How I became a misleading media sensation in Catalonia

It started innocently enough.

On October 1st, 2017, the region of Catalonia held a controversial referendum to secede from Spain. I took an interest in the developments because of my friendship with a pro-independence Catalan (immortalized in my first book, Letters to Josep, a collection of letters to him), and I wrote an op-ed about how this friendship led me to sympathize with the Catalan independence movement. The piece was accepted by The Times of Israel, and thus I became a ToI blogger.

I have used this platform ever since to voice my thoughts about a variety of topics: antisemitism, life in Israel, sexual assault. But I often come back to my pet topic, Catalonia and Spanish politics. Mostly, those are the posts that get the least attention, since–let’s face it–these topics are not super interesting to most of ToI’s readership.

Last September, I read something that annoyed me: an article in a Spanish paper responding to efforts by a left-wing politician to push the Spanish government to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine. The article, written by the head of an organization that fights anti-Israel legislation and leans strongly right politically, claimed that doing so could lead Israel to recognize Catalonia in response. (Which, according to him, would be disastrous.)

This seemed pretty far-fetched to me; an attempt to leverage Spanish hysteria about Catalonia to push a pro-Israel agenda. But it occurred to me that if I showed Spain that someone in Israel was listening, it could further discourage them from recognizing Palestine unilaterally. So I wrote a blog post with an admittedly clickbaity title: “Spain Wants to Recognize Palestine? Let’s Recognize Catalonia.” I figured that if a respected Israeli paper were to echo this idea, maybe it would have some resonance.

Well… it did.

The article was retweeted all over pro-independence Catalan Twitter, and before I knew it, I got a Whatsapp from Josep with a link to an article on El Nacional–a major Catalan newspaper–and the words, “You are famous now.”

“The debate about the recognition of Catalonia arrives at ‘The Times of Israel'”

It was an entire article (later translated for the English section of the site) summarizing my provocative op-ed. “The recognition of Catalonia as an independent state as a reprisal against a possible recognition of the Palestinian state by Spain has emerged as an option for debate in Israel. Daniella Levy has raised the subject in her blog in Jerusalem daily The Times of Israel…” they wrote.

I was flattered and bewildered–and slightly uncomfortable with how easy this had been. Over the next few days, I gained a couple hundred new followers on Twitter, including various people of note in the Catalan independence movement, such as–to my utter delight–former president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, who I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for.

I was also, of course, roasted and abused on Twitter and other online forums by angry people on both sides of the political spectrum: outraged unionists who argued (not without merit) that I have no right to intervene on this matter, and pro-independence Israel-haters who didn’t want my support as an Israeli. But Twitter will be Twitter, and I shrugged it off. I knew I was acting in service of two nations I feel strongly connected to, and that was what mattered.

As time went on, though, I began to understand that something bigger was coming of my “intervention.”

A month later, I traveled to Catalonia–a trip that had been planned before those five minutes of Catalan media fame–and held a joint event with Josep in Girona to promote my book, a dialogue on breaking stereotypes and bridging differences. Shortly before the trip, I was contacted by the president of a pro-Israel, pro-independence political organization expressing a wish to meet me: “We think that an event in Barcelona, perhaps a dinner-talk, with our partners and, also, with guests of the Catalan political sphere could be the means to establish a relationship of rapprochement and friendship.” I mean, I am an author, and it’s not crazy to invite me to speak somewhere, but this invitation felt more like something you send a foreign dignitary. (I politely declined, as I only had one day in Barcelona, and it was firmly blocked off for spending time with my husband and Josep.)

Some of my op-eds were translated into Spanish and Catalan and shared widely across the internet. I began to see people tweeting about Israel’s “open support” for Catalonia, and when I questioned them about it, I’d be sent a link to my own article.

And then I stumbled across this dubious party trick:

The #1 Google result for “Israel stance on Catalonia”: my article

Furthermore, El Nacional continued to follow me on Twitter and occasionally report on things I said.

This came to a head again this past Sunday when El Nacional ran an article about a message then-president of Spain Mariano Rajoy sent Netanyahu in 2013, warning Bibi that if Israel supported Catalonia, Spain would recognize Palestine as a state. I retweeted it with a throwaway snarky comment and a link to my article from last year:

It was completely tongue-in-cheek and I didn’t invest much thought in it. I figured it might amuse maybe 5 Catalan followers who happen to notice it, and then it would be duly buried in everyone’s feeds beneath cat videos and Baby Yoda memes.

I should have known better.

Less than an hour later I got another Whatsapp message from Josep.

Top headline: “Rajoy threatened to recognize Palestine if Israel supported Catalan independence.” Directly below it: “A Jewish writer who suggested recognizing Catalonia warns Rajoy: ‘Don’t push us'”

El Nacional dedicated another entire article to my tweet and placed it on the front page directly beneath their headline about Rajoy’s threat to Bibi.

What’s worse, the headline reads: “A Jewish writer who suggested recognizing Catalonia warns Rajoy: ‘Don’t push us.'”

Oh dear God.

My Twitter exploded again, but this time the antisemitic abuse was far uglier and more forthcoming. Did El Nacional really have to describe me as “Jewish” rather than “Israeli”? Did they really have to quote the most ominous-sounding three words from the tweet in the headline? I’m sure they didn’t intend it to be, but this headline was perfect fuel for antisemitic conspiracy theorists who believe Jews hold too much power over world events.

More importantly, with all due respect to El Nacional, why are they presenting my opinion as representative of anything meaningful?

Since when is a random person tweeting something worthy of a headline?

Since quite a few years now, apparently. Researchers from the University of Utah and Temple University conducted a study in 2018 that showed that the routine use of Twitter affected journalists’ judgement. “For journalists who incorporate Twitter into their reporting routines, and those with fewer years of experience, Twitter has become so normalized that tweets were deemed equally newsworthy as headlines appearing to be from the AP wire,” they wrote.

El Nacional is not the only news source that treats tweets as newsworthy. They all do it–this publication included. I get it; Twitter now serves as a significant platform for statements from politicians and other important figures.

But I am not an important figure. And using my tweet this way was misleading.

Let’s get this straight, people: I am a blogger–not a staff writer–for ToI, and my opinion doesn’t matter. I do not represent Israel in any official capacity. I have no affiliation whatsoever with any governmental body or organization that may influence Israeli foreign policy. I am just some lady at a keyboard typing stuff.

If what I write about Catalonia has any merit, it is not because of who I am, but because of the ideas I am expressing. It is because what’s happening in Catalonia is profoundly unjust, and every person who cares about democracy and human rights should be speaking up about it. I am flattered and humbled that El Nacional finds my writings worthy of mention on their platform, but if they’re going to share my message, it needs to be completely clear that I represent no one but myself: an obscure and unimportant American-Israeli writer whose loyalty to her friends and tendency to dive deep into topics that interest her sometimes get a little out of hand.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and I have been blessed with a mighty pen. I wielded its power to stand up for my friends and my country, and I have no regrets about that. But much as I hate to spoil Josep’s fun, this has gone too far. I am not important enough to make front-page headlines in a major Catalan newspaper. I can only hope I will one day accomplish something that is truly worthy of their attention.

About the Author
Daniella Levy is the author of By Light of Hidden Candles and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism. Her next novel, Disengagement, is forthcoming from Kasva Press. Born in the USA, she immigrated to Israel as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judean Desert with her husband and three sons. You can learn more about Daniella and her work at Daniella-Levy.com.
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