by Dror Eydar
Outwardly, everything seems perfectly normal now, but inside, a chilling wind has begun to blow, jolting all of Europe, while the continent only wants to keep things as calm as possible.
On a cool, sunny morning in Barcelona, I found myself wondering which direction to face if I wanted to face Jerusalem. From my hotel window, I could see the sun rising on the sea, so I turned my heart in that direction and began whispering the words of Rabbi Judah Halevi, one of the greatest lovers of the land of Israel, who lived not far from where I was some 900 years ago.
"My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West; How can I taste what I eat and how could it be pleasing to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I am in the chains of Arabia? It would be easy for me to leave all the bounty of Spain – as it is precious for me to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary."
I recalled Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, who also lived in Spain. Ahead of my trip, I reread his book on the Disputation of Barcelona, in which he recorded his 1263 debate with Friar Pablo Christiani, a Jew who converted to Christianity, on whether Jesus was the Messiah. The debate was conducted in the presence of King James I of Aragon, who favored the Jewish scholar. A day after the debate, the king told Nachmanides: "return to your city, to life, to peace." Then the king gave him a gift and bid him a warm farewell.
A church was built at that site after Nachmanides left Spain. The church was named after Saint Eulalia of Barcelona, a Christian saint who was crucified by the Romans at the start of the fourth century. She is considered the patron saint of the city. This church is where the archbishop of Barcelona sits today. Some say that the debate between Nachmanides and Christiani still echo in the walls of the church.
Nachmanides is gone, and the Jews of Catalonia have gone too, as have the Jews of all of Spain. But that independent Catalonia is now once again rising from [the] dead and demanding to restore its glory as an independent kingdom, not under Spanish rule. I had come to observe firsthand this history in the making.
At the airport, my eyes were drawn to the trilingual signs: First Catalan, English in the center and Spanish, as though ashamed, at the end. In the city streets, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary other than the flags of the new republic over the doors of many homes. Business as usual overall.
I was surprised at how crowded and cosmopolitan the shopping avenue in Barcelona, Las Ramblas, was. I was appalled at the thought of last August's car ramming attack there, when a van plowed into the crowd of shoppers and tourists on the avenue and killed 13 people. Outwardly, everything seems perfectly normal now, but inside, a chilling wind has begun to blow, jolting all of Europe, while the continent only wants to keep things as calm as possible. Catalonia is demanding independence. Spain is unsurprisingly objecting – how could it not object when this wealthy region brings in 20% of the entire country's gross national product? And what will happen with the Basques once Catalonia gains independence? What will happen with Spain? Will it revert back to its modest dimensions before the 15th century?
I met with intellectuals, prominent media figures and senior statesmen, one of whom has played an important role in this process since its inception. I got the impression that there is no going back at this point. Every one of them was quick to stress that it wasn't ethnic or religious separatism that prompted their bid for independence, nor was it history or religion, but rather democracy – their desire to be free to shape their own future, free of the restrictions imposed by Spain.
They explained that the Catalans are a very diverse group. Some 70% are not "original" Catalans, going back fewer than four generations. Half of the population speaks Spanish rather than Catalan. "We want to build a country for everyone," they say.
"We have a thousand years of history here. Catalonia never really felt like a part of Spain. I was born during the Franco era – I was prohibited from speaking Catalan in public. We only spoke our language at home. But the Catalan community decided to fight for independence differently than other nations – not by way of ethnic dispute," one of them said.
I told them that in Hebrew, the words for language and tongue can also be used to describe a people or a border. The fact that the Catalans speak a language other than Spanish, with a culture and a history of its own, necessarily creates a "state within a state" (as the anti-Semites in Europe once described the Jewish community). Regardless of how politically correct everyone is being, it appears that the Catalans' national sentiments, their historical memory and the cultural and language gaps are being given the respect they deserve.
