The Spanish government passed a headline-grabbing law on June 11 bestowing Spanish citizenship upon descendants of Sephardic Jews. The high-profile effort, lauded as a historic measure “correcting” sins from a 500-year past, is set to be implemented by October and is expected to potentially draw some 90,000 applicants.
But the law stands in stark contrast to a proliferation of anti-Semitism in the country in which anti-Israel efforts are finding fertile ground, as seen this week in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s successful campaign to cancel an August 22 show by US-born reggae-rapper Matisyahu.
The Rototom Sunsplash festival in eastern Spain, which said it was canceling Matisyahu’s performance after the Valencia chapter of the BDS movement had described him as a “lover of Israel” and asked organizers to request that he “clarify” his political views — is only the latest target of the 10-year-old Israel-delegitimizing BDS movement, a diffuse grassroots campaign whose founders’ self-stated goal is the eventual elimination of the State of Israel.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2015 figures, some 29 percent of Spaniards harbor anti-Semitic sentiments and 59 percent think Spanish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Spain.
The aftermath of the 2014 Israel-Hamas war also saw a sharp uptick in pro-Palestinian activists leading anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents, according to a 2014 Tel Aviv University report on international anti-Semitism.
“The rate of anti-Semitism in Spain is one of the highest in Europe, comprising not only of new anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism, but also classic and traditional anti-Semitism,” stated the Tel Aviv report.
Compensating for the Expulsion
The new citizenship law passed in June was initiated as an effort to compensate for the 1492 Spanish Expulsion — and formally change this charged atmosphere.
According to the president of the Madrid Jewish community, David Hatchwell, the major Spanish Jewish communities in Madrid and Barcelona were reestablished about a century ago. The communities began to flourish in the 1960s, but kept a “low key” presence, he said.
A turning point came when King Juan Carlos marked the expulsion’s 500th anniversary with a visit to Madrid’s Beth Yaacov synagogue. The following year, the king visited Israel where he spoke in the Knesset.
This new law is a further step that is meant to “correct a historical error,” said Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catala.
Its implementation entails some Spanish-language proficiency, vast amounts of bureaucracy and documentation, and a trip to Spain for an oath of allegiance.
“For us, it’s a very good law and a beautiful symbol,” Hatchwell told The Times of Israel in a recent phone conversation. He said that it is a great gesture that officially proclaims the public importance of Jews.
Strength in numbers is also a benefit that cannot be overlooked.
“As Spanish Jews we feel that if instead of having a community in Spain of 40,000 Jews, if we end up being 150,000 — even if not all are living here — that can only be a good thing,” he said, noting that Spain allows for absentee ballots.
‘It means more Jews who are capable of expressing their votes in Spain. And at the end of the day, if you can vote, people will listen to you’
“It means more Jews who are capable of expressing their votes in Spain. And at the end of the day, if you can vote, people will listen to you,” said Hatchwell.
The potential political leverage may already be bearing fruit. On a recent visit to Jerusalem, Catala said he strongly opposes boycotts of Israel.
And as seen at a June conference, former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar has repeatedly condemned the movement, saying “BDS does not only want to change the government’s policy, it wants to empty the country of Jews.”
The Spanish politicians’ opposition, however, does not staunch the proliferation of grassroots anti-Israel boycott campaigns in the country.
The cancellation of Matisyahu’s August 22 performance was the fruit of a long-term effort on the part of the BDS activists involved.
Drawing on celebrity and political support, the campaign began a “dialogue” over the summer with festival head Filippo Giunta.
Initial exchanges, such as one on August 9 between the activists and Giunta, showed the director’s reticence in disinviting the Jewish performer, calling the BDS campaign “racist” for targeting a Jewish performer whose work is devoid of politics.
As the correspondence continued, the activists demanded Matisyahu affirm the BDS movement’s three-tier platform, which pushes for Israel to “end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantle the security fence”; “recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”; and “respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
In the end, Giunta relented and asked Matisyahu for a statement, via video or even Twitter, in which the performer would “clarify” his positions on Zionism and the Jewish State.
According to the Spanish BDS website, the rapper responded, saying, “My most famous song, called ‘One Day’, is known worldwide as a cry for peace and human understanding,” and said his second most known work, “Sunshine,” was written for his son.
He said of his famous song, “Jerusalem” that he’s had many interfaith experiences with Muslims, even Palestinians, singing while holding hands with Israelis. The singer told Giunta that he’s internationally considered as “a messenger of peace and human compassion.”
After canceling his August 22 show, director Giunta issued a statement explaining it was done out of “sensitivity regarding Palestine, its people and the occupation of their territories by Israel.”
Alongside the international press, Spanish media has largely denounced the festival’s decision.
In an August 18 editorial, El Pais wrote that the cancellation “is a very serious act of political and religious discrimination to which the Spanish political authorities cannot remain on the sidelines.” It cited the country’s constitution which prohibits religious discrimination, and the country’s shameful past.
The Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities condemned the festival’s decision as cowardly.
‘It was appalling and offensive, that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements’
Elsewhere, Jewish media site Israellycool was ablaze over the inclusion of homophobic Jamaican reggae star Capelton in the Valencian festival. The Rastafarian’s lyrics include anti-gay sentiments such as, “Shoulda know seh Capleton bun battyman [burn gays]/ Dem same fire apply to di lesbian/ All boogaman [gays] and sodomites fi get killed” (from his hit, “More Prophet”).
In the midst of an intensive European tour, Matisyahu has not yet addressed the scandal in a press interview. He released a statement on Facebook Monday night, however, in which he said he supports peace and compassion for all people.
“The festival kept insisting that I clarify my personal views; which felt like clear pressure to agree with the BDS political agenda. Honestly it was appalling and offensive, that as the one publicly Jewish-American artist scheduled for the festival they were trying to coerce me into political statements… Regardless of race, creed, country, cultural background, etc, my goal is to play music for all people. As musicians that is what we seek.”
On Wednesday, the Jewish artist is set to play in Germany, where Jews or descendants of Jews persecuted under the Nazis can likewise apply for citizenship. The country ranks slightly lower than Spain in the ADL’s international rankings, and “only” 27% of Germans are anti-Semitic — which just may bode well for Matisyahu.