Isaac Benzaquén, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, has been in Barcelona to address about what they consider to be an increase in antisemitism in Catalonia. A situation that he links to the climate created by certain political decisions, especially the breaking of the Barcelona-Tel Aviv twinning agreement. He calls for dialogue with the institutions.
On 28-M there are municipal and regional elections. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, decided last February to freeze the twinning between the cities of Barcelona and Tel Aviv. Do you think it is possible to restore relations?
We at the federation were very saddened and alarmed by the news. The relations between Catalonia, Barcelona, Israel and Tel Aviv have been friendly, positive and intercultural. This rupture does not reflect the reality of what Barcelona is, a welcoming, open city. And Tel Aviv is a model city in terms of coexistence and freedom. We have sent several letters to the mayoress expressing our point of view in order to redirect the situation and meet with her. We have been told no – on Wednesday Khalid Ghali, the City Council’s Commissioner for Intercultural Dialogue, made a first approach. In this respect, we would like to see changes.
You warned that the decision to break off relations has an impact on the Jewish community in Barcelona, where the majority of the Jewish community is made up of Barcelonese citizens without Israeli passports. lonese citizens without Israeli passports.
The decision has a great impact on the Jewish community in Catalonia because it creates moments of difficulty, attitudes against the Jewish community that may resurface. We are citizens here, most of us do not have Israeli passports, with different opinions, we do not represent the government or the State of Israel.
On 17 April there was graffiti on the Maimonides Synagogue of the Israeli Community of Barcelona, which the Jewish community linked to Colau’s decision. Yesterday there was another pro-Palestinian graffiti at the Chabad Synagogue.
This is the issue, this is what worries us. I am in Barcelona to attend the Coexistence and Interreligious Dialogue Award that Dalia Levinsohn is receiving, and also because of the concern we have about the situation that the Jewish community is going through in the face of an increase in anti-Semitism. The characteristics of the graffiti “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” is a message conveying that the Jews of Israel should be thrown into the sea. Graffiti also appeared accusing Jews of having caused the covid, of having the power of money. These are situations that are happening and worry us all.
Last June, the Parliament passed a motion in which it considered Israel’s policy in Palestine to be a “crime of apartheid”, with the PSC’s vote. The Israeli embassy also expressed its displeasure. Meanwhile, the Socialist candidate, Jaume Collboni, does not support Colau.
These situations do occur, but we have to thank Collboni for all his support for the Jewish community when the twinning was broken off, because it was a very difficult time.
In these complex months, the Government’s decision to halt the opening of a delegation of the Generalitat in Tel Aviv, a project promoted when Victòria Alsina (Junts) occupied the Conselleria, also generated controversy. Do you have a relationship with the Government?
No, there is no relationship. Barcelona is the city that receives most visits from Israel. If you travel to Tel Aviv you will see many Barça shirts. This is the emotional part, but Israel can also make great contributions in the technological, economic and agricultural fields… Opening a delegation would be positive for everyone because it would benefit everyone and Catalan society as a whole.
The president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, was quick to express her willingness to strengthen relations with Israel.
Relations between the Jewish community and Madrid’s institutions, with the community and the City Council, are very positive, very close. Ayuso was the first to advocate that Jewish heritage should be studied in schools. It is true that the feeling of the Jewish community in Madrid has nothing to do with that in Barcelona, due to the events we are discussing. These are issues – the motion in Parliament, the breaking of the twinning agreement, the cancellation of the Government’s delegation – that would not be raised in Madrid.
Is the weight of Podemos – with its pro-Palestinian stance – conditioning your relations with the Spanish government?
We have a very good and fluid relationship with the Government and recently a very important step has been taken with the approval of the strategic plan to combat anti-Semitism and promote Jewish life. It is a mandatory strategy in the EU and Spain is one of the few countries that has this strategy approved.
From a general perspective, are you concerned about the evolution of the political debate and the polarisation and growth of extremist parties?
The anti-Zionism that is being proclaimed today is a disguise for anti-Semitism. The aim of radical groups on the extreme right and extreme left is hatred of the Jew, of the State of Israel. We are concerned that it may be gaining a foothold in society.
One of the goals you set when you took over the Federation was to open up Jewish communities to society.
As we participate in meetings, we realise how little knowledge there is of the Jewish people, of their traditions. It is partly our fault because we have not been able to explain ourselves. Many stereotypes are based on this lack of knowledge. Jewish communities must integrate into the society in which they live, in the cities.