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Bring back the ban against Spain

Ireland, Norway, and Spain, three European countries that stand out for their hostility to Jews and Israel even in this grotesquely anti-Semitic world, have accorded unilateral recognition to “Palestine”. Their leaders have said, disingenuously, that this advances a two-state solution. That is a barefaced lie: it is an approving reward for the Hamas invasion and massacre of 7 October 2023. A Spanish government minister has admitted what it really means: she favors the mantra “from the river to the sea,” which means no more and no less than the extermination of Israel. Let’s have a look at this dishonorable triad.

Norway first: it’s easiest. There were never many Jews in Norway, and the Germans killed most of them, with the help of Norwegian Nazis. Vidkun Quisling led the collaborationist puppet regime, and his surname became a common noun in English, a synonym for “traitor”. When I was a kid, Dad took the family on a European grand tour. He liked cold weather and northern climes, so instead of Rome and Athens we got the fjords, which were picturesque but boring, and Oslo with its weird sculpture park and the maritime museum where you can see the rafts Thor Heyerdahl built to prove his crackpot racialist theories about Polynesia. If I were funding a sweepstakes, the first prize might be one day in Oslo; the second, two days in Oslo. That is, if Norway hates us, so what? Good riddance.

Ireland. It was neutral in World War II. In May 1945 its president, Eamon De Valera, walked to the embassy of Nazi Germany to sign the book of condolences for Adolf Hitler— may the names and memory of both be blotted out. That set the tone for the official attitude of the country towards the Jews and Israel. I’ve heard it said that the intention of the policy was to cock a snoot at Great Britain, but if you believe that excuse you’ll believe anything. I lived in England for five years as a grad student and never made it across the western sea to the Emerald Isle, but in three score and ten years on this planet I’ve met many Irishmen. I’ve always loved them. One wouldn’t miss Norway much, though Grieg’s okay, but a world without Joyce, Yeats, and steel cut oatmeal? No thank you.

And then we come to Spain. That’s the hard case. I mentioned Dad. He was an Ashkenazi, a relative of the Piaseczner Rebbe, I don’t mind telling you. Mom, also of blessed memory, was Sephardic: her mother, born in Salonica, and her father, born in Tetouan, Morocco, were both native speakers of Ladino, a medieval form of Castilian. They met in New York. After the Edict of Granada in 1492, Grandma’s family fled Toledo and went east, to the hospitable Ottoman Empire; Grandpa’s went south from Valencia to the Maghreb. My mother was born in Brooklyn, nearly a hundred years ago: she was, over four centuries after the Expulsion, a native speaker of Spanish. Talk about love and loyalty .

When Mom was born, Spain was still under a cherem, a Rabbinical ban that was imposed after the Expulsion and the Inquisition. In the 1930s, though, Spain became a democratic republic. It shook off the shackles of the Catholic church, introduced land reform to help the impoverished campesinos, and brought education and social equality to girls and women. The cherem was lifted. The fascist Francisco Franco raised an army and, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini and the support of the Vatican, invaded the republic. The German Luftwaffe attacked Madrid and Guernica, perfecting its new tactic of terror bombing.

The Western democracies imposed a nonintervention policy to choke the Spanish Republic, turning the other way as Standard Oil fueled Hitler’s planes. But men and women, Black and white, Jew and gentile, came from all over the world to fight in the ranks of the International Brigades for Spain’s freedom. Many were members of the Communist party and Communist youth leagues. Dad was a member of the latter in Brooklyn, New York. He was too young to join the Abraham Lincoln Battalion— he even had to lie about his age to enlist in the United States Navy in World War II.

Friends of his fought with the Lincolns and most did not come back. Franco won, and Hitler invaded Poland, with all that was to follow, soon after the fall of the Republic. Surviving Lincolns who made it home were to be blacklisted and harassed for decades as “premature antifascists” and Reds. Pete Seeger recorded songs of the Spanish Civil War in German, Spanish, and English. I knew him and the Weavers when I was a kid and I grew up singing those songs. The struggle we had to give up there, when Dolores Ibarruri said goodbye to the International Brigades in Barcelona, went on here: Dad was one of the lawyers of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. The other lawyers of Dr. King (even his initials, MLK, spell out the King in Hebrew!) I knew were also Jews, veterans of the Young Communist League. They loved Israel. Dr. King loved Israel. I love Israel.

From Mom I inherited a love of Moorish culture in Spain,  mudejar art, the treasures of the convivencia. I don’t hate Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians. I don’t hate anybody. It’s fascism and nazism I’m against. And no matter how latter-day Spanish politicians slice it, it’s still baloney: they’re the heirs of the Falangists, not La Pasionaria. I hate having to say it, but we’ve got to reimpose the cherem on Spain: let no Jew set foot on the soil that anti-Semites have caused to be accursed again. At least not for now. Those who hate us are no better than, and no different from, the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, the looters of Tenochtitlán, the murderers of Guernica.

I made a roots trip back to Spain in the spring of 1979. I was a student in the UK, and a friend and I decided to go on the cheap. I found a tombstone of 1097 of Mom’s family, the Saltiels, with a long inscription. In Cuenca, I sniffed out a bakery where they made fijuelas. One day, Marv and I took a bus from Granada up the Sierra Nevada to the little farming and herding village of Trevelez and found an inn to spend the night. The rust-colored wine we bought a village bodega was nectar, and I savored the inn’s omelet and (forgive me) the jamon serrano. The radio was playing a song from a new album by Bob Dylan. He’s a Jew and a couple of years later he was to release a song, which the radio doesn’t play, in defense of Israel. It has the ironic title “Neighborhood Bully”.

I’m seventy. I’ve lived to see one hell of world turned upside down, where fascists call themselves the “left”. The hell they are. I don’t think anything’s going to get better in my lifetime. We’re in a necessary fight, a fighter for our survival, and it’s the Good Fight. The Israel Defense Forces are the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Thälmann Battalion of today. Four decades ago, a Jewish journalist named Studs Terkel made a documentary movie, “The Good Fight”, about the Spanish Civil War. Towards the end one of the vets he’s interviewing, a grizzled, very learned and articulate American Jew, says “It was THE good fight. AND WE LOST.” He says that raises existential questions that keep him up at night.

Those existential questions are still keen today. I can’t answer them, but I guess we just have to carry on. Even if the prospects ahead look grim, the worst thing we can possibly do is give in to defeatism, to despair. Here’s Dylan’s song, the one that wasn’t written yet when this half-Sephardi stood in the mountains over the Grenada of Ferdinand and Isabella and gave them both the finger. Shabbat shalom! (And happy 83rd Birthday, dear Bob Dylan!)

Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Well, the chances are against it, and the odds are slim
That he’ll live by the rules that the world makes for him
‘Cause there’s a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Well, he got no allies to really speak of
What he gets he must pay for, he don’t get it out of love
He buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon
He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand
In bed with nobody, under no one’s command
He’s the neighborhood bully.

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon
No contract that he signed was worth that what it was written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the neighborhood bully.

What’s anybody indebted to him for?
Nothing, they say. He just likes to cause war
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed
They wait for this bully like a dog waits for feed
He’s the neighborhood bully.

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still
Neighborhood bully.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.