Spain wants to recognize Palestine? Let’s recognize Catalonia

Protest in support of Catalonia in NYC, August 2013. Photo: Liz Castro, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Protest in support of Catalonia in NYC, August 2013. Photo: Liz Castro, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

In a recent meeting between the leader of the left-wing Spanish political party Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, and Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez, Iglesias urged Sánchez to consider making Spain the first major EU country to recognize the state of Palestine. Sánchez reportedly assured him that his party would seriously consider the matter. The Spanish parliament actually passed a motion calling on the government to recognize Palestine in 2014, but it was non-binding and mostly symbolic. Iglesias is proposing that the government make the recognition formal, and expressed confidence that Sánchez would be convinced.

Following this announcement, Ángel Más, president of ACOM–an association dedicated to improving relations between Spain and Israel and fighting BDS–published an op-ed in Spain’s ABC arguing against the move. His central argument: If Spain recognizes Palestine, Israel might retaliate by recognizing Catalonia’s October 2017 unilateral declaration of independence, and that would have disastrous results.

Why would this be so terrible? Because, writes Más, for one thing, relations between Spain and Israel would completely fall apart. For another, no country has yet recognized Catalonia’s declaration of independence, and Israel doing so would not only infuriate Spain and embolden other countries to follow suit, but also (translation mine): “The well-being of Spanish Jews might be gravely endangered, we will lose all our support, we will become targets and we will definitely be excluded from social, economic, political, and civil life in our country (the dream of any antisemite).”

Hold up. Let me get this straight. The Spanish government should avoid provoking Israel to align itself with Catalonia, because that will cause Spanish society to turn on its Jews?

What sort of a country is Spain that this would be realistic scenario? And what sort of a relationship should Israel have with such a country?

Israel and Catalonia Are Natural Allies

The truth is, Catalonia is a more natural ally than Spain ever was.

Spain, as I’ve written, has still not entirely recovered from its fascist phase under Franco in the 20th century. The reason ACOM needs to exist is that more Spanish municipalities have passed BDS-supporting resolutions than in any other country in the Western world. The ADL global antisemitism index of 2015 showed Spain as the most antisemitic country in Europe beside Greece. ACOM and other organizations and individuals have been working very hard in recent years to improve the conditions and social standing of Jews in Spain, and they have made a lot of progress. I can certainly understand why Más is worried about watching all that work go to waste–and I definitely hope his dire prediction is wrong. If the well-being of Spanish Jews does, in fact, hang in such delicate balance that an unwelcome political move by Israel could completely upend it, was the Jewish community ever really welcome or safe there to begin with?

While Catalonia is by no means immune to antisemitism and its left-wing, pro-independence parties have been known to be viciously anti-Israel–especially the extremists in CUP–one of the reasons it doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Madrid is that its approach has generally been more liberal, progressive, and democracy-oriented. Catalans have a lot more in common with Israelis, not just in terms of values, but also in terms of the challenges they’ve had to overcome as a nation.

In fact, the post-Franco independence movement has recognized Israel as a role model from the beginning. Jordi Pujol, president of the Catalan government from 1980 to 2003, took a keen interest in the story of the Jews and became a Zionist. The public use of the Catalan language was forbidden during Franco’s rule, and Catalonia looked to Israel for inspiration on preserving its endangered language and reviving it as a vernacular. The Catalan government studied Israel’s “ulpan” system when trying to find ways to help Spanish-speaking citizens learn Catalan. The Mossos d’Esquadra, the autonomous Catalan police force, has received training and security advice from the Mossad. After declaring independence and fleeing Spain to avoid an unfair trial last year, former president Carles Puigdemont granted his very first interview in Brussels to Portuguese-Israeli reporter Henrique Cymerman, and in the documentary Cymerman produced from that interview, Puigdemont emphasized the special warmth that exists between Catalonia and Israel. He also got a lot of flak from his extreme-left political allies for his Tweet on Yom Haatzmaut this year:

I am told by sources who know him personally that that is far from the first time he has stood up against his political allies on the left to defend Israel.

The “Jews” of Spain

It is not only Puigdemont and Pujol who have drawn parallels between the plight of the Catalans and that of the Jews. To the extremists on other side–the Spanish fascists and neo-Nazis–the comparison is self-evident. One need only take a look at what they write in their graffiti to see that. It has often been said that the Catalans are like the Jews of Spain; to that I respond that I think Spain has done an excellent job oppressing its actual Jews, but I do see their point. Spain’s stubborn refusal to recognize Catalonia’s right to self-determination doesn’t stem from a sense of kinship with Catalans or a desire to be inclusive; it stems from a sense of ownership over them and entitlement to their resources. The fact that Más is even making this prediction shows the disturbing strength of anti-Catalan sentiment within Spanish society. This is just one symptom of the deeply abusive nature of Madrid’s relationship with Barcelona.

It’s Time to Take a Stand

The events of the past year in Catalonia have shown us the true face of Spain. There is no excuse for beating innocent voters in the streets. There is no excuse for prosecuting politicians and holding them in jail pending trial for carrying out the will of their voter base. There is no excuse for censoring websites providing information on how to participate in a democratic referendum. We need to stop looking the other way. Spain must be held accountable for its abuses of power. It must be made to understand that its refusal to engage in real dialogue with Catalonia all these years has consequences. And if that statement echoes of another political conflict, well, I rest my case.

Which side do we want to support? The side that stood peacefully with their hands in the air, singing their national anthem, on October 1 last year?

Embed from Getty Images

Or the side that brutalized unarmed citizens trying to exercise their democratic right to vote?

Spanish police clashing with voters on October 1st, 2017. Photo by Robert Bonet [CC BY-SA 3.0 es], via Wikimedia Commons
Más is right about Netanyahu; I wouldn’t put it past the Israeli PM to recognize Catalonia in order to punish Spain for recognizing Palestine. He’s vindictive like that. And it would be a diplomatic disaster of epic proportions. Spain recognizing Palestine would have no real practical consequences, but Israel becoming the first country in the world to recognize Catalonia’s independence would be a catastrophic blow to Spain. It may encourage other countries that have been quietly supporting Catalonia to step up, and embolden other separatist movements. I completely understand why the Israeli government has chosen, as many other governments have, to stay out of the Spain-Catalonia mess for the time being.

But how could we ignore the absurd hypocrisy of the Spanish government recognizing the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination–a people that has repeatedly turned down offers for a state and continues to terrorize Israeli citizens with daily acts of violence–while refusing to grant that right to the Catalans, whose resistance has always been remarkably and completely peaceful?

If Spain does recognize Palestine, the diplomatic disaster would already be well underway. Might as well seize the opportunity to do the right thing. It would be high time someone stood up for Catalonia.

And if Más is right about the effects this would have on my Jewish brothers and sisters in Spain, well, you wouldn’t be the first European Jewish community in recent years to face the sobering realization that you never really belonged there. You wouldn’t be the first community of Spanish Jews to realize that, either. The difference between then and now is that now you have someplace to go where you will always belong. Os esperamos.

About the Author
Daniella Levy is a mother of three, rabbi's wife, writer, translator, self-defense instructor, bridal counselor, black belt in karate, and certified medical clown — and she still can't decide what to be when she grows up. She is the author of By Light of Hidden Candles and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and her short fiction, articles, and poetry — in English, Hebrew, and Spanish — have been published in numerous magazines, journals, anthologies, and media platforms. Born in the USA, she immigrated to Israel with her family as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judean Desert with her husband and three sons. Learn more about her at Daniella-Levy.com.
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