Jewish history caught in independence tug-of-war

 

Published for Jewish Renaissance Journal

 

After a 400-year vacuum, Judaism has reappeared on the Iberian Peninsula in unexpected ways. Spanish institutions have proudly united medieval Sephardi identity with a modern Spanish identity. Meanwhile, Catalan institutions recently asserted that their medieval Jewish communities had a separate Catalan identity.

In the 1990s the Spanish government revived an interest in Sephardi history and formed La Red de Juderias, a multi-million-euro Jewish tourism network. Spain’s Jewish archaeological sites were renovated and archives digitised to rediscover this unknown legacy. ‘Spanish’ and ‘Sephardi’ became interchangeable terms in the Red’s publications.

The pluralism of the medieval La Convivencia – an era of intellectual symbiosis between Muslims, Jews and Christians – was reimagined as being the foundation of Spain’s current progressive identity. The act of connecting modern Spain with the past was a precursor to the 2015 Law of Return for Sephardi Jews. The introduction of the law can be seen as an attempt to diversify Spain’s national image.

But which Spain? Medieval Spain was built by Jews, Muslims and Christians who coexisted under La Convivencia. The Catholic, Castilian Spain that followed, whose foundations support today’s nation, has little to do with this history. The Law of Return requires proof of the applicant’s ‘special connection’ to Spain through a Spanish language and culture test. Most Right of Return laws, such as those of Germany or Poland, do not require this.

Alfons Aragoneses, head of law at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, questions the historical accuracy of Spain’s identification with Sephardi Jews: “Spain did not exist before 1492, but the law supposes that the Sephardim were conscious of belonging to Spain and that they were always nostalgic for Spain. Spain did not exist until the 19th century!” At least, the Spain that formed after the 1492 union of the Castilian and Aragonese Crown did not exist when the Sephardim lived on the Peninsula.

Catalonia too has been weaving nationalistic threads into its Jewish past. Tessa Calders, the daughter of the renowned Republican exile Pere Calders, has been calling for the current interpretation of Jewish medieval history to be revised and the adapted version to be recognised in any representation of Jewish history. “The Jews were kicked out of Spain and lost memory of their Catalan identity. Now Spain has reinvented their past,” says Calders, who is a lecturer in Hebrew at the University of Barcelona. She believes the Jews living in northern Spain before the expulsion were not Sephardi but were Catalonian.

This pro-Catalan understanding of history has been embraced by Catalonia’s regional governments: in 2016, five municipalities split from the Red de Juderias to create a new tourism network, the Xarxa de Calls. Jusep Boya is the head of Museums for Catalonia and the manager of this new organisation. In his office off Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, he envisaged the new network as a vehicle for Catalonia’s reconnection with its Jewish history. “We cannot comprehend Catalonia without the Jewish culture which is attached to the very soul of Catalonia,” he said.

Pancracio Celdrán, a former professor of medieval history at Haifa University, disputes that there was a conscious 15th-century Catalan identity. “These medieval ‘Catalan Jewries’ were really the Jews of the Kingdom of Aragon, not of Catalonia.” Others say that Catalonian nationhood only developed in the 19th century.

With only 40,000 Jews in Spain today, the groups who should have a platform to challenge these revisions of history have no representational power. Most of those involved in the departments for Jewish tourism in both governments are not Jewish and have little specialisation in the history of Jews living in Spain. The situation needs addressing: Spain was ranked the third most antisemitic country in Europe in a 2014 survey. Instead of politicising Sephardi identity for their own narratives, isn’t it time for both sides to let the Sephardim delineate their own ancestral past?

A Rejection of Spain’s Sepharad (pt.5)

Part 5/5

commissioned by Mozaika journal 

 

Conclusion: Spain’s Dual Movements Lead to an Impassé

Spain has an awkward relationship with its past. The lamentable restoration of Cadiz’s Castello de Matrea is no exception.

A stupefied journalist from the Guardian explains the reconstruction process of the tower ‘in which new materials have been used to protect older stones’.  The writer quotes the project analysis from locals: “They’ve cocked it up.”

Although the institutions set up in the name of Spain’s Jewish community are presented as testaments to the government’s reformed approach to the group, they go like the Castello de Matrea: new facades, protecting and disguising old social dynamics. 

To answer the question of why the Spanish Government’s approach to its Jewish community has remained ineffective despite the vision outlined by its stated purpose, two wider historical contexts should be grappled with.

The first views the present-day relationship between the Government and Judaism in Spain, as perpetuating the problems that have existed for over 300 years.

Sephardic Jews have habitually popped up in the viewfinder of the Spanish government, but only when they could be put to use.

