On October 1 the law that offers Spanish citizenship to the descendants of the Sephardic Jews went into effect in Spain. It seeks to rectify an event that happened more than 500 years ago: the expulsion of all Jews by the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and its territories.
Just a few days earlier, on September 28, my daughter told me about an interaction she had in her Madrid school.
“Go to the gas chambers,” a classmate told her during a study hour, “or to a concentration camp.” He then added: “Where are your striped pajamas?”
My daughter is fifteen. For the past two years she’s been studying in a Spanish, bilingual school that made the top ten on the El Mundo 2015 best schools in Spain list. We moved her there after a year in the American school where we felt she was learning no Spanish and had no exposure to the local culture.
But this wasn’t the kind of exposure we had in mind.
My daughter tells me that in her class’s WhatsApp group students routinely use “Heil Hitler” as a greeting. They say that they’ve been taught - through their religion and communities -that Jews have been and will always be damned. And they cite historical examples, including those of Hitler and Franco.
For me, my daughter’s experience is a flashback I never thought I’d have in a 21st century Western society.
My own encounter with bigotry and Jew-specific hatred began when I was nine. The only Jewish kid in my class, my ethnicity recorded front and center in the teacher’s journal, I bore the brunt of the renowned Russian anti-Semitism almost every day from the moment my classmates were old enough to sneak into the journal to check on test results. There, among the sea of ‘Russian’, the word ‘Jewess’ stood out between my name and my grades like an ugly, burned stump of a tree among an otherwise green field. From then on ‘Zhidovka’, the go-to-slur for a Jewish female, followed me everywhere.
During the next seven years of school and three years of university I made every effort to hide my origins. Those who didn’t see the teacher’s journal or my passport with its glaring ‘fifth line’, a special section listing everyone’s ethnic origin, had no way of knowing I was a Jew. For the average Soviet citizen with eagle vision for Jews, I didn’t look it, the crass stereotypical signs of a large Semitic nose and eyes that bulged a little missing from my face.
My last name didn’t sound Jewish. And my first name reminded people of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”, a Russian classic if there was ever one. In the country where being a Jew was worse than being a drunkard and a traitor to the Motherland combined, I avoided telling people about my background at all costs. When at twenty I left the USSR for the United States, I did so because I knew there would be no future for me in a society that teaches Jew-hatred from a very young age.
Much like I was more than thirty years ago, today my daughter is the only Jew in her class. In fact, she is the only Jew in her school of almost 1300 kids. Buoyed by both her upbringing and her ability to speak up where I failed when I was her age, she doesn’t hang her head in shame. She stands up against the bigotry. But she is in the minority. While the Jewish community has been steadily growing in Spain, its numbers are nowhere near what they were five hundred years ago. Yet anti-Semitism, codified with the expulsion and nurtured by anti-Jewish pulpit propaganda and Franco-inspired fascism, continues to permeate the society. “If I was raised as a fascist, I am not going to stop being a fascist,” my daughter’s classmate states, unabashed, in a class WhatsApp group.
And I wonder why, new law non-withstanding, would Jews want to move to a country where the young generation is still taught the hatred those Jews’ ancestors escaped centuries ago?
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