A Rejection of Spain’s Sepharad (Part VI): Spain’s Cultural Diplomat


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I think its a political thing – you need it to have some kind of excuse to be friend of Israel. With this law, you repair the hard feelings of people.’

Laura Kolesnicov, the director of Barcelona’s Reform synagogue ATID, offers her view as we sit in the office in Gracia. This is her reasoning for why Spain passed the Law of Return. The synagogue is minimalist, and from the outside appears to be a block of flats.

What about the ‘correction of a historical error’, I ask. This possibility is deflected by a knowing smile.

Laura’s theory, echoed by journalists, forms another side of the Spanish Government’s inability to fulfil the altruistic claims of their institutions, which I have been exploring through this series of articles.

Since the 1990’s the government has politicised Sephardic identity through using this as a diplomatic negotiator within its relations with Israel. Such a tactic further prevents Sephardim from building an independent, diasporic identity understood in wider society and contextualised in Spain’s recent history.

Judaism, almost as a default, is conflated with Israel.

Although over the last century, the Spanish government has used Jews to forge links with a diverse range of countries, from the Western Axies to Egypt, today their focus is on Israel.

Spain’s recognition of Israel as a state came later than other European countries; their approval was a prerequisite to their joining the EU’s Economic Council in 1986. Within the last decade, mainly under the PP, diplomatic relations have been growing primarily through business.

Although it is not surprising, nor necessarily bad, that Spain is connecting to Israel over their mutual Jewish past and present, it may be accused of instrumentalising Spanish Sephardic culture in order to build a union with Israel.

Because of this partnership, the government institutions which represent Sephardim have become sensitive to shifts in the sociopolitical climate.

The first of such institutions was seen in 2006, with the formation of El Centro Sepharad Israel. Their stated aim is to ‘foster greater knowledge of Jewish culture within Spanish society and to promote the development of ties of friendship and cooperation between Spanish society and Israeli society’.

However, this cultural initiative will potentially be as unstable as relations with Israel.

With the polarisation of the left and right peaking during the nation’s recent recession, the Left being pro-boycott and the Right being pro-trade, we see that promotion of Sephardic Jews has become a factor within this fight.

Through political discourse of the Left and Right, “Jews” has come to represent diplomacy with Israel. Their identity is subject to the unceasing intensification of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the power play of political parties.

I interviewed Isaac Quereb from his office in Madrid this May, the leader of the only politically affiliated group in Spain, the FCJE. Quereb forecasts the centre’s political instability: ‘If an extreme Left party got in, we can’t be sure whether or not the Government would leave the Centro de Sepharad’.

The Centro’s lack of concern for the reality of Spain’s Sephardim, is suggested by Irit Green, an ex-Politician of the Israeli Government and a Sephardi local to Madrid who I interviewed over the phone:

‘It is a Government business you can say. For instance – a very sensitive thing – they made a conference on anti-Semitism on the same day that we have Shavuot, the celebration when we receive the Torah. Sometimes we have a big event in the community, while they choose to hold an event at the same time.’

In a similar model to El Centro Sepharad Israel, the PP have just announced the opening of a Ladino language center in Israel this year. Ladino is the original language of Sephardim, and is seldom learnt by the young Sephardic generations of today. Although this is positive in terms of the preservation of Ladino, the nine academics hired from Israel could have helped to stimulate more academic presence within Spain’s universities.

The Guardian reported that when Isaac Quereb was asked what he thought of Spain’s new language center in Israel, ‘he would prefer the institute to be based in Spain rather than Israel’.

Although Darío Villanueva, the RAE director, earnestly told El País concerning the center, ‘We must pay this historic debt’, it is dubious why this would manifest in Israel, not Spain.

The Law, however, is the best example of the repercussions of Judaism’s mercurial nature in the political realm today.

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