Alfons Argoneses’s paper, following his pioneering archival research, outlines how Spain’s Law of Return was rife with motifs of this timeworn relationship.

Political structures accustomed to profiting from minority groups are difficult to dismantle, especially with steadfast anti-Semitism and a lack of vocal Jewish opposition.

The more recent context within which Spain’s current approach of Judaism can be understood, begins in 1975 with the death of Franco.

The way the nation has processed their Francoist past, is analogous to their tackling of their Jewish history.

The method of dealing with the past in question, has endured across the course of Spain’s democracy, and is largely practised by Conservative leaders.

If it begins with stating the nation’s seamless progression to a democracy in 1975, then it transitions to refuting that the devisions from the regime are still alive and ends by denying that the lack of accounting for such unsolved problems affects emerging groups in the present.

Today, PP officials will deny any request for trials of the past due to the equal guilt of both sides of the fight, while separatist regions only distract from Spain’s true identity as a unified nation.

This version of the past is actively protected. ‘The Pact of Forgetting’ prevents trials addressing crimes under Franco, while school history textbooks are censored from telling a unified vision of history and Independence referendums are blocked.

Such an approach, all in the name of Spain’s liberal democracy, presents an obvious conflict with the fulfilment of this identity. Spain’s national identity is pestered by a past withheld a burial.

The inauthenticity of this progression from the past is shown through the continuities that linger on in the present, which in turn re-enflames historic problems. 

Right and left parties still likened to the political functioning of Franco’s regime. 

During the recession of 2008, Podemos was quick to draw parallels between Francoist politicians and the corruption scandals which permeated the PP.

The historian Jaume Muñoz Jofre embeds ‘the incessant rhythm with which corruption cases are uncovered in recent years’ within a history of autocratic political ruling which extends even beyond Franco. These deeply embedded power dynamics had not been publicly vilified.

Furthermore, with the PP’s monolithic imposition of Spain’s national unity, younger generations petition for the same Independence fought for under Franco.

This October, Spanish tanks have been promised on the streets to prevent Catalonians from voting. What, one may ask, are the recent raids and arrests of Catalonian officials by the Spanish police reminded the press of?

The parallels of the Government’s approach to their Jewish history, and the problems this creates in the present are many.

First, the official approach to recent history denies Spain’s complicity with the Holocaust, and wrongly positions Franco as supporting Jewish survival.

The lack of official archival research into this period, and the continual emitting of recently unfavourable parts of history, including the immigration of Jews from Morocco following Independence, must be addressed for any official progression from the past to take place.

These parts of history need institutional representation, and will help contextualise the presence of Spain’s 40,000 Jews in a more relatable history than the Medieval Era.

Spain’s national historiographic machine cannot continue to incorporate chosen epochs of the past into the current national identity.

A progression from the past that is truly authentic must be earned through action – it is not purely symbolic.

The Government’s, and especially the PP’s, utilisation of the nation’s Jewish history to suit their diplomatic and economic ends is a clear evocation of the past. Such practises have stilted the development of the position and understanding of Jews within society.

The government institutions, deconstructed through this series (link to main index) of articles, should be the first site of reform: From a cultural centre built with an independent identity from Israel, to more Jewish and specialist collaboration, to museums that promote the parts of history which have not yet been told to a wider audience.

With the continuance of these systemic problems, Spain will be continuously dragged into the past.

The shocked reaction from the media when the list of the 6,000 names of Jews which Franco intended to send to Hitler in 1942, which was only discovered last year, is a good example.

With multiple platforms for alternative voices existing outside of Government institutions, it is not difficult for the distance between the reality, and the presented reality, to grow. The PP’s asserts that the wounds of the ‘civil war are healed’, grating against the reality of Spain’s rising nationalist movements.

It’s embarrassing. Spain gets pulled back into the past, in the act of “moving forward”.

The fight against anti-Semitism, and the furthering of the understanding of Jewish people and their history in Spain, can no longer be left to Jewish communities.

This is a national problem, not just a Jewish problem. It needs a solution on a parallel scale, with the visibility and support of government-backed institutions.

A Rejection of Spain’s Sepharad (pt.4)

Part 4/5

commissioned by Mozaika journal

 

Spain’s Lucrative Sephardic History

 

When Spain shows an interest in its Jewish history, as well as its present Jewish community, it is often attached to a money-making scheme.

A cursory glance at the articles and figures criticising the law implies this economic framing.

The Gatestone Institute determines that the law could ‘exceed €5,000 per individual’, based on the ‘gathering of documents, having them translated and certified, making travel arrangements to take the exams, and submitting the paperwork to the proper authorities’, and the need to hire legal advice.

