Catalonia: Secession or Concession?
“VIVA ESPAÑA!” ECHOED THROUGH PLAÇA DE CATALUNYA IN THE CENTER OF BARCELONA, SPAIN, LAST WEEK, AS HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS TOOK TO THE STREETS, RALLYING IN FAVOR OF THEIR REGION, CATALONIA, REMAINING PART OF SPAIN, WHILE NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, PRO-INDEPENDENCE VOICES USE THE RACKET OF BANGING POTS AS A SIGN OF PROTEST AGAINST SPAIN.
By Rifka Junger
HAMODIA SPOKE TO BARCELONA’S CHIEF RABBI TO FIND OUT THE FACTS ON THE GROUND.
Catalans, the people of Catalonia, are divided, with some hoping for independence and others declaring their loyalty to Spain.
Catalonia’s desire to separate from Spain is almost as old as its merging with it. The region, in northeastern Spain, has maintained its autonomy of culture, language and traditions throughout the centuries, but not always its government. Despite numerous rounds of foreign rule, Catalonia has continuously fought for its independence.
Catalonia was never actually an independent country. Throughout the Middle Ages, various counties gradually united under the county of Barcelona, today the capital of Catalonia, which in the 12th century was united with the Kingdom of Aragón.
Those years saw an upsurge in Catalonian wealth. Both in knowledge and economy, Catalan trade dominated the Mediterranean. Jews who lived all across the province played a key role in this prosperity.
The Jews of Catalonia date back to the time of the Roman Empire. They enjoyed an era of tremendous growth in Torah from the ninth century until their cataclysmic expulsion in 1492. They cultivated their own identity, language (known as Judaeo-Catalan or Qatalanit) and culture, which strongly influenced the scientific, literary and philosophical culture of Catalonia.
Catalonia’s countryside was filled with Jewish communities throughout the centuries until the expulsion. But the two most important cities were Barcelona and Girona, the latter being not only the capital for Jewish life in the region, but also a bastion of Torah, filled with the greatest chachmei Sepharad, who left an everlasting imprint. Jews filled the roles of doctors, philosophers, merchants, moneylenders and craftsmen.
The narrow streets of El Call (the ghetto-like neighborhood) in Barcelona housed around 5,000 inhabitants and had two shuls, a mikveh and a slaughterhouse. Parts of one shul, dating back to 1306, can still be visited today.
The Call de Girona had three shuls, a Talmud Torah, mikveh, hospital, slaughterhouse, bakery and hachnasas orchim.
Today one can still visit the streets of the Call in Girona. Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Meir Bar-Chen shares an interesting anecdote. “When the Jews were expelled, the Spaniards warned the population of diseases the Jews had left behind and closed off the Call for a very long time. In the end, that was what kept the Call in such good condition.”
Of all the Gedolim of the Catalan region, readers will undoubtedly be most familiar with the Ramban and the Ran.
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, was born in Girona at the end of the 12th century. One of the senior commentators, whose astounding accumulation of Torah works are basics for every Torah-learning Yid until today, the Ramban served as Rabbi of Girona and then as Chief Rabbi of Catalonia. In addition to being one of the most important chachamim of his time, the Ramban was also a philosopher and a physician.
Earning the respect of King Jacob I of Aragón, he was appointed as counselor in Jewish affairs. In 1263, he represented the Jews at a dispute between Jews and Christians in Barcelona instigated by a meshumad. When the Ramban was declared the victor, it was met with displeasure in the eyes of the Christians, causing the king to urge the Ramban to leave his family behind in Catalonia and emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. It was from there that he penned the “Iggeres HaRamban — The Letter for the Ages” to his son, who was still in Catalonia. The Ramban founded a shul in the old city of Yerushalayim, known as the Ramban Synagogue today. He passed away on 11 Nissan 5030 (1270).
The Ran, Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven, was born in Barcelona and authored commentaries on the Gemara, although many of his works have been lost. He was one of the most important Talmudists of the Middle Ages. He fulfilled all the duties of a Rav and Dayan, but never held any official position. His reputation as a halachic authority, and also as a physician and astronomer, was world renowned.
Calm and prosperous life for Catalan’s Jews came to a halt in 1391 when Christians, encouraged by their preachers, instigated pogroms all over the region, plundering homes and killing any Jew they found. The most horrific persecutions took place in Barcelona, where the Call was completely destroyed, more than 1,000 Jews murdered and others forced to convert. In one fell swoop, a flourishing Jewish community, one of the most important in the Mediterranean, was no more.
