Spanish intellectual fights anti-Semitism
MADRID, July 6 (JTA) – Jews from all over the Madrid area recently crammed an auditorium to hear what the petite woman with piercing eyes and fiery red highlights in her hair had to say.
“What’s a girl like me doing in a place like this?” she said as she took the microphone at the Madrid Jewish Community Center.
She began by recalling her Roman Catholic origins and her political career as a leftist legislator from Barcelona, a center of anti-American and anti-Israeli attitudes.
Only a few months earlier, Stars of David were burned in the streets in massive protests against the war in Iraq.
And then she answered her question: “Because a Jewish problem is never a Jewish problem alone. It’s a European problem, it’s a Western problem, and it’s a problem for democracy.”
Pilar Rahola, who is now in her 40s, made a name for herself in Spain as a feminist and children’s rights advocate.
One of her best-selling books, “Ada’s History,” named after a 2-year-old Siberian girl she adopted, is about the violation of children’s rights around the world.
Now she is drawing attention in Israel and America because of her latest crusade. It is against what she describes as a pervasive anti-Semitic bias among the leftist political and intellectual elites in Spain and Europe.
Rahola spoke in May at the American Jewish Committee annual meeting in Washington, where a member of the audience suggested she be made one of the “Righteous Among Nations,” or non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
In Israel, she’s becoming known as the “Oriana Fallaci of Spain,” named after the Italian journalist who is known for criticizing the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Only around 15,000 Jews live in Spain, a country of 40 million.
At her first official appearance before Madrid’s Jewish community, Rahola sounded more like French novelist Emile Zola fighting for French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus during the early 20th century.
Proclaiming “Yo acuso!” – a Spanish version of Zola’s “J’accuse!” – she indicted her own “colleagues and friends” on the left for what she said was nothing less than a visceral anti-Semitism coloring their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And that’s the case, she insisted, even though they prefer to call it anti-Zionism.
“Anti-Zionism is a much more convenient banner because it doesn’t come across as a xenophobic stance,” she said. “Of course, no leftist ideologue will admit they’re anti-Semitic. They’ll smile and say, “Many of my friends are Jewish,” and “I love Woody Allen.”
Such words are almost never heard in Spain, outside of Jewish circles. On the contrary, anti-Jewish notions pervade even the mainstream media and much of the public holds latent anti-Semitic prejudices.
Last fall, a survey by the Anti-Defamation League indicated that Spaniards were at the top in Europe for harboring views colored by anti-Semitism. The survey found that 71 percent of Spaniards believe “Jews have too much power in international financial markets,” and 57 percent “believe Jews still talk too much about the Holocaust.”
Rahola said Spanish media panders to such attitudes and distorts the Mideast conflict in a way that eases Spaniards’ latent sense of guilt over the persecution of Jews in Europe since the Spanish Inquisition.
“The bad Israeli on the tank recalls in a way the image of the evil Jew that was so handy for the symbolism of medieval Spain and Europe,” she said. “That’s why it’s there, because in the end it reduces the feeling of guilt.”
She accused the Spanish and European left of ignoring the threat that Islamic terrorism poses to Western civilization. Instead, it has excused and blamed on Jews – “because the death of Jews is a Jewish problem and therefore not ‘our problem.'”
Rahola is the most vocal of a small but growing group of intellectuals who are questioning the anti-Israeli dogmatism in Spanish society.
Another one is Gabriel Albiac, a columnist for El Mundo newspaper.
“For years I’ve been trying to analyze the Middle East conflict from a rational perspective, and the only thing that provokes are widespread reactions of extreme hatred,” he said in a telephone interview.
Charles Powell, a historian at the Royal Elcano Institute in Madrid, said that anti-Semitism “lies very deep in the roots of Spanish cultural identity.”
Modern Spain emerged with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and for hundreds of years there have been virtually no Jews in the country to provide a real human and somewhat corrective reference to anti-Semitic attitudes, the historian noted.
“It’s more a latent, implicit than an actively belligerent anti-Semitism,” Powell said, “but the result is that Spaniards on the whole, of whatever political persuasion, have tended to feel little sympathy for the Israeli cause.”
Aside from the odd newspaper column, the Spanish media and literary establishment on the whole remains unreceptive to anyone trying to make a case sympathetic to Israel.
At the Jewish community center, Rahola said with a note of sarcasm that some progress is being made in combating anti-Semitic prejudices. At least when she’s part of a discussion panel, “the others restrain themselves.”
But Rahola said Spanish criticism of Israel is often hypocritical. Spaniards have their own problem with the Basque terrorist group ETA, which mostly targets individual politicians. And lately, ETA has even been giving police advance warning about car bombs.
“But if we in Spain would be afraid to even get on a bus, or go to a cafe, would we have the democracy that we have? I’m not so sure,” she said.
Rahola noted that while Israeli leaders are raked over hot coals, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd is always welcomed “as a friend of the people” at his summer vacation palace in the Spanish Mediterranean resort of Marbella.
As Rahola spoke, she had to stop several times for cheers from the audience. A man in the back shouted: “This woman’s got guts!”
But she also had an accusation for them -that they had been silent for too long out of a “logical” reflex developed throughout ages of grinning and bearing it.
Indeed, Jewish community leaders have long kept a low profile and sought to make their case behind the scenes.
“This country doesn’t need passive Jews, it needs active Jews. I want a Spain with active Jews,” she said, “because Judaism is by nature democratic and you are the guarantors of our democracy.”