Friday, May 15, 2015

Culture at People's Expense: Convivencia and Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Spain

The university city of Alcalá de Henares, most closely associated with the personal confessor to Isabel I, is now a suburb of Madrid that, like many other small Castilian towns, presents itself as part of the heritage of the "tres culturas" of Spain, a place where Jews, Christians and Muslims forged a kind of coexistence, uneasy and inconsistent, but also vibrant and fruitful.

There is even a badly-proofread plaque in the "trilingual patio" of the historic site of the college commemorating a "three-faiths" encounter there.

But there is also this anti-US, anti-war mural that buys very directly into the Jewish-cabal-behind-it-all conspiracy-myth, right in the heart of the historic barrio judío. It's quite striking in its details, with a six-pointed Jewish star in the upper right-hand corner of the American flag where the 50 five-pointed stars (or even one large five-pointed star standing in for the tiny ones) should be.


It is a striking contrast as civic art in a city that is actively playing up its Jewish heritage, perhaps cynically to encourage tourism or perhaps in earnest as a real embrace of its past. But it is also a contrast that draws attention to the phenomenon of Jew-as-historical-artifact. Society at large is happy to embrace its Jewish past. After centuries of a different kind of national narrative, it has suddenly become a bit of a cool thing to do, and a path of liberation from the country's own fascist 20th century history. But it doesn't particularly seem to know what to do with actual, flesh-and-blood Jewish people.

Madrid itself is a city covered in swastika graffiti. I'd estimate that there are just about as many that are Xed out as a statement of general anti-fascism as there are that are painted on in earnest support of neo-Nazi or general fascist ideology, but that small and diffuse gesture doesn't inspire a lot of confidence against such an onslaught. It is a city that is, at a minimum, deeply ill-at-ease with its own position in relation to the whole of the twentieth century.

It's not really clear how to read an image like this: Graffiti painted on the sign at the entrance to the original university founded in Alcalá de Henares (sunny, historic Roman Complutum), now located in central Madrid. Were the yellow swastikas and the black and green Xes the product of two different "hands"? In other words, were there a separate fascist and anti-fascist at work? Or was it one individual? And if so, why did he not just want to paint an anti-fascist graffiti but rather make it look like he was crusading against fascist graffiti by using a different color paint for the Xes?
While I've been here I have fortunately only had one experience (aside from the constant, casual barrage of swastikas) of encountering, as a colleague put it, "blood libel in the wild," an evening at a pub after the end of a codicology workshop that I took, where I got stuck at the far end of a long table across from a history undergraduate whose opening gambit was, "I know you are Jewish, but certain things have to be said..." He went on to explain how the Jews have bought the world, and should just get over the Holocaust because Spain is over the Napoleonic wars. He did impressions of Jews "whining" about same, and completely neglected issues of the scale and character of the two events and the fact that, on top of all of that, in no meaningful way is Spain at all over the Napoleonic wars. He explained his intricate theory of the ways in which Jews have used our secret millions to buy off the world; this, of course, led into the most predictable of the anti-Semitic critiques of the state of Israel. He didn't actually go as far as repeating the blood libel, but by the end of the evening it wouldn't have surprised me if to learn he actually believed it. (He also had some very interesting theories about world revolution that, as much as the rest of what he said, made me seriously wonder, if unfairly, what the hell is going on in the history faculty at the Complutense where nothing that might challenge his racist, insular world view would seem to have penetrated his skull.) He offered a made-up definition and etymology of the Hebrew term goy that sounded like it had come from some kind of conspiracy theory web site and used it as proof that we hold ourselves as racially pure and  superior. He said that, as his father always says, if one person hates you, it's one bad person; if two people hate you, it's two bad people; but if the whole world hates you, then it means you're doing something wrong. Ergo, because everyone hates the Jews, it is the correct position.

He asked me what I thought about all of this and I suggested that he needed to do some more reading from reliable sources. When he demanded to know what book he should read and I couldn't, right on the spot, come up with a title that would, in a single fell swoop, remedy all of this, he took it as a sign of victory.

It's completely humiliating to have to split a check after you've been subjected to nearly two hours of bile about how greedy and conniving and cheating your people are. I overpaid.

I'll just add that I sat and took it for almost two hours in part because the configuration of tables and chairs would have made it difficult for me to get up and move, but more because the good American liberal position that I hear so often in my circles is that anti-Semitism is no longer a problem and Jews aren't a minority and shouldn't make a big deal of it because there are real problems and we are okay now — it's always struck me as a bit of bull, but it has attained the status of gospel in liberal social justice circles. I thought very clearly to myself that I had to keep sitting there to prove that I was a good liberal citizen of the world and that I wasn't uppity or oversensitive over nothing; I didn't want to prove this kid right or run afoul of the principles of diversity and tolerance that I myself ascribe to but that have really become totally perverted. I spent the next few days turning the events of that evening over in my head, and have decided that I am done trying to be a good liberal. I still, of course, believe in social justice, but I'm not falling into line at my own expense anymore.