A congressman from the Basque country, discussing the law, stated that with the combinations of the practical impediments and the cost:

“The government has the clear intention that the fewer the number of applicants, the better. And the economic filter ensures that only people with high purchasing power can apply.”

However, the more long-lasting effects of the Spanish government’s profiteering, is in the way Jewish culture has been reduced within the process of its alleged ‘rediscovery’. The Red was an instrument through which Spain could diversify its national history and enhance its tourism industry.

This institution was built on the prospect of profits, not intellectual integrity.

The promotion of the industry was lofty, as the vacuum of Jewish knowledge in Spain ‘led us to a profound conviction as to the necessity of incorporating this piece of our past history in our total history’. This statement, spoken by the former Minister of Commerce and Tourism, Javier Gomez Navarro, comes in the introduction to the network’s guidebook.

However, the way the industry was set up ensured this could not be done properly.

Each town with a Jewish Quarter is invited to be represented by, and be part funded by, the Red. With a steep annual membership fee, each town has to ensure that they can attract tourists to make up for their annual payment.

Yet many of these towns and cities were not previously tourist destinations, nor do they possess any substantial amount of place-specific Jewish history. Instead of hiring researchers to enrich their limited museum collections or so-called ‘interpretation centres’, they have pumped money into Jewish-themed vineyards, restaurants and cultural events with vague sounding historical connections.

An economic report for Tarazona’s Jewish Quarter reveals the kind of investments which are intended to complement a Jewish Quarter: ‘Sizeable groups of American Jews [are] eager to leave their dollars in the city’s stores, restaurants and hotels’.

This has often led to culturally-insensitive tourist traps, ranging from the sobering to the farcical — you can go and witness a re-enactment of a Jewish wedding in Catalonia, conducted by a real Rabbi!

Josh Nathan-Kazis went on a journalistic odyssey around the Spanish Jewish quatres to assess these sites. He describes being shown around Lucena’s Jewish Quater by Manuel Lara Cantizani, the municipal’s head of tourism:

“He pulled out a poster for a half-marathon he’s organised… The run is sponsored by McDonald’s; the M in “Marathon” is in the shape of the golden arches. The poster has silhouettes of two runners on it. Behind each of them are photos of Jewish gravestones recovered from the graveyard. The runners, Lara said, are supposed to be Jews. “As if two Jews, with the stone, they are running, finding their future patrimony.”

The economic filter, as well as avoiding the task of investigating politically tense history, has lead to the most relevant parts of the Sephardic heritage remaining ‘undiscovered’.

From Spain’s colonial presence in North Africa, to Franco’s civil war and 40-year dictatorship, to the Jews from Palestine and Germany who marched on the streets with anti-fascists.

It’s harder to tell Jewish persecution through 20th Century buildings, or to re-enact asylum seeking from Morocco to Spain. With no more presentable – and thus lucrative – Jewish sites being built within Spain following 1492, it is in this year that Sephardic history uniformly stops.

The tourism industry doubles up as the official Government restoration of this past. However, their stopping of history in the Medieval era is counter-productive to the advancing of the way Jews are perceived in Spanish society today.

Lucia Aguilar discuss how with the expulsion of Jews 500 years ago being the nearest reference many have to Judaism, the perception of a Jewish person is often trapped in a Medieval context. The use-value of school children being shown the Jewish life cycle is limited.

‘For me it is the route of current Spanish anti-semitism – people still express Medieval stereotypes!’ Lucia finishes.

It is difficult to shift such rusted pre-conceptions of Jews, from them being money-zealots to selfish. The idea that Jews returned after the inquisition might be a novelty to many. However, those with the most specialist knowledge of how the retelling of this past could improve are barred from collaboration.

Meira Odina sits tensely in a cafe in Barcelona’s Eixample.

She gesticulates, re-enacting her conversation with the former president of La Red de Juderias: ‘If you want to take advantage of this heritage, at least provide the real part of this heritage, which is education’.

With twenty years experience in cultural management, and a recent MA in the field from Barcelona, she has been consistently denied the chance to volunteer in one of the Spanish’s government’s cultural institutions. Meira would be one of the few Jewish people working there, if not the only.

Isaac Quereb, the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, explains the Federation’s relation to the Red:

‘There is no Jewish presence. Now, we are starting to claim it. But! We have a very important weakness, we don’t have money’.

The industry’s executive control by tourism officials and government-affiliated groups, leaves no room for those with the most knowledge of how Jewish culture could help combat anti-Semitism.