“Jews made up 30 percent of Barcelona’s population before its destruction,” says Rav Bar-Chen, “yet there is no remnant, not even a single kever!”
In 1469, King Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabella of Castile, uniting the entire kingdom of Spain. It was this infamous couple who expelled the Jews from their dominion in 1492 by issuing the Alhambra Decree eradicating Jewish life in Spain, although anusim, or crypto-Jews, continued keeping basic Yiddishkeit in hiding.
“We do not feel anything from Catalonia’s rich Jewish history today,” Rav Bar-Chen laments, “apart from the Call in Girona and the mikveh and school that were discovered in the town of Besalu.”
Catalonia’s economic decline, beginning in 1492, seems to be no coincidence, and the economic situation continued to deteriorate in the following centuries.
During the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714) between the royal houses of Bourbon in France and Habsburg of Austria, after the Spanish King Charles II died without heirs, the Catalans aligned with Austria. When they were defeated by the allied states of Castile and France, Castile annexed Catalonia and, in retribution, revoked all Catalan rights, even banning their language.
It took many decades for Catalonia to regain some of its privileges. In 1778, they were first permitted to trade with America, which significantly eased their economic plight. In time, Catalonia became the wealthiest area of the Iberian Peninsula and experienced a new era of cultural splendor.
The upswing also strengthened Catalan nationalistic aspirations. In the early 20th century, the region reestablished political institutions and after the fall of the Spanish monarchy in 1932, it regained autonomy, albeit for a short time.
Spain’s republican period brought the Spanish people no peace as the political spectrum was radicalized. The powder keg exploded on July 18, 1936, when right-wing military forces, led by General Franco, unleashed the Spanish Civil War. Catalonia fought on the Republican side.
Three years later the Republicans were defeated and Franco ruled Spain with a dictator’s fist, brutally crushing any form of regionalism, revoking Catalonia’s autonomy and once again banning the language and culture.
After Franco’s death in 1975, the monarchy was restored and the country slowly transitioned to a democratic nation. Four years later, the Spanish government granted Catalonia limited autonomy. In the spring of 1980, its first regional government was formed.
Jews gradually started returning to Spain in the past century. “Today there are an estimated 30,000 Jews living in Barcelona,” Rav Bar-Chen says. “But it is hard to say how many of them are frum. The truth is that those who don’t keep mitzvos are people who have been deprived of Yiddishkeit throughout their entire lives. And their desire to grow is evident in the crowd of men and women who attend shiurim.”
Rav Bar-Chen shares a personal struggle. “I keep telling people that it is time to go and live in Eretz Yisrael. I myself have a strong desire to make aliyah as well. But I am on duty,” he says. “Two months ago I went to visit Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and shared my longing to live in Eretz Yisrael. But he told me otherwise: ‘You will be on the last ship to leave,’ and instructed me to establish a chareidi community in Barcelona. So that is my goal now.
“The fact of the matter is that a community that is not firmly rooted in Torah will not last. Without Torah there is no kehillah, but only a club. Assimilation is so painful. If we don’t strive against it with Torah, then there is nothing to help us.”
Catalans continuously demanded more cultural and economic independence from the central government in Madrid. In 2006, Catalonia drafted its own constitution, calling itself a “nation,” although this passage was deemed insignificant in terms of constitutional law.
Step by step, Catalonia struggled to form an independent central state. However, neither the majority of the Catalan population nor the autonomous government in Barcelona showed any desire to allow this breakaway.
In 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain nullified the Catalan law from 2006, leading to an outcry in the Catalan region and to the rise of pro-independence parties who eventually became the governing bodies in Catalonia.
Spain has suffered an economic crisis over the last decade and the subsequent assistance from the EU included tough austerity measures, which further frustrated Catalonia. As the country’s wealthiest region, it felt unfairly disadvantaged.
When former Mayor of Girona, Charles Puigdemont, was elected president of Catalonia in January 2016 and refused to take the usual oath of loyalty to the Spanish king and the country’s constitution, it was clear that change for Catalans was imminent.
Chief Rabbi Bar-Chen and Chabad Rabbi David Libersohn take no sides in the political machinations, but both assert the good relationship between Puigdemont and the Jewish community of Barcelona.
For Rav Bar-Chen, he is more than a friendly politician. “He is a personal friend of mine, who has visited my home on several occasions.”
On September 6 of this year, the parliament set a date for a referendum on the independence of Catalonia for October 1, 2017, a decision the Spanish government deemed illegal.
