Spain and Israel – A Tale of Many Turns

by Norman Berdichevsky (Feb. 2009)

On January 17th 1986, Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party Leader Felipe Gonzalez, announced to his cabinet the establishment of diplomatic negotiations to accord recognition to the State of Israel. Barely two months later, on April 14th, Spain’s newly appointed ambassador to Israel, Pedro Lopez Aguirrebengoa, presented his credential in Jerusalem and was welcomed by Israel’s president Itzhak Herzog with the greeting, “Welcome after 500 years.”  That same day, in a welcome to the diplomatic corps, King Juan Carlos declared that “Spain has overcome a situation that had not corresponded with our own history, nor with the present course of our country.”

What the king meant was made explicitly clear in 1990, in bestowing Spain’s most prestigious cultural award, The Prince of Asturias Prize, on the world’s Sephardic Communities. The accompanying text referred to the Sephardim as “a much beloved part of the great Hispanic family who had created an itinerant Spain all over the world and after five centuries of estrangement were assembled for an encounter with their origins and for whom their ancient homeland had opened its door wide forever.”
Despite these auspicious beginnings, Spain’s relations with Israel have reached an all time low. Behind the twin stories of the long 38 year struggle Israel pursued to win diplomatic relations with Spain, and the much longer 5 centuries of hostility and discord between the Spanish state and world Jewry lays a curious, paradoxical, ironic and intriguing tale of hidden contacts and false starts aimed at restoring the much desired idyllic relationship alluded to by the king.
The bitter legacy of the expulsion in 1492, making the Sephardim “Spaniards without a country” and the inquisition, dominated Jewish memories of their ancestral homeland in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. In Spain, the Jews remained on a level with the Moors as infidels in league with the devil. Spain remained judenrein until shortly after the French revolution. Their presence was unofficially recognized by the constitution of 1868, following the fall of the corrupt regime of Queen Isabel II. Nevertheless, not until the turn of the following century was any Jewish public worship permitted.
During that interval, several Spanish intellectuals began to muse and speculate upon what Spain might have lost through the expulsion of the Sephardim who had made outstanding contributions in many walks of life in Northern Europe, principally in the cities of London, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Hamburg and Copenhagen, as well as in the Balkans, the Caribbean Islands and the USA.
Without a doubt, the most notable of these Philo-Semitic intellectuals was Angel Pulido. He devoted much of his life to working on behalf of improving relations; he visited the leading Sephardic centers in the Ottoman Empire, wrote dozens of articles for the Spanish press and three influential books. Pulido spoke before the Spanish Senate, met with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey and with the King of Spain. He achieved a level of sympathy and understanding for the Sephardim among some Spaniards and a sense of loss and regret for the expulsion.
So great was Pulido’s influence that King Alfonso XIII, in an interview with Pulido, declared that he dreamt of a renewed greater Spain and that one of its principal components should be the readmission of the Sephardim and their full civil rights. In 1917, the king used his influence as the head of an important neutral state to demonstrate Spain’s image as a progressive modern nation free from the old antisemitism of the Inquisition and the Medieval Catholic Church. Spanish diplomats put combined pressure on Germany to force the Turkish authorities in Palestine to rescind their order of expulsion against Tel Aviv and the Jewish agricultural colonies.
In 1922, Spain voted in favor of the British mandate for Palestine and republican leaders expressed support for Zionism during a visit to Spain by Chaim Weizman in 1932 although these moves made the Catholic Church uneasy. It was, however, the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939), that for decades determined the attitude of the Zionist movement, Israeli leaders and worldwide Jewish opinion against Francoist Spain. The opposition took place due to the remarkable and still largely unrecognized role played by Spain under Franco in saving 30,000 Jewish refugees who escaped from occupied France or were provided with Spanish visas in the Balkans and enabled to enter Spain during WWII.
It is estimated that almost 20% of all the volunteers in the International Brigades, who came to Spain to fight Fascism were Jews. Their heroism and experiences have been vividly recorded. Their struggle shaped the view of Franco as a close ally of Hitler, but a more objective view would regard Franco as primarily an opportunist, a fervent anti-communist and represented conservative Spanish traditions and aspirations.
The various reactionary factions in Franco’s coalition participated in an orchestrated campaign against “communists and Jews” who rallied to the cause of the Republic and identified them with separatist forces in Catalonia. Their intense dislike of Catalan separatism was linked, in the mind of many Spaniards, with what they perceived as the arrogant, ambitious, commercially oriented and politically progressive Catalans. The Fascist press railed at what they called the “Judeo-Catalan conspiracy” to destroy Spain.
