Will Spain Repudiate Anti-Semitism?

In a little Spanish town a forthcoming election night will be like no other. The issue of anti-Semitism has rarely been a subject for mirth. But whatever its outcome, the bizarre election to be held on May 25, 2014 in Castrillo Matajudios, a small village in Spain, a territory of about 8 square miles, with 56 adult inhabitants is a cause for merriment. Some elections have changed the course of history. The referendum in the village near Burgos is not likely to be one of them but it may be an indication of changes in attitudes towards the virus of anti-Semitism.

The question on the ballot is whether or not to change the name of the village from its present name, which is translated as “Kill the Jews” to one that means “Hill or Mound of the Jews.” The issue has a long history. In 1035, the Jews living in the area were dispossessed of their belongings and were forced from their homes. They then settled on a mound in the area where their descendants lived until the royal edict in 1492 when all Jews were given the choice: convert to Catholicism or be expelled from Spain. Of the 700,000 Jews then living in the country most took the latter alternative and left, and remained as Sephardic Jews. Many of those who took the first option, converted or pretended to convert, were subjected to persecution by the Inquisition.

Spain was not the first, nor the only country, to expel its Jewish citizens. The British King Edward I, had expelled all Jews from England in 1290; they were allowed back by Oliver Cromwell in 1656. Portugal had quickly followed Spain by expelling its Jews in 1497.

It took some time, exactly 476 years, for Spain to reconsider its hostile act against Jews. However, on December 16, 1968 an edict rescinded the expulsion order, and at present there are about 12,000 Jews living in the country. Spain went further on February 1, 2014 in its saga of recompense for past sins by offering to grant Spanish nationality to the descendants of those expelled in 1492. This was, the Spanish Minister of the Interior said, an attempt to rectify one of Spain’s “most important historical errors.”

It is unlikely that many descendants of Spain’s former 700,000 Jewish inhabitants will help rectify this historical error. They are more likely to be concerned about the attitudes in present-day Spain as elsewhere in Europe. The mayor of Castrillo, in favoring the renaming of his village, said that people think “this is a place where Jews were killed and that this is where they hate Jews. But the opposite is true. This is where Jews lived. We have nothing against anyone.”

If only this were true. The surveys about the extent of anti-Semitism in Spain, even if they differ on details, show otherwise. Survey reports in 2012 suggest that 53% of the Spanish population hold anti-Semitic beliefs. This was an increase from 48% in 2009. About 72% believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their own country: this is the highest proportion of any European country surveyed. Some 60% believe that Jews have too much power in the business world, and 47% hold that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

Spain is far from being the worst European country in manifestations of anti-Semitism. In the dismal grading of evil forces the worst are Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and Belgium.The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry cites increasing anti-Semitism in the countries it studied. About half of the Jewish population in Europe profess to be afraid of being verbally or physically attacked in a public place because they are Jewish. Because of fear of attack or abuse, about a third of Jews do not wear religious garb or Jewish symbols.

Visual and verbal anti-Semitism has been shown by insults, abusive language and behavior, threats and harassment, as well as vandalism, violent incidents, and terrorist attacks. Perhaps most troubling has been the emergence of extreme political parties that proclaim anti-Semitism as part of their appeal. The Kantor Center reports comments on the correlation between the growth of extreme right-wing parties and the high level of anti-Semitic manifestations. The most disturbing at the moment are Jobbik in Hungary, Svoboda in Ukraine, and Golden Dawn in Greece, which have uniformed militias and use salutes and symbols that resemble those of Nazi Germany, and make public use of anti-Semitic texts, especially the well-known forgery, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

Jobbik in April 2014 got 20% of the national election, and now is the third-largest party in the Hungarian National Assembly. One of its leaders, Marton Gyongyosi, made clear that “people of Jewish ancestry who live in Hungary pose a national security risk.” The party opposed a meeting in Budapest in May 2013 of the World Jewish Congress. Using confusing terminology that is in itself revealing, Jobbik denounced “The Israeli conquerors, these investors (who) should look for another country because Hungary is not for sale.”

Svobada, founded in 1991, has increased its public support. It won 10% of the vote and five seats in the 2012 parliamentary election, making it the fourth largest party.  Those members of parliament often inject anti-Semitic remarks into their speech. The party leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, though he claims he is not anti-Semitic, wants Ukraine to be liberated from “the Muscovite-Jewish Mafia,” and has called for the end of the “criminal activities of organized Jewry.” Its deputy leader founded a think tank that was originally called “The Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.”

The Greek Golden Dawn party, founded in 1993, gained 7% of the vote and 21(later reduced to 18) parliamentary seats at the 2012 national election. Its leader, Nikolaos Michalolia, who gives the Nazi salute at meetings of the Athens City Council, proclaims, “We are the faithful soldiers of the National Socialist (Nazi) ideas and nothing else. We shout full of passion… Heil Hitler.” The party uses swastikas at its meetings, while its leader denies the existence of gas chambers and ovens at Nazi extermination camps.”

An encouraging sign is the decline in traditional Christian religious anti-Semitism. However, the perceived causes of anti-Semitism differ from one country to the next: it comes not only from the far right but also from extreme left-wing parties, from the Muslim communities in Europe, and also from unexpected sources.  One study, published in German in March 2014, which analyzes 14,000 letters and emails addressed to Jewish authorities in Berlin concludes that most of the anti-Semitic messages came not from the extreme right, but from educated people, including university professors and students and lawyers, who often view themselves as radicals. In addition to this disturbing news, the study found that the majority of the hate mail also contained criticisms of Israel.

Not surprisingly, the report of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in November 2013, that had collected data on perceptions of anti-Semitism in European countries, concluded that there were few signs that daily insults, discrimination, harassment, and even physical violence against Jews were abating. One interesting sign, whether it be regarded as sincere or “damage control,” came on April 27, 2014 from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who referred to the Holocaust as “the most heinous” modern crime and expressed sympathy with the victims and their families.  Can one anticipate another sign from the forthcoming vote in the Spanish village that may indicate that the existing serious challenges in the form of racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism, are being met?

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.