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FUTURE MOSQUE? La Monumental in Barcelona.
Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
FUTURE MOSQUE? La Monumental in Barcelona.

History forgotten

Persecution | Anti-Semitism is growing in Spain. Will rhetoric turn to violence?

Issue: "The one and the many," Sept. 20, 2014

BARCELONA, Spain—If you can navigate through the maze of cobblestone streets in Barcelona’s old Jewish Quarter and find the Hobbit-sized door marking an entrance, you can visit what some say is Europe’s oldest remaining synagogue. Barcelona boasts a rich Jewish history but also one marked with suffering that led to the deaths and expulsion of thousands of Jews.

Some fear history could repeat itself. The war in Gaza has added momentum to a creeping tide of anti-Semitism across parts of Europe, including Spain. Well-known Spanish writer Antonio Gala in late June condemned Israel for the war in Gaza and attempted to justify the Jewish expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. “It’s not strange that they have been so frequently expelled,” he wrote in El Mundo, adding that they “were not meant to coexist with others.”

When the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team beat Real Madrid in May, a fury of racist Twitter comments followed, including “Jews to the oven” and “now I understand Hitler and his hatred for the Jews.” Jewish communities in Spain recorded more than 18,000 such posts related to the game and filed a legal complaint with the state.

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Thomas Morgenstern, director of Barcelona’s Atid Progresista Synagogue, said recent demonstrations against the Gaza offensive have evolved from anti-Israeli to anti-Jewish. Opposition to Israel’s actions are nothing new, but analysts and Jewish leaders across Europe say the sentiments and violence are much deeper and darker this time around. “It’s like we’re going backwards,” Morgenstern said.

Many of the demonstrators in Spain are ethnic Spaniards, but growing Muslim influence in the region is undoubtedly part of the problem. According to the Gatestone Institute’s Soeren Kern, Spain’s Catalonia region “has the largest concentration of radical Islamists in Europe” and is a “main center for Salafi-Jihadism on the continent.” Catalonia—which boasts the bustling city of Barcelona and greater economic output than the rest of the country—has scheduled a referendum vote on independence for Nov. 9, and—oddly—that may be feeding into the anti-Jewish demonstrations.

The reason: The Middle East country of Qatar is promising that 100,000 eligible Muslim voters will vote for independence if Catalonia allows it to purchase La Monumental—an old bullfighting ring—and transform it into what would be the third-largest mosque in the world. According to the proposed plan, the minarets of the mega-mosque would rise above the historic Sagrada Familia, the city’s landmark church. Some Catalan nationalists are all for the partnership and are winning points with Qatar by criticizing Israel.

Morgenstern does not believe city planners will approve the deal with Qatar, and while he’s concerned about anti-Semitic trends in his country, he says the situation in France is far worse. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have attacked nine synagogues in Paris since the onset of the Gaza offensive, leading to a new wave of immigration to Israel.

Some Jewish residents in Spain are maintaining a low profile. “I tell people not to talk too much in Hebrew here in Spain,” a 37-year-old Jewish woman from Barcelona who requested anonymity told me. Two tourists recently told her that their Palestinian taxi driver kicked them out of his taxi for speaking Hebrew. 

Only 40,000 of Spain’s 46 million residents are Jewish, making it one of Europe’s smallest Jewish communities, but the country ranks third (behind Greece and France) for anti-Semitism, according to a May survey by the Anti-Defamation League. If these trends continue, Spain could follow France where rhetoric has turned to violence.

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