By: Alejandro Baer
Published: January 05, 2009
November 25th and 26th the first International Seminar on Antisemitism took place in Madrid. An initiative encouraged by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, this seminar focused on bringing the problem of antisemitism here and abroad, old and new, to public attention. It is an open call to the Spanish public to take a closer look at the roots and current manifestations of antisemitism, which are not only found in marginal political groups or religious fanatics but also, though veiled in politically correct attire, among mainstream opinion leaders. In order to combat antisemitism, it is important to first understand its distinctive nature.
The recently released survey by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Global Attitudes Project finds 46% of the Spanish rating Jews unfavorably. With these figures, Spain scores, once again, as the western country among those studied by this Institute (Poland, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, US.) with the most negative views of Jews. These results echo a trend shown by previous Pew data, as well as that brought by the Anti-Defamation League study in 2007 and 2005 on Attitudes Toward Jews and the Middle East in Five European Countries (Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Italy). The ADL survey indicates that 47 percent of Spanish respondents answered "probably true" to at least three of the four anti-Semitic stereotypes tested. Noteworthy is as well that in comparison to the other countries, Spain had the highest percentages of tested stereotypes. A recent Spanish study shows similarly distressing results. According to a poll of the Observatorio Estatal de Convivencia Escolar (State Observatory for Coexistence in Schools), commissioned by the Ministry of Education, more than 50% of secondary school students (age 12 to 18) in Spain would not want to sit next to a Jewish classmate.
While there might be legitimate discrepancies regarding the aptness of the methodological instruments employed to measure such complex and elusive opinions and attitudes, these figures are indicators of a problem –antisemitism– which in Spain is not always taken with the weight it deserves. What is going on in Spain? The answer lies basically in the understanding of three key problems: earlier images of Jews, anti-Americanism and the representation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In other words, antisemitism in Spain clearly demonstrates the globalized pattern of the so-called new antisemitism: it is neither of religious nor of racial nature, although it draws substantially on previous forms of antisemitism, and it can be visibly related to the news from the Middle East.
Spain is a country with a small Jewish presence (about 20,000 people) and even less public visibility. Therefore it is always an abstract imaginary Jew who is in the minds of the survey respondents and, at the same time, Israel, as the Jewish state, that shapes today most of the opinions and attitudes about Jews in Spain. Israel’s image in Spain is formed by prejudiced irreal projections and, as well, the often very unattractive reality of the conflict. A further significant element is the link in public opinion of Israel to the US, a country generally disliked in Spain, where there are stronger than average anti-American feelings (see W.Chislett’s Anti-Americanism in Spain. The Weight of History). The intersection of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism is an unquestionable source of antisemitic opinion in Spain.
What role do ancient catholic antisemitic stereotypes play? While they are gradually wearing off in language, popular traditions and institutional religion, they still rear their heads in the media when it comes to the Middle East coverage. Medieval antisemitic tropes rooted in the religious tradition emerge from time to time in the representation of the Israeli-Arab conflict in the mainstream press. Political cartoons are particularly apt to assess this phenomenon, as we see in the example from El Periódico de Cataluña (Barcelona), October 6th 2000.
During the years of the Second Intifada and throughout the Lebanon war in 2006 newspapers and magazines published cartoons in which Israelis, Israel as a whole, or Jewish symbols were linked to the killing of children, themes of vengeance and cruelty, echoing ancient anti-Jewish imagery in the Iberian Peninsula. Likewise, this merges with newer stereotypes such as charges of sowing disorder, subjugation of others, and the recurrent evocations and analogies between Israelis and Nazis.
Sociologists are usually careful to separate opinión pública from opinión publicada (public opinion from published opinion). However, when asking ourselves about the possible causes of such high levels of hostility and of prejudices towards Jews in Spain –as do indicate the mentioned surveys– we can´t overlook the fact that media outlets in Spain have not only provided for decades superficial and one-sided coverage of the events in the Middle East, but also employed unmistakably antisemitic imagery. When confronted with reproaches from associations or the Spanish Jewish Communities, journalists and cartoonists respond mostly by claiming their right to criticize Israel’s policies. The lack of reflection regarding the limits and forms of such critique is a widespread Spanish malady.
Alejandro Baer is an Assistant Professor of Social Anthropology at the Universidad Complutense Madrid.