OVIEDO, Spain - Last Saturday night an entire city in Spain, and not such a small one (200,000 inhabitants), stood still in honor of scientists, editors of science magazines, a former American vice president, an Israeli writer and an institution for the perpetuation of the memory of the Holocaust. Nothing in the Asturias Prize ceremony for the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world was reminiscent of the Israeli Prize ceremony. Hundreds of ushers and usherettes accompanied the laureates and their entourages from the moment they set foot in the small airport at Oviedo until the moment they departed. A pair of ushers opened innumerable doors for them at the hotel and at the stylized tabernacle that hosted the ceremony. Thousands waited patiently along the main streets that run from the visitors' lodgings to the hall's entrance. Many dressed up in traditional costume and danced to the sound of flutes, tambourines and the accordion.
Young artists who clustered around the hotel all day held plastic models of Formula I cars and pictures of the Asturias Prize for Sport laureate Michael Schumacher, and from many balconies dangled huge greeting posters in honor of the admired race car driver. In the meantime, older fans waited in the hope of catching a glimpse of singer Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, the Prince of Asturias Award laureate for the arts, who at the last minute didn't show up and will apparently receive the certificate and check (50,000 euros) in the mail. But all the display windows at the bookshops in Oviedo's commercial center and in the old city were filled with Amos Oz's many books in Spanish translation. A large portrait of the most widely read Israeli writer in the world peeped out between "A Tale of Love and Darkness" and a collection of articles on fanaticism and reconciliation that was recently added to the school curriculum in Sweden.
A long line of large broadcasting trucks transmitted to tens of millions of viewers in Europe the wrenching picture of a Holocaust survivor from Salonika who lost her way for a moment from the presidium table to the place where the representatives from Yad Vashem were sitting. Masses of Europeans listened to the moderator, who read out the names of survivors of the camps and the numbers they have been carrying on their arms for more than 60 years. They saw a Righteous Gentile from Belgium who rescued hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust while endangering her own life, walking slowly toward Spain's heir to the throne and the princess. The Catholic state watched the queen who sat in the royal box, behind the family banner, rise to her feet with the audience for a moment of silence in memory of the 6 million Jews.
The offspring of a continent that murdered and deported Jews and stood idly by heard through their earphones in German, Spanish, English and French the chairman of Yad Vashem, Dr. Avner Shalev, quote from Elie Wiesel: "Not every victim of the Nazis was a Jew. But every Jew was a victim." They wiped away a tear when the line of survivors and the woman who rescued Jews stepped to the front of the stage.
Yad Vashem was chosen for the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord from among 47 candidates from 28 countries at the recommendation of world figures, Israeli leaders and prominent Jews. Heading the list of recommenders were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli President Shimon Peres, former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos.
The most important character witnesses for Amos Oz were his innumerable books that have been translated into the languages of Europe and his articles calling for putting an end to the bloody conflict in the Middle East. After talking about the important role of Yad Vashem as a warning sign against the European-style racism under which the Jews and Muslims have suffered, Oz bestowed on the leaders of the continent the responsibility for advancing reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. He proposed that they replace the terms "pro-Arab" and "pro-Israeli" with "pro-peace": "Literature is a bridge between peoples, the window through which a woman in a novel looks can be in Nablus or the window of a home in Tel Aviv. All women urgently need peace."
The Prince of Asturias prize has been awarded since 1981 to dozens of men, women and organizations who have contributed to humanity in eight areas from the social sciences to the natural sciences, from literature to sport and from human rights to reconciliation between nations. This is the first time the members of the prize committee have come to Israel. This time they found both an Israeli whose oeuvre is worthy of the highest award in the Hispanic world and an Israeli institution whose activities are worthy of Spanish recognition. The organizers even went so far as to have the Israeli laureates, writer Amos Oz and Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, deliver two of the three speeches reserved for laureates (the third was Al Gore).
Spain's Socialist government has no reason to be pleasant to Israelis this year. The honeymoon of the Israel-Spain couple that began in 1986 with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries held up for 20 years. The romance entered a crisis in August 2006, when Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was photographed at a protest rally against the war in Lebanon, with a keffiyeh around his neck. Since that day, Madrid has been wiped off the map of visits by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his senior cabinet ministers.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, who had been a frequent flyer on the Jerusalem-Ramallah-Damascus-Beirut line, unofficially became a persona not so very grata. The person who has been the European Union envoy to the Middle East to breathe life into the Israeli-Syrian talks and advance the Palestinian track has encountered cold shoulders. Moratinos' meeting with Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, this past summer, landed on Israel's friends in Spain and Spain's friends in Israel during efforts to straighten things out between the two governments. The explanation - an apology that Moratinos had innocently fallen into a Hezbollah "ambush" - fell on deaf ears. The next blow came at the end of September.
After another visit to Damascus, Moratinos sent UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a letter in which he reported that Syrian President Bashar Assad had informed him that Syria is prepared to hand the Shaba Farms over to UN responsibility. Moratinos noted that Assad is proposing to do this without waiting for the work of the experts who were sent to demarcate the international border in the disputed area. The proposal was in line with the position of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who last year had already brought up the idea that the farm be "deposited" with the UN.
This arrangement could have deprived Hezbollah of one of the most important elements in its armory for thwarting UN Security Council Resolution 1701. However, in Jerusalem they claimed that withdrawing from Shaba Farms (which Israel agrees is Syrian territory) would be interpreted as a prize for Hezbollah. And anyway, it is untenable that a Spanish foreign minister will report to the UN secretary general without informing Israel in advance, or at least sending it a copy. In the meantime, Moratinos is not giving up. He cleared his desk in order to participate in the ceremony in Oviedo and the reception that was held on Friday.
Fortunately for Israeli industrialists, especially the people from the chemical industry, the diplomatic crisis is not affecting economic relations. Spain is Israel's 13th largest trade partner.
Israeli exports to Spain have grown at an impressive pace and last year amounted to $870 million (compared with $750 million in imports). Israeli companies active in Spain include Dead Sea Works, Haifa Chemicals, IDE, Amdocs, Comverse and Teva.
Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger, who accompanied her father Amos Oz at the Asturias Prize ceremony, decided not to let the politicians spoil the relations and to wait on the sidelines for a golden age between the Israeli and Spanish governments. She suggested to people at the Spanish Foreign Ministry that she help them organize trips by Israeli youth to Toledo, Cordoba and other Spanish cities that gave rise to a glorious Jewish culture.
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