Despite efforts, anti-Semitism is practiced openly in Madrid
Story by Emily Pollak
MADRID – On a wild Saturday night in late May, thousands of chanting, screaming soccer fans fill the streets to support their local team, Real Madrid, as it plays for the championship in neighboring Portugal. But in the midst of the revelry, a disturbing symbol emerges. The swastika. Hundreds cheer around a man waving a flag bearing this universal symbol of anti-Semitism and hate. Nobody does a thing, or seems to care.
It has become an increasingly familiar sight in the capital city of Spain, a country with a history of showing hostility toward Jews. And not surprisingly, as a result, the rise of white power groups has unnerved human rights advocates, business owners and members of the region’s Jewish community, a minority that represents less than 1 percent of the population.
Moises Benbunan, coordinator for the youth department at Madrid’s Jewish Community Center, is one among those who have taken note, and taken a step back. One indication: He hides his Star of David necklace under his jacket as he walks down the street.
“It’s just being careful,” he says.
In his view, anti-Semitism is part of a larger issue in a country that does not accept minorities.
“They don’t only hate the Jews in Spain,” Benbunan says. “They hate everyone who is different.”
Some of the hostility appears to be centered around high-profile sporting events, where crowd surges and violence are common. Real Madrid’s Ultras Sur hooligan group was one of the organizations responsible for the pre-game championship rally outside the soccer stadium where club faithful waved their Nazi flags. Also, in late September, four members of the group were suspended for six months and fined 3,000 euros, or $4,100 each, after displaying swastikas and the word “Totenkopf,” a reference to the German Nazi party. Shortly after, in response, Real Madrid rescinded Ultras Sur’s season tickets and since, the group has disbanded.
But that hasn’t stopped them from protesting outside Real Madrid matches, or other ugly incidents from occurring at and around sports events. Earlier this spring, for example, a Spanish Villarreal soccer fan threw a banana at Barcelona defender Dani Alves, who is a native of Brazil. The team, which was fined 12,000 euros or about $16,350, identified the fan and banned him for life.
That kind of very public response helps, but only so much, say locals who don’t want to be associated with such displays of hatred and disrespect. It’s done nothing, for example, for Enrique Vela, whose Studio Solana Photography business sits across from the Real Madrid stadium in the heart of the city.
His shop is surrounded by many white power slogans marking walls in the area, with messages that include: “Defend Your Neighborhood, Your Nation, Your Race. White Ghetto,” “White Pride” and “Against miscegenation. Madrid Pure-blood.” Vela says he twice has painted over his shop’s door, spending close to 500 euros, or just over $680.
“It’s an expensive and tedious process,” he says of his scrubbings. The vandalism “bothers people but it’s a lost cause.” His enduring impression is that even when there are advances, such as when a team bans a particularly racist fan, there isn’t much change overall. “Smaller groups still exist and although there are no violent acts [since the group disbanded], the symbols remain constant. In the past 10 years it seems as if [Spain] is moving backwards.”
Racist comments also spread through social media in May after the Real Madrid basketball team lost the Euroleague championship to Israel’s Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, 98-86. As thousands of tweets lamented the team’s failure, the hashtag #PutosJudíos or “[expletive] Jews” became a trending topic on Twitter in Spain.
Spanish government officials say they aren’t giving up. The country has made efforts in recent years to participate in Holocaust remembrances and to make it easier for Sephardic Jews, the group expelled from Spain in 1492 during the Inquisition, to become citizens without giving up their current citizenship status.
Just last November, lawmakers voted to make Holocaust awareness education mandatory in schools.
And in May, residents of a small town three hours north of Madrid in the region of Castile and Leon voted to change their community’s name. Founded in 1035, the town was Castrillo Motajudíos. In the 17th century the second word in the name changed to Matajudíos, which translates to “Fort Kill Jews.” Of the 56 residents who live there, 29 voted on May 25 to change Matajudíos back to Mota de judíos, making “kill” into “hill of.” Nineteen people voted against the measure, according to Mayor Lorenzo Rodriguez.
These improvements may represent “little steps” in the right direction, but even with such efforts, experts say, the country’s citizenry still has a long way to go in accepting other ethnicities. Anti-Semitism “is deeply ingrained culturally, historically and sociologically,” said Alejandro Baer, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Part of the reason for that is long stretches of Spanish history have been defined by government-enforced efforts to maintain a Catholic state, with those who don’t follow subjected to persecution, torture and even death. The Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 and not disbanded until 1834, led to hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled or converted to Catholicism. General Francisco Franco rose to power in 1939 with the help of Nazi leaders and re-established Catholicism as the country’s official religion. It wasn’t until 1978 that a new Constitution, under King Juan Carlos, allowed Spaniards religious freedom.
Since, the number of Catholics in Spain has dropped from 95 percent to 70 percent. Yet, hundreds of years of state-sponsored persecution have left Spain with a Jewish population of fewer than 40,000 in a country with more than 47 million people.
“You can be an anti-Semite without ever knowing a Jew,” says Rabbi Yerahmiel Barylka of Madrid’s Synagogue Rambam Moraleja, located in a northern municipality.
Today, the percentage of Spain’s population holding strong anti-Semitic views is 29 percent – which is above the global average of 26 percent – according to a recent survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, an international organization aimed at fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry worldwide.
Local Jews are acutely aware of those numbers, which is why they tend to keep quiet about where they are meeting to worship, and even what their religion is. Inside Beth Yaacov, the largest and oldest synagogue in Madrid, the scene is typical on a recent Friday night. This is a Sephardic Orthodox temple, with men gathering on the first floor while women have to sit one level up. Friendly handshakes and banter are exchanged while warm smiles flash across the aisles to whisper “Shabbat Shalom.”
Outside, though, is not so typical – and a signal of what Jewish life is like in Spain. Two police officers stand guard and security cameras are aimed at the doorways. Unfamiliar visitors are asked to show their passports and answer questions about their purpose for attending.
While the stringent security measures may seem tedious, temple members required them after a terrorist attack in the late ‘70s when a neo-Nazi extreme right-wing party bombed the vicinity of the synagogue while three Jewish children were playing. One was injured and taken to the hospital, and there was significant damage to the area. There was another attempted attack on the establishment in the ‘80s, which led to heightened measures as well.
That may have been 30 years ago. But no one there feels there have been enough changes – in policy, in attitude, in people’s outward exhibits of hatred and intolerance – to feel free enough to worship without armed guards on patrol.
Put simply by María Royo, an employee at Beth Yaacov: “It is possible something will happen.”