Although the PP, following pressure form the FCJE, have now made it obligatory to teach the Holocaust in the school system, this process has not been put into practise as of yet and is doubted by many of my interviewees.

Outside of this, there is no research center to explore the less well-known history of Spain’s intervention or of making this learning experience more accessible to the general public through proper museums, such as in Paris or Berlin.

Furthermore, Victor Sorrenson tells me that although the Hebrew Chairs are:

‘Amongst the oldest in the universities, such as Salamanca, Granada and Barcelona, these faculties are about to close due to a lack of students and budgets – it is a matter of time.’

The government’s self-interest within the Red’s formation, whether through making a profit or the public reclamation of history, has again led to the initiative being counter-reproductive in helping develop the knowledge and understanding of Judaism within Spain today.

A Rejection Of Spain’s Sepharad (Prologue)

 

Published by Mozaika journal

Prologue: Locating Sepharad in Spain’s Law of Return

(Prologue of 5 parts)

“Berlin’s Jewish population goes back to about 1670.

Some of these Jews had Sephardic roots, but they’re hard to trace.

I charge US$80/hr, 10 hours minimum.”

Roger, a specialist in German Jewish genealogy, responds to my inquiry about tracing matrilineal surnames. Trying to chart my family’s genealogical path back 500 years to Sepharad was proving expensive, if not impossible.

To prove my ancestral origins in Spain before the Inquisition of 1492 means being nationalised under Spain’s Law of Return for Sephardim.

This law, as stated by the then Minister of Justice Rafael Catalá in 2015, was the ‘correction of a historical error’. Not any error within the 20th Century, but that of the 15th Century’s mass Inquisition.

As is the case with the Spanish government’s relationship with their Sephardic community, the law appears at first glance to be more progressive than it in fact is.

These relations materialise in the succession of initiatives set up since the 1990s in the name of Spain’s Sephardism. For nearly a year, I have been deconstructing these initiatives, from the law to the Jewish tourism industry.

This series (link to index) of articles for Mozaika will challenge their altruistic facades, by exploring how these serve the government’s diplomatic, economic and political interests, and the negative impacts on the Jewish community, and on historical validity itself.

The confusion and frustration thrown up by my attempts to pass the law stand as a prologue to the fraught understanding between the wider Jewish community and Government.

Since 2015, thousands of Sephardim have embarked on a tenuous mission to prove their ancestry, eager to leave violence in Venezuela and Turkey, or trying to get into the EU.

The first form of proof for many, is their last name.

‘Absche’ did not sound Sephardic, the earliest my grandmother could go back, but the world of jewishgeneaology.coms charged a subscription fee. The Spanish Ministry, not providing their own list, at least intervened to denounce a hoax-list of Sephardic names that spread faster than Trump’s twitter through the Israeli web.

Family documents, related to Sephardic tradition, were the next option.

The law stated that I could present:

‘The “Ketubah” stating that the marriage took place following Castilian traditions’

Jewish papers are a more slippery prey than last names. My grandmother couldn’t even find her birth certificate. Things were lost in the 1939 move from Nazi Berlin.

Secularism became the next barrier. My great-grandparents, who felt ‘German above Jewish’ had followed thousands of Sephardic Jews through their assimilation to secular, diaspora cultures.

Lost Sephardic surname; vernacular proof; documentless, and a non-observant family for at least 3 generations. Regardless, my position did not feel unique for the 21st Century.

Portugal’s Law of Return had relativised their requirements to include the oral genealogy of Jewish families and communities as a form of proof. They accept:

‘Testimonial evidence, i.e, reputable witnesses who can attest to a family’s oral tradition’

So how were other Sephardim managing to prove their identity?

Legal advice would be a common route for the many dissuaded to risk attempting the process alone.

‘It would be 4,000 euros’, Reve, an Israeli entrepreneur, told me bluntly. The cost to use his pop-up company to accompany prospective-Spaniards through the law’s processes. Does this law also have an economic filter? 

The trial does not end at your proof of Sephardism. The law also requires evidence of your ‘special connection to Spain’.

The Spain in which my ancestors had lived, or the Spain which was formed following the mass expulsion of Jews and Muslims?

The former, Medieval Spain existed 500 years ago, and was built by the Jews, Muslims and Christians who had co-existed there for 9 centuries under La Convivencia. The Catholic, Castilian Spain which came after, whose foundations support the present day nation, have little to do with this history. The Spanish Inquisition ensured there was no overlap.

The ‘connection’ the Spanish government wanted was to Modern Spain, and they required a Spanish language and contemporary culture test to show this. I would have to complete this in a Cervantes Institute center –– what if my country didn’t have one?

