By Flora Hastings
The Israeli Times was the site of a less-public conflict in the aftermath of Barcelona’s attack last week. Its pages perpetuated a time-worn pattern: In times of conflict, Jewish communities’ relations to their diaspora are challenged un-constructively by Jewish leaders.
After a van plunged into the teeming Las Ramblas, killing 16 and injuring 100, two pillars of the community clashed in their public response to the attack, amplified by the paper.
Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Ben-Har, portended Europe’s ‘doom’ and asserted that ‘Jews are not here permanently’. The Rabbi called for Spain’s 40,000 Jews to ‘buy property in Israel’, as their home was a ‘hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe’.
After The Israel Times published the Rabbi’s statement, Victor Sorrenson, a spokesman for the Jewish community, sent a loaded email to the paper’s inbox.
‘Barcelona is not afraid, its Jews join them in this stance’. His definitive message was ‘social action’ from Barcelona’s community, not departure.
I spoke to Victor from his office in Barcelona, to find out how two community figures can have such a polarised reaction to the event, and his view on the future of the diaspora in Europe.
Victor opened by explaining that the Rabbi’s view was not ‘representative’ of the community, unfortunate considering that the newspaper had jumped to publish his response:
‘The Rabbi should not have attended the media the same day of the attack. Beyond the fact that the media may have exaggerated their position, I think it is a mistake for a religious leader to take sides that way. He has been in Barcelona for six years, the community, one hundred’
Victor expanded on the logistics of the post-attack community response, as there had been a an elected ‘crisis committee’, and Victor was appointed as the ‘spokesperson’:
‘The message was very clear: Condemn the terrorist attacks, give all our support for the authorities and participate in the social fabric of Barcelona to show our commitment to the city’.
The Rabbi’s response, siting the imperative for the community to move away from the diaspora as opposed to solidarity, is a tired motif. Such soothsaying undermine the diasporas’ efforts, and success, in re-inscribing their identity into Europe.
European leaders heaped critique on the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, following his response after the Paris Kosher-supermarket and Copenhagen attacks last year. His message was clear: ‘Israel is waiting for you with open arms’.
Accusations of Netanyahu’s strategically-timed damning of the future of Europe rippled across the media’s international waters.
Chief Rabbi Bar-Hen, echoing the view of many vocal zionist Jewish leaders, claimed that the community in Barcelona was ‘not permanent’. Victor counter-acted this pessimism:
‘There is a growing interest in the general Catalan population in Jewish matters, an interest that we see translating into spiritual, historical and intellectual curiosity. In short, there is a vibrancy to Jewish life in Barcelona. This will be the trend for the future. I do not know anyone, either before or after the attack, to consider leaving for security reasons’
The Rabbi, ignoring Spain’s sociocultural specificity, had warned Jews not to ‘repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late’. Outside of drawing parallels with other continents, he claimed that ‘Europe is lost’.
Victor, when this was re-sited to him, argued that: ‘Each country has a different history. To encompass all on the same label “Europe”, is reductionistic and shows an ignorance of the reality that is being lived politically’.
Despite its pervasive anti-semitism, Spain has not had a violent attack against Jews for years, unlike France. Victor suggests that in the face of new terror threats rising in Spain, the Jewish community feels supported:
‘What I can say is that our relationship with the security forces is excellent. We work with them on a regular basis, since as in so many other places, Jewish spaces had been targeted before the terrorist threat.’
The disregarding of Barcelona’s place-specific security-levels forms part of a mind set that undermines diasporic identity by homogenising it within Europe. The diasporas’ sociocultural idiosyncrasies are a distraction to Israel, seen as the only true Jewish homeland.
The Rabbi seemed impervious to the irony that thousands of Israeli’s had been trying to pass Spain’s Law of Return of 2015. If an applicant can prove their ancestor’s Sephardic origins they can be nationalised as Spanish. A writer from Haaretz evokes the reaction in Israel:
‘Normal countries, with normal people, don’t go crazy just because an economically-challenged country offered them citizenship. But Israel did’
The Chaplin-esque image of these paradoxical movements sites the insecurity of Jewish life, where is safe? Israel certainly isn’t.
However, expanding on the future of the diaspora within Europe as a whole, Victor has a restless energy:
‘One of the projects I coordinate is the European Days of Jewish Culture, where 324 cities from all over Europe participated simultaneously last year. I think it is representative that Judaism in Europe goes beyond anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
We Jews are an active part of European society, we are not a museum object.’
Victor’s vision for the role of the diaspora within Europe is one of social activism and building more presence for Jews in public spaces.
He co-runs the Berlin-born initiative Salaam-Shalom in Barcelona, organising workshops between the cities’ Jews and Muslims. Victor also founded Mozaika, a journal publishing academic papers and pioneering archival research on Jewish history and culture in Catalonia.
What one sees as an offering of support, others see as a strategically placed call to Israel when a community is vulnerable. The reconstruction of the diaspora’s identity into post-Shoah Europe is advanced by their show of solidarity in events such as the Barcelona attacks. Such responses ensure a reciprocation from their neighbours in the likely event of their own targeting.