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Dear Spain: Want To Attract Jews? You’re Doing It Wrong.

Dear Spain,

I couldn’t help but notice your overtures in recent years to appeal to Jewish tourists and immigrants. In an ostensible gesture of righting a historic wrong, Spain recently began offering citizenship to descendants of expelled Spanish Jews. A new museum dedicated to Jewish heritage is about to open in Málaga. There is a general sense that Spaniards are thirsting for a connection to their Jewish past.

In theory, I appreciate this. Jewish culture is indeed tied deeply into your own. It is estimated that around 20% of Spaniards have some Jewish blood.

That said, I was not particularly surprised to see that the response to your efforts has been, shall we say, underwhelming. I think I may have some insights as to why they are not bearing much fruit.

You Have an Anti-Semitism Problem, and You Need to Own Up to It

If you want Jews to feel comfortable in your land, first you need to address what it is that makes us so uncomfortable there.

In your defense, it’s not just you. There has been a huge Jewish exodus from European countries in general in the last few years. Your neighbor, France—which boasts the third-largest Jewish population in the world after the USA and Israel—is rapidly losing that population to emigration. Polls show that European Jews feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, schools, and houses of worship.

Why is this?

Mostly, because of anti-Semitism. Statistics show that anti-Semitic incidents have increased dramatically in the last decade or so, and there is a direct correlation between this and the increased incidence of anti-Israel sentiment.

The recent ADL survey on global anti-Semitism found that Spain is the second-most anti-Semitic country in Europe, with about one in three Spaniards subscribing to anti-Semitic views. The old sickness is alive and well in your country.

You Can’t Have Your Jews and Boycott Them, Too

When I visited Barcelona in 2006, I looked forward to visiting the ancient Jewish quarter there with much excitement. Frankly, I was disappointed and saddened by what I found. The Sinagoga Mayor, the ancient synagogue at the heart of the Call, is the only real remaining vestige of Barcelona’s illustrious Jewish past. On the wall outside it is an engraving in Hebrew letters. I had read that it was carved in 1391, when the Jewish population of Barcelona was utterly obliterated a wave of bloody riots. The light in the narrow alley was dim, so it wasn’t until I took a picture with my digital camera that the flash revealed graffiti spray-painted over the carving. It had been painted over, but it was still completely decipherable: “PALESTINA LIBRE.”

Image by Courtesy Daniella Levy

Really, Spain?

Let me spell this out for you: vandalizing centuries-old remnants of Jewish heritage is not pro-Palestinian, no matter what you write on them. It’s just plain old anti-Semitism. Targeting a Jewish community, individual, or symbol because of the actions of someone else who happens to be Jewish is classic anti-Semitism. Many of you don’t seem to know the difference.

Too many of your cities support the BDS movement without realizing that singling out the Jewish State for boycott — while ignoring ghastly human rights abuses in other places such as China or Turkey or Saudi Arabia — is distinctly anti-Semitic. The working definition of anti-Semitism as adopted by the European Parliament, the U.S. State Department, the British government, and the 31 countries comprising the International Holocaust Remembrance alliance, includes the following specific examples: “Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination (e.g. by claiming that the existence of a Jewish State is a racist endeavor)” and “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Both of these attitudes are built into the very foundation of BDS.

Many Spanish cities have bowed to the aggressive pressure from this deceitful movement and declared themselves “free of Israeli apartheid.”

Never mind that the word “apartheid” is a slanderous emotional buzzword that is as applicable to the situation in Israel as the phrase “unicorn factory.” I have some news for you, “Israeli-apartheid-free” cities: a third of the world’s Jews live in Israel. Half of all Israeli Jews are Sephardic, making it by far the largest population of Sephardic Jews on the planet.

How do you expect them to feel welcome when you are boycotting them?

Jewish Cultural Awareness: You’re Doing It Wrong

In perusing the website for the Red de Juderías de España (the Network of Jewish Quarters in Spain) I noticed something rather strange. Look at the sections on Cordoba and Toledo.—two cities of enormous importance in Spanish and Jewish history. Now do a search for the word “judío” (“Jew”). In that entire mass of text allegedly describing these cities’ Jewish heritage, actual Jews are only mentioned once or twice in passing.