Germany, Poland and Portugal’s Law of Returns seem more sensitive to the fact that Jewish returnees may wish to begin reconnecting with the country that expelled their ancestors on their own terms.

As the Spanish law states, I would have to show this connection through carrying out ‘cultural or economic activities in favor of Spanish people or institutions or in Spanish territory’.

This connection to Modern day Spain, according to the Minister of Justice, can be applied to the broad diaspora of Sephardim, extending from Amsterdam to Cairo. In the hyperbolic Preample, the introductory statement to a law, the Minister writes:

‘The love for a conscious Spain at the end of the historic and sentimental baggage of the Sephardi’s palpitates.’

Sephardic identity’s presumptuous reduction, merged with the economic filter, were features to be traced across the Government’s other initiatives.

Beyond the 2015 Law of Return, there is La Red de Juderias, set up in 1995; a Jewish tourism network, and a cultural and diplomatic El Centro Sepharad Israel, set up in 2006.

The stated purpose of such initiatives is to rediscover the Sephardic legacy, make amends for historical persecution of Sephardim and spread knowledge of Sephardic culture through Spanish society.

Although some of these aims have been part-realised through these initiatives, the benefit to Sephardic Judaism following their fulfilment has been sorely missed.

On the contrary, their negative effects cover a wide spectrum, from offended and silenced Sephardim, to the distortion of historical accuracy.

The actuality of being Jewish in Spain prefaces the need the community has for institutional support.

There is little open integration of the 40,000 Jews in Spanish society, with synagogues mainly hidden and guarded by national police and Judaism only being legal since 1978. Doubt and curiosity lead many to hide their identity, while the atmosphere of university campuses often tips into anti-semitism. Jewish academic and culture movements exist, but without any wide platform.

With Spain still the third most anti-Semitic country in Europe, change must come through public, institutional representation.

Kings In The Alhambra, Tanks In Barcelona

 

 

Published by Novara Media

Re-published by Edge of Humanity Magazine (abridged version)

 

The latest independence referendum in Catalonia has been declared illegal and central government has offered the region a simple choice; abandon the plans for the referendum or lose all their budgetary powers. This battle for Catalonian independence is among the latest in a long history of cultural struggles in Spain, where individual cultural, religious and ethnic groups find themselves at odds with authorities wishing to impose a monolithic, centralised vision of Spanish history. 

Decapitating history in Barcelona.

Judging by the decapitation of the late Spanish dictator last October, the past is still contentious between Spain and Catalonia. The assailant, and Franco’s head, was never found. The headless statue remained stationed outside El Born’s Cultural Centre of Memory, housing 18th century archeological remains from Barcelona. The centre’s objective: “to promote the memory and reflection of local and national events“.

Franco’s caste-iron silhouette atop his horse, stood close to the door leading to the hundreds of Catalan artefacts uncovered 27 years ago. The ceramics and metal-work evidence Catalonia’s artisan history. The fragments disrupt Franco’s myth of Spain having a unified national identity. Under the dictator’s 36 year rule, Catalonia’s cultural identity was strangled.

Cultural difference was erased in the many distinct areas of Spain, namely the Catalonian and Basque regions. Catalan was banned, spoken largely only in closed quarters, while ancient Catalan traditions, from Correfoc to Els Castells, were made illegal. Camp Nou, Barcelona’s football stadium, was one of the only places where Catalonians could speak their language. Even now, the crowds at the games are peppered with independence flags.

 

cat1A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

To see the placing of the two statues of Franco so close to the centre’s doors as a provocative statement is only my reading. The figures were part of an exhibition entitled, Franco: Victory, Republic and Impunity in Urban Spaces. Their stated purpose was to encourage a re-interpretation of Spain’s Francoist history.

During the Spanish Civil war of 1936-9, Franco’s Nationalists forcefully took power from the Republican party, ending the country’s democratic rule. The death toll proliferated when Franco invited Hitler to test his bombs on Republican civilians. Barcelona was the centre of Catalonia’s historically Republican population.

The city’s current mayor, Ada Colau, gained her political experience in street protests and city activism, not in parliament. Barcelona has a long history of revolutionary anarchism, further evidenced by the controversy of the exhibition’s gesture. Civilians passing through El Born would have parents who were on the Nationalist or Republican side during the regime, with these divisions still kept alive in many families.

The responses to the statues materialised not in introspective meditations but in physical acts of violence: the decapitation, the eggs and graffiti decorating his body like farcical war-ribbons, the pig-head placed on the severed neck. A Catalonian, whose family had been Republican under Franco, had to be restrained when he tried to punch a worker installing the statue. The figures were removed after only 48 hours of their showing.