General Franco, however, did not personally employ antisemitic themes in his rhetoric, although several extreme right wing parties had labeled prominent personalities of the Republic on the political left as “secret Jews.” There were also persistent rumors that Franco himself was of “new Christian” (i.e. Jewish) origin from this native Galicia in North Western Spain. The names Franco, as well as Castro, are common among Sephardim. What is undeniable is the action of Spanish authorities, under Franco’s direction, to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
Concern in Spain, especially among high-ranking clergy of the Catholic Church at the prospect of a Jewish state, and the fear that the position of the Church in the Holy land might be damaged, added to the anti-Jewish opinion prevalent in nationalist circles. A considerable number of Moslems had served with Franco when he commanded Spanish forces in Morocco, who joined in the attack on the republic in 1936. In spite of the constant propaganda put forth by the church, that the nationalists were intent on saving Christianity from the evil forces of communism, Franco’s triumph would have been impossible without the participation of large numbers of well trained Moslem troops in the Spanish “Army of Africa.” They were especially hated and feared by most Spaniards in the Republican areas.
Ironically, in spite of the active Jewish underground resistance against the British authorities in Palestine, most Spanish opinion viewed the Zionists as tools of both Anglo-American (Protestant) as well as Soviet communist influence and power. In 1948, no less a personality than Dolores Ibarruri (“La Pasionaria”), the renowned Basque communist deputy in the Spanish Cortes (Parliament), during the Republic and later head of the Spanish communist party in exile, denounced the Arab invasion of Palestine and supported a Jewish state, following the Soviet party line. Years later, the Spanish Communist party and the entire European political Left, was to completely forget this pro-Israeli stance.
Being a political realist, and anxious to break out of the diplomatic isolation in which Spain found itself at the end of WWII, Franco decided that establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would be a clever strategic move. In his view, Israel would not likely become a Soviet puppet state and American Jewish support might put him in good stead in the US and be a more reliable ally than the Arab countries. The latter, in spite of pledges to unconditionally support Spain’s application for membership in the United Nations, had reneged on their promise. They were angered at what they believed to be insufficient Spanish pressure to convince many Latin American states to vote against the partition of Palestine. Israel even found itself in the unusual position of casting an important negative vote at the UN.
The victorious WWII allies carried out a boycott of Spain starting in 1946, and a Brazilian motion to have it lifted provoked Israel to cast its first important vote as a UN member. Israel naturally felt that its vote should take into account Franco’s friendship with the Axis powers and the use of Spanish volunteers (the Blue Division) to fight with the German army on the Eastern front. Moreover, in the pronounced anti-Franco camp were several Latin American states, such as Uruguay and Guatemala that had vigorously supported the partition of Palestine and the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
Added to this was the close emotional bond felt between many Jews and Spanish republicans in exile all over the world. There was also the deep socialist identity and commitment of the Ben Gurion government and its left wing allies opposed to any policy that would benefit General Franco. As the most devoutly Catholic country in Europe, Spain would have been able to provide Israel with considerable benefits, such as modifying the traditionally anti Zionist attitude of the Vatican and its stance on the question of the internationalization of Jerusalem. In hindsight, Israel learnt much to its regret, that it had missed a golden opportunity. It then had to pursue Spain for 38 years and “move mountains” in order to change Spain’s subsequent pro-Arab foreign policy.
In 1950, the leaders of the Sephardic communities in a dozen cities throughout the world, telegraphed Ben Gurion in a vain attempt to prevent a second negative Israeli vote in the UN, on a similar resolution, lifting the economic blockade that had been introduced by the Dominican Republic. More than a few Sephardic representatives came away with the distinct feeling that Israel’s leaders, entirely of Ashkenazi descent, simply believed that the Sephardim counted for little. Nevertheless, secret negotiations took place between Israeli and Spanish diplomats in Turkey, but they led nowhere.
Subsequently, the kings and political leaders of numerous Arab states were invited to Madrid and warmly praised General Franco for his principled stand against recognizing Israel. In December 1955, in spite of appeals by Spanish Republican artists in exile such as Pablo Picasso and Pablo Casals not to abandon the Spanish Republic, Israel made an abrupt about face, by voting in favor of admission of Spain into the United Nations.
Following Israel’s lightning victory in the Six-Day War, several Spanish journalists raised the issue of whether it was still wise for Spain to follow such a pro-Arab policy. This was the more poignant in light of what was clearly a favorable public reaction in Spain, expressing satisfaction over Israel’s defeat of so many Arab states, enjoying the full diplomatic and military backing of the USSR and the communist bloc. Unfortunately, this change in Spanish opinion was offset only a few months later by Israel’s policy regarding Gibraltar.
