By Karen Feit
A funny thing happened on the way to researching the Jews of Spain and their connections to modern Israel and Zionism: several search engines only returned results describing Spanish Anti-Semitism, and references to the February 2014 legislation that offered Jews who could trace their families' roots to the Expulsion and the Inquisition (1492), Spanish citizenship. In fact, few descendants of the approximately 100,000 Sephardim who were expelled in the 15th century would be able to meet the stringent burden of proof demanded by the bill.
Just one week after announcing the Right of Return for Sephardic Jews, Madrid voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations. The vote angered the Israeli government and some Spanish analysts have speculated that Spain's citizenship measure is nothing less and nothing more than a "wink" (guiño) to appease Jerusalem.
To be sure, the Spain-Israel relationship has been strained ever since formal diplomatic relations were established in January 1986. Spain consistently ranks as one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe, according the FCJE and other watchdog groups that have documented a steady rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish persons and property in the country. (https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4168/spain-citizenship-sephardic-jews) According to Martin Varsavsky, a telecom and news media entrepreneur who lives in Madrid: When Spain's Real Madrid lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv in Europe's main basketball tournament last year, it wasn't the game's final score that made headlines around the world. Instead it was the thousands of anti-Semitic tweets unleashed on Twitter by Spanish fans, referencing gas chambers and the Holocaust.
Jewish organizations responded quickly, asking prosecutors to investigate nearly 18,000 tweets, while media around the world drew quick conclusions about anti-Semitism in Spain. But as a Jew who has lived in Spain for the past 20 years, I feel it must be said that the situation is very different on the ground.
While it's true that many in Spain harbor prejudices against Jewish people, much of this sentiment is rooted in ignorance. The number of Jews who exist today in Spain is absolutely insignificant. I would estimate that about 6,000 Jews live in Madrid and maybe another 10,000 or so across Spain. Most Spaniards have never met a Jew. In 1492 we were 10% of the population in Spain. Today there's just a ghost of the Jewish community in Spain.
The community has increased security as a precautionary measure, but Madrid continues to feel like a safe haven compared to the anti-Semitism gripping other countries. As an entrepreneur who has founded several telecom and new media companies, I would move to Israel more because it's a mecca of technology rather than for safety.
As Spain struggles to recover from its double-dip recession, it has began its own campaign to lure Jews back again, promising legislation to fast-track citizenship for the descendants of Sephardic Jews. It's great but not a game changer, with 50% youth unemployment and more than 20% unemployment overall in Spain. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/05/a-new-exodus-jewish-in-europe)
This is hard to fathom in the same country that considers Maimonides (Ram bam) as one of its cultural icons. Despite the grim new about Jewish life in Spain today, we see Jewish and Israeli culture greatly enriched by the Sephardim from throughout the Diaspora who have made aliya to Israel for centuries. Their political impact has not coincided with their cultural influence, given the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi composition of the Yishuv and then the government of the State of Israel.