On October 1, the Regional Catalan government will hold a de facto independence referendum whose results could see an immediate split from Spain, despite a lack of national government sanctioning. The question on the draft legislations is simple: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state that is independent from Spain?”

Many Catalonians want independence not simply to re-affirm their separateness and explore their recent history without the censorship of central government, but to distance themselves from the way that this past still lingers within Spain’s current government, the conservative Christian-Democratic Partido Popular (PP), which was founded by a former minister under Franco’s regime. This past haunts the party, sewing historical devisions that the PP have not addressed, and leading to efforts to control the way this past is remembered.

 

dog2A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

The ‘Pact of Forgetting’.

The PP is not the pioneer of Spain’s historic stitching up of the past – rather, it’s a faithful heir. This official approach to the past began in 1977, with the passing of the ‘Pact of Forgetting’to facilitate the move into a fledging democracy. This law made it illegal to persecute any of Franco’s officials. Investigation or official condemnation of their crimes were also prohibited, unlike the rest of Europe who’s fallen dictatorships saw extensive trials. As a result of this law, still in place today, the way that the history of the regime and civil war can be officially taught is highly controlled in state syllabuses.

The current Spanish government’s website echoes the centralised version of the nation’s historical memory, claiming that the transition to democracy in the 1970s showed that “all the wounds from the civil war had been healed”. History textbooks today still refuse to indict Franco’s Nationalists for shedding more blood than the Republicans, stating that both sides are equally culpable: “In a graveyard far off there is a corpse, who has moaned for three years.”

 

span4A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.

The Pact has more tangible effects than how history is recalled. The law limits the allowance of families to exhume the mass graves within Spain where their relatives are buried. Federico Garcia Lorca, a renowned Spanish poet rumoured to be one of artist Salvador Dali’s lovers, lies beneath the country’s soil. Killed by a firing squad in 1939, Lorca was buried in a mass grave, alongside thousands of other Republicans. Since 2008, Baltasar Garzon, one of Spain’s most renowned jurists, has unsuccessfully called for a repeal of the Pact three times. Garzon had tried to call for the exhumation of 19 graves, one which may have hidden the poet.

Fiscal controls over historical memory.

The PP’s support of this law, which they claim prevents groups with historical Nationalist and Republican roots from re-sewing divisions, embodies their desire to protect the memory of Francoist Spain. This desire manifests through the wider measures the party takes to limit the self-scrutinising excavation of history. The PP have little political incentive to disturb the allegedly still waters of Spain’s historical memory.

Conservative values consolidated under Franco’s regime survived its collapse. To this day, public institutions lean heavily on Castilian language and culture, traditional Catholic church values and the symbolic power of the monarchy – values which play well with the party’s  large conservative votership.

Manuel Fraga’s role as senator of the PP until 2011 was a prologue to the party’s multiplying efforts to protect the legacy of the Francoist past. Fraga was the Tourism and Foreign Affairs minister under Franco. He ordered the execution of the Communist leader Julian Grimau by gun shot. After Franco’s death, he earned the epithet “¡La calle es mía!” (The streets are mine), due to his ardent repression of street protests through police violence. When he died in 2012, the El Pais newspaper awkwardly proffered the following take: “He was famous for his seemingly endless energy” – delicately skirting around his violent past and keeping to his political achievements of the 21st century. Their retelling of Fraga’s history, through euphemisms and polite omissions, reflects the government’s own approach. In 2009, the European Parliament wanted to include Francoism as part of their day recalling European totalitarianism. The PP refused to join the discussions, while the Conservative Spanish MEP, Jaime Mayor Oreja claimed that “it would be historically foolish” to disrupt the fabled peace of Spain’s transition to democracy. The past’s physical remnants are also guarded. Public funds still pay for the maintenance of The Valley of the Fallen – a vast mausoleum in Madrid that houses Franco’s body with a public mass each year held to commemorate his death.

In 2004, José Zapatero’s left-wing government stood to challenge . With less stake than the PP detoxification of public memories of the Franco regime, the party took the first legal steps to begin dredging up the crimes of the country’s past. Zapatero introduced The Historical Memory law in 2006.  For the first time, the law funded the exhumation of mass graves of Republicans, awarded rights to Franco’s victims and removed hundreds of Francoist monuments. The law also allowed for Spain’s different regions to advance their own understanding of history in school textbooks, shattering the centralised version of previous education administrations.

