Spain on a mission to promote Jews’ legacy

By Simon Rocker, May 21, 2009

Does Spain’s love of olive oil have anything to do with the great Jewish civilisation that once flourished in the country? It is a question that intrigues Diego de Ojeda, director general of Casa Sefarad Israel, the official Spanish agency for ties with Israel and the Jewish people.

“I wonder to what extent the fact we fry in olive oil is a product of kosher rules, in having not to fry in butter,” he said.

Casa Sefarad was launched two-and-a-half years ago, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs along with Madrid’s regional and municipal governments. It is one of half a dozen casas advancing ties with America, Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean and the Arab world.

In addition to promoting Spanish relations with Israel and the Jewish world, Mr de Ojeda says it aims “to revive the legacy of Sepharad, which as I interpret it is to promote awareness among Spanish public opinion that in today’s Spain, our national identity is in part a product of the contribution of Jews throughout many centuries.”

Its activities, budgeted at 1.5 million euros a year, have run from training Holocaust educators and introducing Spanish exporters to the kosher market to bringing over Israeli youth for football training with Real Madrid. Next month the organisation hosts 30 lawyers from Israel and the diaspora for a discussion on a Spanish investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes.

“This has been widely interpreted as a politically manipulated case by Spain against Israel. I disagree,” he said. The problem lies in the way “Spain’s law grants power for courts to prosecute crimes against humanity regardless of where they have taken place.”

Since he spoke, Spain’s Congress passed a law limiting its judges’ jurisdiction to cases with a clear Spanish connection.

Although a Pew Centre poll last autumn might suggest that Spain was Europe’s most antisemitic country, Mr de Ojeda — who lived in Jerusalem for two years in the 1990s, while working for the European Commission — believes that gives a misleading impression. Anti-Jewish sentiments are more to do with a general problem of xenophobia, he explained. (Anti-Muslim sentiments were even higher.)

“We don’t have attacks on Jews, we don’t have attacks on synagogues, we don’t have vandalism, we don’t have Jews being kidnapped and killed like in France,” he said. “The worst thing we have is what happened to the Israeli ambassador [earlier this month] coming out of a football match.”

Even though the ambassador was called a “Jewish dog”, he added, “This regrettable incident is because he is the Israeli ambassador, not because he is a Jew. Unfortunately the way to insult the Israeli ambassador is to use a term like [this].”

Spain’s Jewish community of 20,000-40,000 is relatively “invisible”, he said, and “a typical Spaniard has never seen a kippah”.

Last updated: 12:05pm, May 21 2009