A Spanish resolution to “decolonize” Gibraltar and “return” it to Spanish rule was submitted to the UN in December 1967. Israel abstained while the entire Arab world voted in favor. This would have been bad enough, but the Israeli representative in the UN explained Israel’s vote with reference to the old accusation that Franco had allowed Spanish volunteers to fight on Hitler’s side at a time when Gibraltar served as a bastion of freedom. Needless to say these gratuitous remarks revived old Spanish biases.
It is also all the more ironic in the light of today’s political constellation in which the Spanish left is aggressively anti-Israel, that 40 years ago opposition to Franco highlighted his pro-Arab stance as being completely out of tune with the position of the United States and its European NATO allies. In spite of the absence of diplomatic and commercial relations and Spain’s pronounced pro-Arab tilt, a certain degree of co-operation took place between the intelligence services of the two countries and as a result of American pressure, Spain made available important American air bases to provide logistical support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
General Franco’s long illness began just before the war and the government fell under the effective control of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, a strange reactionary and eccentric throwback to Spain’s dark ages, who believed that the country’s “real enemies” were communists, Jews and masons. In December 1973, Carrero Blanco was assassinated in Madrid by members of the Basque Separatist Group ETA. Meanwhile, Spain and the PLO reached an understanding that Spain would continue its diplomatic boycott of Israel and that Palestinian guerillas would avoid any terrorist operations on Spanish soil. Nevertheless, Spain found itself in conflict with its Arab “allies” due to their support of the Moroccan king’s attempt to “recover” the Spanish overseas enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
The new king, Juan Carlos, and an innovative approach by Spain’s Socialist Party, looked forward to improving Spain’s image abroad and ending the anomalous situation of Spain being the only West European nation without diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
By the end of 1981, perspectives of the outlook for Israel changed dramatically with Spain’s adherence to NATO. A new Spanish government sought the appropriate moment to begin a new policy but Israel’s “Peace in Galilee” operation and the resulting events at the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon upset the apple cart once again. Pro-Israel circles were dismayed at the speed with which the Spanish press uncritically ignored the revenge motivations of the Christian (Maronite) Falangist militiamen and channeled its hostility against “the Jews,” reinforcing old religious prejudices. However, the approach in 1992, of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion was regarded by many Spaniards as an opportunity to redress the shame of a historic wrong.
New elections in both Israel and Spain brought about the long awaited convergence. The young dynamic leader Felipe Gonzalez had criticized previous Spanish governments for their failure and timidity to approach Israel. The Spanish Socialist Party, however, continued to be divided among those old timers who remembered the days of the Spanish republic, the international brigades, Jewish solidarity, the anti-Franco struggle and the appeal of the Israeli kibbutz but these measures didn’t speak to the younger generation, many of whom grew up with posters of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro on their walls. For them, Israel was a “Yankee satellite.” Gonzalez used his influence and charm to swing the majority behind him, helped by more sophisticated Israel public relations and the local Sephardi communities in Spain and Israel.
A last ditch terrorist effort was made to convince Spain to withhold recognition until all Israeli soldiers had withdrawn from Lebanon. The failure to specify a date, however, gave the Arab states some hope that a major concession might still be obtained, preventing diplomatic relations. Wild talk by Muammar Khaddafi was discounted but even Gonzalez was surprised to learn that the Libyan leader had sent a check for $900,000 to ETA. More shocking was the first Palestinian terrorist action undertaken in Spain on April 12, 1985. Commandos of the Front for the Liberation of Palestine carried out a terrorist attack killing 18 and wounding 82 in a Madrid restaurant. All the dead were Spaniards.
This was a clear warning of what awaited Spain on March 11, 2004 at Atocha – the main train station in central Madrid when Islamic fundamentalists (Moroccan, Syrian and Algerian nationals) linked to al-Qaeda determined to change Spain’s political course and decide the parliamentary election due to take place a few days later, exploded devices that took almost 200 lives and wounded close to two thousand innocent travelers. The net result of the worst outrage in Europe since the end of World War II has been an unprecedented victory of radical Islam against Western civilization. The recent massive demonstration in favor of Hamas and against Israel in Madrid that took place a week before the end of recent hostilities in the Gaza Strip stands in total contradiction to the fond hopes and long negotiations that led up to the historic reconciliation of diplomatic relations achieved in 1986.     
The reality of today is that Spain is the most antisemitic (and probably the most anti-American) country in Western Europe. Five hundred years after the Expulsion, Spanish antisemitism and not just anti-Israeli views is at a fever pitch. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent report, nearly half of all Spaniards now have negative views of Jews compared to 36% of Poles, 25% in Germany, 20% in France and only 7% in the United States. For more than four hundred years there was no Jewish (or Muslim) presence whatsoever in Spain. The strong traditions of antisemitism fostered by the Church became deeply embedded in Spanish folklore. No matter what the shared heritage with the Sephardi Jews, almost all Spaniards and the entirety of the Spanish press support the Palestinian cause and even more so since the Madrid massacre and election of 2004.