The Jewish community in Barcelona is split in their opinion regarding the vote. For Rav Libersohn, it is clear. “We are a non-political organization and remain neutral on political issues. But everyone has a right to his individual opinion. The Jewish community is a part of society and just as the society is divided, so too the Jewish community is divided on that issue. I am a Rabbi and will not get involved in these opinions.”
Rav Bar-Chen shares, “I don’t know if we Jews have the right to an opinion on the matter. That is a decision that should be left to those who have very deep roots here. We are, after all, new citizens. I don’t think we have the right to be either pro- or anti-independence.”
The weeks leading up to the vote were filled with demonstrations on both sides, with lots of reaction from international leaders and large media coverage. But the referendum took place as scheduled nonetheless. Numerous irregularities in the electoral process were reported and blamed on the Spanish police, who tried to forcefully thwart voters. While an independent review of the election result is impossible, the Catalan government announced that with a 42.5 percent turnout of the 5.3 million eligible voters, 90 percent had voted yes.
The people of Catalonia, anticipating an imminent declaration of independence, were disappointed by the parliamentary address of Puigdemont on October 10.
“I assume the mandate of the people for Catalonia to become an independent state in the shape of a republic,” he said, but refused to make an outright declaration of independence, claiming to wait for talks with Madrid.
The following days were marked by internal clashes and infighting within the Catalan government, which spread on to the streets.
Members of the Catalan parliament signed the “Declaration from Representatives of Catalonia,” calling for the recognition of their independence and demanding that an official declaration be made.
In response, the government in Spain implemented Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, calling for direct rule of Catalonia under Madrid and revoking their autonomy.
Puigdemont, who had been waiting for a dialogue with Madrid, saw this as provocation and a coup and decided that such a bold move deserved an equally brash reaction. On October 27, 70 of the 135 members of the Catalan parliament voted for and announced independence and the proclamation of a Catalan republic.
Reaction from Madrid was swift. That very evening, the Spanish government dissolved the Catalan parliament and dismissed the entire Catalan regional government body including Puigdemont, as well as top management of the Catalan police and a number of top officials. They appointed Spain’s Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría as interim president of the Generalitat of Catalan. New elections were set for December 21, 2017 and charges were brought against Puigdemont and other members of his disempowered government
“I am not going to voice my opinion on the reasoning for these measures,” says Rav Bar-Chen, “but I do think the Spanish government should have gone down a more moderate route and come to some kind of compromise. Now they are at a deadlock and everyone is losing out. I’m afraid such harsh action will cause a civil war here. We already feel the repercussions now. Not specifically for the Jews, but for all the people here. In the economic sector, more than 1,700 Catalonia-based firms have left the region; we are losing tourists; the streets no longer look the same. There is no doubt that it will take a very long time to reverse the damage.”
In reaction to the developments, people took to the streets demonstrating on both sides. It was frightening to see the fascist-style salutes and shouts of “Viva Franco!” from pro-Spanish supporters.
“The sad truth is that our place is no longer in Europe,” Rav Bar-Chen mourned. “We must all make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. The only thing still keeping people living here is their parnassah. Nothing else.”
Over the past week, members of the former Catalan government were arrested and an international arrest warrant was issued for Puigdemont and other ministers who had traveled to Belgium. The charges include rebellion, for which they could face imprisonment for up to 30 years. In Belgium, Puigdemont denied allegations that he had fled or was seeking asylum, claiming that he was rather rounding up support for independence from other Europeans. This past Sunday, Puigdemont and his four associates turned themselves in to the Brussels police and were subsequently released, under the condition that they not leave Belgium. Belgian prosecutors say they will have to reappear in court on November 17 as a judge will decide whether to extradite them to Spain.
Although most countries have already said that they would not legitimize Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence, French opposition, in particular, comes as no surprise. In the south of France, there is a population of so-called Northern Catalans, whose potential decision to join their comrades in Spain would pose a threat to French sovereignty in the area. Northern Catalonia, which Spain seceded to France in a 1659 peace treaty, has seen more and more Catalan flags. Catalan is spoken increasingly, and there are once again bilingual street signs. With the past month’s developments, the Northern Catalans show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Barcelona.
The call for arrests was met with obvious fury by the Catalans. “Do not forget that over two million people voted for independence,” explains Rav Bar-Chen. “That is not an insignificant number. But let us make one thing clear: Catalonia will gain its independence. If not today or tomorrow, then a few years down the line. And I will explain why. Today the children of Catalonia are being educated in the schools with a Catalonian and not a Spanish education. When they turn 18, they won’t identify as Spaniards, but as Catalans. Then it won’t be two million demanding independence, but seven million! This is the fact on the ground. What you teach the children in school will be the future of the people.