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Building the bridge

The effects of the long absence of Jews from Spanish society persist today with respect to Israel, a country which Spaniards learn about only through the prism of the news media

My fourth and last year, soon to end, as ambassador of Israel in Spain has seen the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. Yet it is clear that this fact cannot clear away overnight the sediment of reserve and hostility that has accumulated over 500 years.

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and later their persecution by the Inquisition, obliterated Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula. Unlike the case of other European countries, in Spain there was no coexistence with flesh-and-blood Jews for centuries, nor any visible Jewish intellectual, political or business elite.

In this context stereotypes proliferated. To this day expressions such as hacer judiadas (do a Jew-job, i.e. a dirty trick) are common in Spanish speech, and appear in dictionaries. Manifestly anti-Jewish elements appear in many religious processions. Many Spaniards of about my age, who were children in the 1960s, tell me that when they did something objectionable they were told "don't behave like a Jew," or "spitting is for Jews."

To what extent all this influences Spanish attitudes to Israel is a fascinating question. I greatly doubt that the more vehement critics of Israel ever reflect on the links between the images of Jews that peopled their childhood and their present stance on Israel. Needless to say they would never admit it publicly.

I should make it clear that I am not referring here to legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. But the talk one hears in Spain often crosses the line of legitimate criticism. In this newspaper one commentator, who shall remain nameless, said that the creation of the state of Israel was a mistake, and that it would be better if it disappeared. In a recent opinion survey, 10 percent responded that the disappearance of Israel would be the preferred solution to the Middle East conflict. Israel is now the only country that is the object of such remarks. Those who attribute this talk only to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will find it hard to explain why other conflicts do not arouse such obsessive emotions, and why in other cases criticism is aimed at the government in question, while in this one it degenerates into denial of the right to the existence of a Jewish national sovereignty.

In a certain measure, the effects of the long absence of Jews from Spanish society persist today with respect to Israel. Spaniards in general learn about Israel only through the prism of the news media, and do not know the real Israel. When "Spain" is mentioned to an Israeli, the associations that spring to his mind are soccer, Bardem, Goya, etc. When "Israel" is mentioned to an average Spaniard, he thinks of conflict, conflict and conflict. There are more than 20 Spanish news correspondents in Jerusalem, but they do not cover the Israel of cultural diversity, technology, creativity or economic success. They only, exclusively, cover the conflict. A Spaniard who "knows" Israel only through the media is likely to think that the country has only two classes of inhabitants: ultra-orthodox Jews who throw stones at cars on the Sabbath, and soldiers.

To me it is clear that there is no way to deny that hundreds of years of estrangement between two peoples has an ongoing influence on modern bilateral relations. To deny it is to pretend that a political situation has no historical context. I also think that in spite of positive efforts to close the breach by various means (such as the creation of the Casa Sefarad-Israel), 25 years are too short a lapse of time, a blink of the eye historically speaking, to achieve it.

A bridge to cross such an abyss of time and sediments needs solid foundations. And the bridge is still in the process of construction. Yet my experience here gives me grounds to hope that we are not going to need another 25 years to finish building it.

Raphael Schutz is the Israeli ambassador to Spain.

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