This kid also spent a goodly amount of time laying into Gypsies for refusing to integrate into Spanish society and for similar sins of greed and swindling as those that he attributed to Jews. What particularly galled him was the fact that apparently the government at one point had offered 1000E to Gypsy families that would enroll their students in state schools, and many still refused. He didn't see the irony of criticizing their avarice while simultaneously criticizing them for not taking what amounted to a bribe for going against their own principles and community norms and subjecting their children to an educational system where they would be surrounded by other kids with opinions just like his.

A recent campaign to get the racist definition of the word gyspy struck from the official dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language made me wonder if there isn't a similar factor at play, something at the foundations of the language in this (usually charmingly) dictionary-obsessed society. There is. It's not nearly as bad as as the definition of gypsy, which enshrines in the language the notion that they are trapaceros, that is, swindlers, hucksters, and tricksters. What it does do, though, is enshrine in the language is the status of Jew as historical artifact.

This is the definition of judío/judía as it appears in the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language app:

Jewish: (From the Latin Iudaeus, and that, in turn, from the Hebrew yehudi.) 1) adj. A Hebrew. Of the Semitic people that conquered and inhabited Palestine. Can be applied to individuals. 2) adj. Related to professing the law of Moses. 3) adj. A native of Judea. 4) adj. Belonging to the aforementioned country in ancient Asia.
Let's, as we literature people say, unpack this definition a little bit:

The first striking thing is that in all four definitions, the word, which can also be used as a noun to mean simply Jew is defined as an adjective, and never as a noun. It seems to suggest that Jewishness is an accidental, rather than an inherent, quality of Jewish people.

The first thing that a Spaniard sees when he opens up the dictionary to ascertain what, exactly, is a judío, tells him that it is someone who conquered and inhabited Palestine. It is a biblical definition that comes first in a modern dictionary of the language. And, for people who are predisposed, as is my horrifying interlocutor at the pub, to think of Jews as people who bought off the world to conquer and inhabit the region of Palestine in the modern world, this only seems to confirm that idea by conflation that not all dictionary readers are sophisticated enough to be able to untangle.

 The closest that this dictionary entry comes to identifying a Jew as someone who practices a particular faith is in the second definition. It is tersely anachronicstic —"relating to the practice of Mosaic law" — and note that unlike the first definition, it does not specify that it can be applied to people; there can be Jewish spaces and Jewish history, but no Jewish people.

Definitions three and four only serve to reinforce the historicizing idea of The Jew, taking Judaism out of the realm of modern religions and placing it firmly as an artifact of the ancient kingdom of Judea.

This is the definition of a language that can do no better than to muster: A Jew is something that we used to have but no longer do. I don't know whether it is language that informs belief or belief that shapes language, but they are clearly intertwined here in the day-to-day and the publication program of the Royal Academy.


I predict that it will be a huge flash point when people start claiming citizenship under the law that affords citizenship to the descendents of pre-1492 Spanish Jews (providing, in a cruel paradox, that they are still Jewish, that is, that the Inquisition and associated state and church apparatus didn't succeed in making their ancestors convert). Suddenly, there will be an influx of people who add luster to that Jewish past, but who are also actively living lives as contemporary Jews. It will be interesting to see how the local populace resolves the conflict that they perceive embodied in these individuals.

In a certain way, this is actually a completely appropriate time to use the term medieval to describe the way in which people are being conceived of and treated . It's not that it's violently hateful and torturous in the way that people normally use the term medieval to describe. But it is rather like those low periods in the history of medieval coexistence, or convivencia (literally, just the state of people of different faith backgrounds living in proximity, reading the same books, asking similar questions about the world) when there was more of the unease and the discrimination and and less of the cultural respect, appreciation, and flowering. Despite my many colleagues who want to misconstrue the basic principles and methodologies of castrista historiography, nobody is claiming that convivencia meant that people necessarily got along or had deep respect for each other. Nobody was singing kumbaya around the medieval campfire. Rather, convivencia is this: A place where cultural production is valued, where a society is fundamentally mutli-ethnic and multi-confessional, and human nature and all of its wonderful potential and horrendously insular prejudices is ultimately and always the driving factor.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to leaving this neo-medieval convivencia behind and getting back solely to the real medieval kind, where the cultural production is fascinating and the human nature doesn't feel like a direct, personal, present threat.

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