The reason can hardly be in doubt. Unlike ETA, the Jews have no weapons of terror to exert blackmail, and Israel has no oil to withhold or threaten like the Arab countries. Spanish politicians on the Left advocate “doing everything to avoid a repetition of March 11th”. To them “Never Again”, means never another act of terrorism, and the price to be paid is a small one; to pacify Islamic extremism and favor the general Arab and Palestinian campaign against Israel on all fronts.
The previous centrist-right government of Jose Maria Aznar had taken a risk in supporting the American intervention in Iraq thereby “provoking” Islamic extremists. It has however, been established that the plans to make a spectacular terrorist attack had been planned well in advance of the 2004 election and even before the Aznar government sent a token military force to Iraq. The Spanish press, mindful of the long tradition of anti-Americanism evident since the Spanish-American War (1898), strongly supported the criticism of the post-Gonzalez Socialist Party’s two favorite targets – Israel and America
In a reversal of the situation in 1986 when the forces of modernism, democracy and turning away from Spain’s old prejudices made the Socialist Party under Felipe Gonzalez welcome relations with Israel, the political Left has since totally embraced the worst prejudices of the past. Spain’s Prime Minister since 2004, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has confirmed the dire and accurate warning made by one of the founding fathers of the Socialist movement in Europe – August Bebel, the head of the SAPD (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, “Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany“), renamed the SPD in 1890 – the ancestor of today’s socialist party in Germany. Bebel criticized the tendency of populist political parties to use the Jews as their scapegoat and accurately proclaimed that “Anti-Semitism is the Socialism of Fools.”
At a dinner party the Moncloa Palace (the Spanish White House) in 2005, Zapatero launched into an antisemitic and anti-Zionist tirade ending with his exclamation that… “It is understandable that someone might justify the Holocaust.” He is the only Western leader to participate in an anti-Israel rally wrapped in a Palestinian kaffiyeh (scarf).  Zapatero refuses to visit Israel and refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “cancer.”
For him and most Spaniards there is an adamant refusal to accept the reality that the extremist anti-Israel forces among the Palestinian Arabs and the Muslim perpetrators of atrocious attacks on innocent Spaniards are one and the same in their ultimate motive as those who seek to “regain” Andalucia and restore the Caliphate, destroying the Spanish state and weakening Western civilization in the process. This policy of appeasement is regarded as the best means of ensuring Spain’s supply of oil (90% provided by Middle Eastern countries) and pacifying Spain’s growing Muslim population of 750,000.
One shining light in Spain is Pilar Rahola,  a feminist, author, and good friend of Israel who first represented a Catalan Liberal-Republican party (ERC) and then a Catalan Independence Party in the Spanish Cortes (parliament), and who has been compared to Oriana Fallaci. She has explained the abject failure of the political Left in her country to educate the public. Even Rahola is now a “Prophet without honor in her own country.” The Catalan and Barcelona government authorities cancelled “Holocaust Remembrance Day” on January 27th because in their view it would not be proper while the “Israelis were carrying out a holocaust against the people of Gaza.” The grotesque analogy drawn is a symptom of the absurd time we live in. Spain’s reactionary King Alfonso XIII was more of a modern and enlightened statesman than Zapatero is.
The language used in the mass media duplicates the language used by the Far Right propaganda before and during the Spanish Civil War holding “Jews” (or disguised as the “Neocons” today) responsible for the world financial crisis. At the same time the same political forces and media on the Left often seek to excuse blatant examples of Muslim rejection of Western social, moral and political values. Both Rahola and Fallaci, as women, were more aware than their male counterparts of the utter disregard for women’s and children’s rights in Muslim societies. Fallaci during her lifetime viewed with trepidation the growing strength of the Muslim community in Italy aided by the unthinking support of Left wing political parties. Rahola has the same view today and is all too aware of how her erstwhile allies on the political Left in Spain have violated their principles and continually ignore the brutal viciousness of the worst antisemitism on the one hand and cheer and applaud the use of Palestinian refugees, women and children as cannon fodder by Hamas.
As she wrote in her most recent website article,….” the Left has always been anti-Western, and therefore not so far removed from some of the obsessions of current Islamic fundamentalism. In any case, it has been said that in Israel, killings in the name of Islamic nihilism have benefited from increasing impunity, and every Israeli victim that is reviled, ignored or despised by Western intelligentsia, has prepared the way for the killings in Atocha (Madrid train station bombing) and London (terrorist attack on the Underground).”
Spanish-Israel relations and Spanish anti-Semitism are back to square one and 1492.

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