ALICANTE, SPAIN - In November, under the Mediterranean sky, it's the same sun and the same sea. The promenade in Alicante, the capital of Spanish Costa Blanca, is bustling with joggers, cyclists and an old lady devoutly engrossed in slow Tai Chi movements.
It's not really summer anymore, but winter is not quite ready to show its face either. The climate in the local chamber of commerce auditorium fluctuates, becoming somewhat melancholy, even gloomy at times. About 50 journalists and public-opinion makers from Spain and the Middle East have gathered here as guests of "Casa Sefarad" - a branch of the Spanish Foreign Ministry working to strengthen ties with Israel and the Jewish world - to discuss the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Spain, so it seems, is tired of having egg on its face for the past two years. Two surveys, one conducted by the PEW Research Center in 2008 and the other by the Anti-Defamation League in 2009, portrayed Spain as the most anti-Semitic state in the Western world. The surveys showed that the rate of those holding negative opinions about Jews (which now stands at 46 percent ) doubled between 2005 and 2008, 75 percent of the Spanish population think "the Jews are too powerful in the international financial markets" and two-thirds believe the Jews "are not loyal to Spain."
The conference organizers did not deny that the Spanish media's coverage of the Middle-Eastern conflict borders on obsessiveness. They did not conceal the fact that even mainstream newspapers have published articles calling Israel a "historic mistake," that one newspaper devoted an entire page to each of the nine Turkish people killed in May on the Mavi Marmara ship, and that another newspaper ordered the "expert" opinion of Holocaust denier David Irving for its project marking the 70th anniversary of the eruption of World War II.
The Spanish press has even published cartoons featuring a big-nosed ultra-Orthodox Jew as representing Israel, a swastika at the center of the Israel flag, and depicting the separation barrier as a concentration-camp fence.
The event organizers concealed none of these things, but in fact presented them with the findings of a survey they had conducted, showing that only 34.6 percent of the Spanish public have negative opinions about the Jews - in other words, a dramatic 12 percent decrease compared to the ADL and PEW surveys.
The survey presented showed 70.2 percent of the population have a positive attitude toward the Catholics, followed by the Jews (48 percent ) - which came before the protestants (45.8 percent ), members of the Orthodox Church (43.1 percent ) and well ahead of the Muslims (only 32.6 percent ).
As for Israel's delegitimization, it appears a huge majority - 85.3 percent - of Spaniards think "the Jews have a right to live peacefully within secure and recognized borders" and 77.6 percent of them reject the statement "Israel should disappear because it was established on Arab land."
Those behind the conference were quite pleased with their full half of the glass; a fitting answer to the ADL and PEW surveys, they thought. Not so the Israelis, who were shocked that one third of the Spanish people still have negative opinions about Jews and that two-thirds hold them responsible for the Middle East conflict and see the Jews as the main source of the world's problems. Also, more than a tenth of them (11.1 percent ) think Israel should disappear from the map.
One could perhaps find a ray of hope in the fact that among those holding negative opinions about Jews, the highest rate (17.5 percent ) attributed this to Israel's role in the Middle East, and more than half said "the only thing required to make peace is for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank."
If so, will solving the conflict do away with the radical coverage in Spain and make Israel's legitimacy indisputable? Some say anti-Semitism in Spain is endemic and will never change; others dismiss this scornfully, reminding us of the country's extraordinary sympathy toward Israel in the period between the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the Barcelona Conference in 1995.
But the day when this issue can be put to the test is not close, it seems. "The Jews are the Nazis' victims and the Palestinians are the Jews' victims, being forced to pay for the Nazis' crimes," an Al Jazeera reporter summarized at the closing session.
Meanwhile on the promenade across the road, the joggers were long gone. The Tai Chi practitioner had disappeared.
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