascist, pro-Arab dictatorship that ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975 stoked anti-Israel sentiments.
Now the left-wing prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is aligned with anti-globalization activists whose agenda includes strong anti-Israel sentiments. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Zapatero, with a keffiyeh thrown around his neck, told a group of young socialists that “no one should defend themselves with abusive force which does not protect innocent human beings.”
A year earlier, he was quoted as saying that “someone might justify the Holocaust.”
Zapatero, who took power in a surprise election victory following Islamist train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and immediately pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, was reelected in 2008. In September 2009, the Anti-Defamation League published a report titled “Polluting the Public Square: Anti-Semitic Discourse in Spain” in which it expressed concern over viciously anti-Semitic cartoons and articles in Spain’s mainstream media, and opinion polls conducted over the preceding year showing an alarming rise in anti-Semitic attitudes. All this is in a country with no more than 30,000 Jews out of a population of almost 47 million.
How is Israel to cope with the Spanish challenge? Obviously, Ambassador Shotz cannot brave it alone. Nor can we expect tremendous results from Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein’s new idea to conscript ordinary Israelis, who happen to be traveling abroad, to fight the PR fight, no matter how much we arm them with the “tools and tips.”
A positive start would be to streamline PR. It makes no sense to disperse responsibility among the Foreign Ministry, the IDF Spokesman’s Office, the Government Press Office and Edelstein’s new project, not to mention the apparatus Ehud Olmert established in the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as a new grouping being overseen by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Even the best public diplomacy, of course, however, will not eradicate ingrained Spanish anti-Semitism. That’s a challenge for Spain to meet.