You insist on describing your reality in rational terms, when in fact, below the surface (or perhaps deep in the collective subconscious) romantic, nationalist sentiments are bubbling, longing to take the form of a separate, distinct national entity, I said to them.
I told them that they speak of logic, while that the logic rests on a bed of profoundly influential mythology. But then I thought about it and realized that maybe they can't speak differently, since they are addressing a Europe that is deathly afraid of nationalist awakening and of the religious war between Christianity and Islam that is breathing down its neck.
This is also the way that the right-wing and centrist parties enlist the Left to support the idea of independence – using the idea of a "state for all its citizens," to borrow a term from the Israeli debate. Indeed, one of the individuals I met with, who subscribes to the political Left, told me explicitly that despite the horrendous terrorist attack on Las Ramblas "we strongly oppose infringing on any civil rights in an effort to achieve security."
I explained to him the Jewish principle that states that saving lives justifies violating almost all religious restrictions, and he proudly retorted that this precisely is the difference between the Catalan population and the rest of the peoples. He spoke about "pacifism" as a characteristic of Catalan society.
Here is a synopsis of the mess there: When the dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, a contract was signed between his successors in the leadership and the opposition. Part of the agreement included a provision that in every dispute with an autonomous region in Spain, a double process would ensue: first the autonomy would pass a law and the parliament in Madrid would either uphold it or reject it. Then, if the law is rejected, it is sent back to the autonomy, which can then conduct a referendum. If the law passes by referendum, it becomes law even if the central government rejected it.
In September 2005 the Catalan parliament approved a new constitution. Following a long process, the constitution was approved by both parliaments, with a few changes, after it was approved by referendum in Catalonia in 2006 and was signed by the Spanish king.
The minority faction in Catalonia, which represents the ruling party in Madrid, opposed the constitution and petitioned the supreme court. After four years of proceedings, the court struck down key provisions in the constitution and created a new reality: instead of two partners in the relationship between the two parliaments, now there were three parties: Spain, Catalonia and the court.
The Catalan response in light of the violation of the initial agreement, under which their referendum should have sufficed to approve a law, was to declare that there was no longer unity, and that is how the separatist movement came into being. In Barcelona, I heard the familiar refrains: "The court in Madrid essentially said, 'You don't have the power or right to decide. Only we do.'"
"The court exercised power that it didn't have the right to exercise. They broke the democracy. This is a profound crisis in any democratic country. They decided that they were the legislative branch."
Someone should introduce the Catalans to Israel's court system. That is precisely how things are done here.
I have heard quite a few members of the Israeli Left equate Catalan independence to Palestinian independence. In actuality, I can only wish that the Arabs of the region learn a thing or two from the Catalans. But as long as we're making comparisons, the similarities are actually between Catalonia and the State of Israel. Both have a long national and cultural history. Both were independent states that lost their independence to a conqueror. Both are situated in a region that is hostile toward their national aspirations: Israel in the Middle East and Catalonia in Spain and in Europe. Both are home to a minority population that seeks to nullify the majority's nationality.
In Israel, Arab MKs and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee view the Jews as belonging to a religion rather than a nationality. In Catalonia, Opposition Leader Inés Arrimadas (born in Andalusia) opposes Catalan independence and rejects Catalan nationality.
Israel wants no part of this conflict. We have enough conflict of our own. But the drama currently unfolding in Catalonia is raising existential questions that are pertinent to our region, too, as well as to the entire world. On the one hand, we are living in global village – borders are blurring and communities are forming on nonnational commonalities. Things happening in New York are influencing us here, and the networks are making distance irrelevant when belonging to a community. On the other hand, the Middle East is falling apart at the seams, shedding its European demarcation and reverting back to tribes and clans. This after the decomposition of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and now Catalonia is seeking to exercise its nationality – which could further encourage the Basques to pull modern Spain entirely apart. We, in this age, are in the eye of the storm, and we are having trouble getting an accurate perspective. We will leave that to future generations. But in the meantime, let us learn from others' past mistakes.
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