However, with the PP elected to power in 2011, the need for such a law was openly denied by its leader, Mariano Rajoy. The past was back in the hands of the right. “I would eliminate all the articles in the historical memory law that mention using public funds to recover the past. I wouldn’t give even a single euro of public funds for that”, he told Spanish media, following his election as president. Withdrawing all government funding to the program was one of the first things he did in his ascent to power in 2011; the offices involved were closed.

 

 

IMG_0942A political pero in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain (Pro-Spanish unity march)

 

Spain’s unstable foundations.

The PP’s control over the way history is remembered, should be read in the wider context of their handling over how Spain’s national identity is understood. The PP is the natural heir to five centuries of governmental efforts to centralise and homogenise the question of what – and indeed who – counts as properly Spanish. Diverse groups who might disagree with this monolith vision of Spanish identity have historically been silenced, and still are today; from geographical and cultural groupings of the Catalonians, Basques to religious and ethnic groups such as Muslims and Sephardim.

We must understand contemporary wranglings over Catalonian independence as part of a longer historical struggle, even if this articulation of separatist groups only mobilised in the early 20th century. Equally, this tradition of control inherited from Franco by the PP, stretches back from the first rulers that pioneered the formation of modern Spain.  To look at the formation of the nation itself contextualises current devisions over the proper answer to the question of who is Spanish.

The Alhambra is a palatial fortress sitting on the hills of Granada in Southern Spain. Before Spain claimed this region, it sat within the lands of the Iberian Peninsula, and was part of the regional Moorish kingdom of the 13th century.  The building’s geometrical patterns and Arabesque aesthetics were constructed by Muslim, Jewish and Christian craftsmen. These religions lived in the Iberian Peninsula in a complex, pluralistic society: three cultures under Muslim and Christian rule. Conflict existed between the groups, but there were no forced conversions. When the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile united in 1492, the compound identity of the Iberian Peninsula became Catholic. The monarchs had been slowly claiming the lands of the Peninsula from its Muslim rulers, until the inquisition of the 15th century when the remaining Moors fled. The Catholics had demanded conversion, or expulsion. With the clearing of the peninsula, the process of the formation of Spain’s nation-state identity began. Isabelle and Ferdinand eventually made the Alhambra their royal court, and its symbolic power as a testament to a multicultural society was co-opted. Spain’s identity formalised with the union of the Catholic crowns of Aragon and Castile in 1492.

The Castilian’s gradual imposition of a national identity expanded to its neighbours. The laws of Castile were eventually imposed on Catalonia in 1716. Castilian, one of the many languages spoken within Spain, came to mean Spanish. Spanishness became synonymous with being white, Castilian and Catholic. After two short-lived republics, and a long line of Catholic monarchs, Franco intended to continue writing this story into the 20th century:

The costs of not being considered ‘Spanish’ were steep, when these characteristics became pre-requisites to being incorporated into the nation’s corpus. I spoke to Victor Sorrenson, in his office in the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Barcelona, about post-Inquisition Spain: “It is not surprising that in the period after the expulsion the notion of “blood cleansing” appeared, where forced conversoes with a Jewish past were ‘stained’.”

This act, lead by the Catholic church, entailed the systematic torture and interrogation of suspected Jews up to the 18th century:

In the twentieth century, the discourse of pure blood especially nourishes the undemocratic right, like the Falange española

Franco brought the propagandistic discourse of Castille’s pure blood and a rigid cultural prototype into the 20th century. During and after the Civil War, large-scale concentration camps housed ex-Republican servicemen and political dissidents. Those seen as ‘un-recoverable’ were shot.

 

cat3A Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.

 

In a history where race, religion, ethnicity and cultural-geographic groupings overlap with each other, we shouldn’t attempt to map Catalonia’s marginalisation onto patterns of racial and ethnic oppression. But they do offer us a glimpse into how profoundly committed the Spanish central government is to maintaining a unitary identity by using force and sanction to bring to heel all those seen to deviate. A unitary identity becomes a powerful way of exercising control over a population; a false idol of monolithic so-called Spanishness to unify a population in a time where many have staked their political and economic futures on a unified Spain. Catalonia is one of the nation’s wealthiest regions, and independence might threaten to plunge the remainder of Spain into economic chaos. In these circumstances, a tool as urgent and powerful as a sense of unified Spanishness is one worth defending at a high cost. Though it has shocked many in the international community, Spain’s move to starve Catalonia’s budget into de facto submission is by no means beyond the pale of this logic.

Plastic national identities.