If you’re trying to educate people about Jewish history, how about some information on… you know… Jewish history?

The DRAPS restaurant in Girona boasts the only “kosher-style” menu in the city. What does this kosher-style menu feature, you ask? Second item on the menu: “Christmas cava.” You can’t make this stuff up.

A course currently offered at the University of Barcelona is titled “Witches, heretics, Jews, and other medieval realities.” Quite some company you gave me there, professor! Tell me more about how I am a “medieval reality”!

The sense I get is that Jews are to Spain what Native Americans are to many modern-day Americans: a romanticized, exotic people from the past with no real existence in the present. Like the Native Americans, we dostill exist, and we are not pleased with how you relate to our culture.

A Baseline of Ignorance

I recently read an article in The Times of Israel, about the historic Jewish quarter of Ribadavia and its non-Jewish residents who are steeped in Jewish nostalgia. The article described a riverside “Jewish bakery” that sells cookies made from traditional Jewish recipes. The owner displays a menorah and a Virgin Mary standing side by side on the shelf, and says: “They’re together so they’re not jealous. They’re neighbors after all.”

I hate to say this and kill the “kumbaya” vibe, but as a Jew, that image makes me profoundly uncomfortable, for several reasons. One reason is historical: the symbol of the Virgin Mary is one that has been used to persecute my people for centuries. Another reason is religious: according to Judaism, your Virgin Mary figures come dangerously close to idol worship. It makes me a little queasy to think of a menorah being displayed next to one.

As for bakeries run by non-Jews capitalizing on Jewish imagery and recipes to sell their wares, I believe there’s a term for that: cultural appropriation.

Listen, I have nothing against this baker. I wish her all the success in the world. I’m sure she has only the best of intentions and would never want to offend anyone. I’m not protesting her per se; I’m protesting the baseline of ignorance about Jews and Judaism that exists in Spain.

To be honest, it doesn’t exactly surprise me. I have an English translation of a book called The Spanish Jews by Spanish scholar Felipe Torroba Bernaldo de Quirós. Despite its reputation as a respectable academic work, the author clearly makes no effort to hide his opinion about Jews and Judaism. He writes about Jewish converts to Christianity in glowing terms, and worst of all are his “legends of the Jews.” These are not so much “Jewish legends” as “Christian legends about Jews”—legends that are rife with classical anti-Semitic imagery and traces of the blood libel. For example:

“One day, when a group of fervent Christians drew near to kiss the feet of the Crucified, a Jew who had mingled with them soaked the feet of the image with an active poison. An old woman was also approaching to perform the devout action, and at that moment, miraculously, the image withdrew its foot. The Hebrew, enraged, snatched the Christ from the wall, profaned it furiously and buried it in a dung-heap. Next day, when the Christians were looking for the image, a mysterious trickle of blood led the to the place where the bleeding Christ was found. The Jew was stoned, thus purging his horrible sacrilege.” (The Jewish profaner of the Christ of Lightunder Legends of Hebrews in Toledo, p. 67)

This is a well-respected academic authority on Jewish studies in Spain?!

How About Asking Some Actual Jews What Would Bring Them to Spain?

Do you really want to know what would make me want to come?

If I could walk down the street openly wearing a Star of David and not be afraid I will be assaulted.

If my husband and sons could walk with me, wearing their kippot, without being afraid they will be harassed.

If, when asked where I am from, I could answer that I am from Israel, and not worry that I will be attacked.

If I could visit the Jewish quarters of your beautiful country, a place etched deeply into the collective memory of my people—with fondness, and with trauma—and actually see evidence of their presence there. Not a café built on top of an ancient Jewish ritual bath; not a couple of empty alleys bearing the names of famous Jews; not a tiny brass marker installed on the sidewalk with three Hebrew letters to signify that the area used to be a Jewish quarter; I mean real evidence. I mean evidence that the history of my people has been acknowledged, preserved, restored, and respected in your country.

If these overtures of yours are truly sincere, and you’re not just paying lip service to political correctness… maybe you should focus on making those things possible.

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