A Rude Awakening in Spain

We are trekking through Toledo, Spain, happily reverting for a moment to a band of carefree tourists when we are halted in our tracks by a sight we had not expected. A series of stickers appended to street signs depicts a Jewish star with a slash through it — the international sign of prohibition — and states in Spanish and English, simply and repeatedly: “Against the Jewish Power.”

It is startling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are only 12,000 Jews left in Spain, a country of more than 40 million and, as far as we know, none is in “power.”

We are a group of board chairs and professional staff from 10 of the 30 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) regional offices officially representing the ADL on its historic first mission to Spain. Most of our days are spent meeting with government officials and community leaders in Madrid. Toledo is a “tourist” break to visit a city that, 600 years ago, boasted a multicultural population of nearly equal parts Christians, Muslims and Jews.

We reflect on the meeting we had the night before with leading members of Madrid’s Jewish community. We want them to hold their government leaders accountable for denouncing anti-Semitism and, yet, we cannot truly understand what it is like for them here. Parents want nothing more than to provide a Jewish education to their children, yet openly admit they would not allow them to walk outside wearing yarmulkes.

The ADL’s 2002 Surveys of Anti-Semitic Sentiment in 10 Countries in Europe reveals that Spain tops the charts. Unlike France, home to 600,000 Jews where anti-Semitic acts of violence and vandalism are well-publicized in the United States, not much is heard about Spain. “There are no anti-Semitic acts in Spain; there are no Jews,” says Ana Jimenez, ADL’s diversity trainer in Spain.

Yet of those surveyed, Spain has the highest percentages of people who ascribe to anti-Semitic notions: the Jews have too much power in the business world (63 percent); they don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind (34 percent); they are more loyal to Israel than their home countries (72 percent); they are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want (33 percent).

In our meetings with government officials, we repeatedly realize that the problem stems from ignorance and sheer lack of exposure to Jewish culture, and not from hatred.

“What is wrong with thinking the Jews are too successful?” Minister of Education and Culture Pilar Del Castillo Vera asks with a straight face. We do not miss the opportunity to educate her that these views were the basis for the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

When we meet with Jesus Posada, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and other members of parliament, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman presents our three-part agenda:

1. We ask the Spanish government to join others in the European Union and the United Nations in designating Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations (rather than legitimate political parties).

2. We implore Spain to apply her historically good relations with Arab countries in her newfound leadership role in Europe to build a centrist, objective position regarding Israel.

3. We prod the officials to speak out against anti-Semitism, especially in the press.

While the responses range from curt (“We have a different point of view”) to dismissive (“We elected officials are also the subject of caricature in the press”), there is also genuine interest and respect.

We have made an impression, confirmed and validated by a most productive meeting with Foreign Minister Ana Palacio Vallelersundi.

Madrid is a thriving capital city with the energy of London, Paris or Vienna. I feel as comfortable surrounded by the Spanish language as I do in Los Angeles. The culture, the art, even the food are familiar. The people are friendly and open. Spain is a peaceful place. If I did not work for the ADL and knew of our recent survey, I would have had no idea of the presence of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.

The rise in global anti-Semitism in the last three years, and in Europe in particular, can seem hopeless and overwhelming. To those of us in the trenches, the trip to Spain affirms that every effort counts. The ADL’s first foray into Spain has opened channels and we leave convinced that repeat efforts will be productive.

Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League.