That the state remains invested in heavily policing Jewish and Muslim life in Spain chimes to the same anxiety; that repressing certain groups has proved so politically and economically useful, any identity which granted them full Spanishness threatens to undermine a project of exclusion. To guard Spanishness, white Catalonians must be forcibly brought in, whilst racial and ethnic ‘Others’ are cast out. Under the PP today, the ease with which groups can be included, or excluded, from Spain’s national identity evokes the power of Spain’s historic leaders to manipulate at will the concept of Spanishness.

Last year, Spain offered a Law of Return to the many expelled Sephardic Jews, officially claiming they were a crucial component of Spanish identity. The law is designed to make the naturalising process highly expensive and complicated, despite it being a Law of Return, which many see as a way to filter out less affluent Sephardim. It is important to note that this same definition of Spanishness was not expanded to include the many Muslims expelled from the land in the 15th and 16th century.

 

Bayi Loubaris, the president of the Association for Historical Legacy of Al-Andalus, took offence at this double-standard: “The Spanish state should grant the same rights to all those who were expelled, otherwise their decision is selective, if not racist”. The rigid definitions of Spain’s identity were felt more recently in Catalonia. In Place de Jaume of Barcelona, there is a man ensangrado(bloodied) most days of the week (or to use the Catalan for bloodied, ple de sang). He stands with posters of mauled bulls, slaughtered by a matadores. Catalonia’s regional government passed a law in 2010 which banned bull-fighting in the region. But Spain’s government annulled the ban in October of last year, deeming bull fighting a “national heritage”.

 

span5A Spanish patriot in Barcelona on the 12th of October, The National Day of Spain.

 

These cultural battles become the shibboleths for grander – and altogether more violent – battles over which kinds of government have the right to make and enforce laws on the territories of Spain. What can be seen as a paranoid enforcement of a unified, centralised identity fuelled the notorious Basque separatist terrorist group, ETA, standing for “Basque Homeland and Liberty”. Between 1986 and 2010 they killed 829 people, both politicians to civilians.

Just as laws prevent history textbooks from teaching diverse understandings of the 20th century, the will to limit a pluralist understanding of Spain’s national identity can be seen in the academic field. I spoke to a recent PhD graduate, Angy Cohen, from Madrid University. She specialises in Sephardic Jewish identity, through which she explores the historically shifting identities of Spanishness. She is frustrated at a culture still hostile to deconstructing definitions of Spain’s identity, reflected through funding restrictions:

It’s interesting that Spain has some of the best historians I’ve ever seen, the level is extremely high but Spain’s national identity is blocked – so if you trying to re-define Spain’s national identity – it will be a struggle. It’s all bound up because these questions lead to the claim of certain regions of Spain for self-determination. Its a very complex question that has to do with this inability – this very long history of persecution and repression of Spain’s national identity.

Tanks in Barcelona?

Under the PP, a centralised identity enforced through multiple legal and institutional formations has become a conduit for re-articulating deeply conservative values; the heritage of Franco’s reactionary governance. Thus, it is unsurprising that the fight for independence is seen by many Catalonians as the fight for a more progressive, democratic Spain. Spain’s current constitution states that for any regional law in Catalonia to be changed, the Spanish parliament must vote. Catalonia, with a small minority of representational seats in the national government, will side-step legality to ensure a referendum goes forward this October 1. Its draft legislation is clear:

If the Spanish state effectively impedes the holding of a referendum, this law will enter into effect in a complete and immediate manner when the [regional] parliament has verified such an impediment.

Catalonian’s are far from unified in their opinion on independence. Reasons for wanting national autonomy vary widely; from the primarily economic, to those of a more cultural or historical nature as discussed above. But many Catalonia’s are uncomfortable with voting for an independence that has no clear independence plan. To anyone spectating the fallout from Brexit, this may seem hauntingly familiar.

Though Carles Puigdemont does not have the unanimous support for the illegal vote that he claims, Catalonians are largely unified in their belief that they are entitled to a vote. Despite the fact that the vote is unlikely to swing the way of independence at this stage, the very fact of the referendum re-articulates lines of division and in declaring autonomy and difference, even as it looks to re-sign up to the uneasy contract at the heart of the modern Spanish state, a detente between the unified state and its fractious regions.

If the vote goes ahead, Spanish tanks have been promised on the streets of Catalonia during the voting period. Once again, central state power has failed to fully realise itself through a monolithic cultural identity and so has resorted to the old reliables; money and guns. Catalonian independence is no guarantee of prosperity or liberty for Catalonians, many of whom would likely face just the same ethnic or religious discrimination as is handed down by governments past and present. But the simple fact of holding the referendum tests the limits of what states will do to protect their territorial integrity. A firm fist on the national wallet and tanks on the streets of Barcelona.

 

catA Catalan Independence march last November, by Barcelona’s Placa Espana.