Torches in Barcelona

There is considerable antipathy in Spain toward Israel, and there is anti-Semitic sentiment in the media, but when working in diplomacy or the media there, one can also find both friends and supporters.

BARCELONA - The evening procession was led slowly by the police patrol car, followed by demonstrators bearing torches and a band of drummers. Chanting slogans, they bore flags and placards reading "Catalonia is not Spain." Only a few passersby showed interest in the demonstration, which crawled down a main street while bars and restaurants throbbed with people in adjoining alleys.

The following day, Barcelona's balconies were adorned with the yellow and red striped flags of September 11, Catalonia's national day - in Catalan, Diada Nacional de Catalunya, or simply Diada. In the afternoon protesters held rallies calling for independence, and in the evening thousands thronged the city's parks for rock concerts.

The scene looks strange to the Israeli tourist, who struggles to understand just what it is these Catalan independence-seekers are fighting for. What do they lack in developed, prosperous Spain? Or in a unified Europe, which has turned its back on nationalism, its citizens conducting business in euros and crossing borders without being stopped by customs? Why is autonomy, which they achieved after Francisco Franco's death and Spain's democratization, not enough? Why do they hate the Spaniards so?

This national day commemorates the Catalan "Nakba" - Barcelona's fall to Spain 295 years ago. An eternal flame burns in the city's memorial for martyrs from that day, a tradition which both commands respect but also teaches a lesson - that it is exceedingly difficult and perhaps impossible to suppress national feelings.

The feelings persist even after generations of occupation, assimilation and repression, and after the original population has been diluted by waves of immigrants from Spain and Morocco.

But unlike the Basques in northern Spain, whose underground has waged a bloody bombing campaign for independence, Catalans fight for their freedom by democratic means.

Comparisons between national struggles are tricky, as each has its own particular circumstances, but there are also some clear lines of similarity. In the era of Franco's dictatorship, Catalans were forbidden from learning their ancestral language, which was erased from road signs and public squares, much as our own transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, has suggested changing road signs to show the names of Arab locales in Arabic as transliterations of their Hebrew names.

In today's autonomous Barcelona, Catalan is taught in schools, and stores and government institutions are required to present their signs in the regional language, with Spanish (here referred to as Castilian) appearing only underneath. It's difficult to maintain linguistic independence against a global language like Spanish, but the Catalans make every effort to do just that, to emphasize their separateness from Spain.

One could only imagine what would happen should the proponents of autonomy for Israeli Arabs take to the streets of Haifa or Jaffa bearing torches, or even holding large concerts in Arabic. Thousands of police officers would be deployed with batons and rubber bullets, the right would pronounce that the state is lost, calls would be aired in the Knesset for revoking the demonstrators' citizenship, and the Kahanists would hold a counter-protest.

In Spain it is not so. The majority rejects the minority's demand to separate itself from the state beyond symbolic autonomy, but accepts such talk as part of legitimate political discourse, not as an existential threat or dangerous subterfuge intended to amputate a beautiful, developed region of the country from the whole.

That's why a procession of torches can be held in Barcelona, while normal life carries on all around.

Sometimes distant conflicts can become intertwined. While the protesters marched in Barcelona, the eyes of Israeli singer Achinoam Nini peered out from local newspapers. Headlines reported of a political struggle - the Catalan government had invited the singer to appear in a Diada concert (under the name Noa, as she is known outside Israel), but a leftist party demanded she be boycotted "because she didn't come out against the Gaza operation."

The ruling party in Catalonia and the region's most important newspaper, La Vanguardia, rallied in the singer's favor, and with them the Israeli Embassy and the Spanish foreign ministry.

"Welcome, Noa," read the paper's editorial, which described critics of the visit as "the new Inquisition," and praised Nini for her pacifist beliefs.

The singer performed as planned, and was rewarded with more front-page pictures, this time embracing Catalan President Jose Montilla. The incident can teach us that Israel's national respect can be salvaged by a singer identified with the left much more than the vitriolic speeches of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman against Swedes and Norwegians.

There is considerable antipathy in Spain toward Israel, and there is anti-Semitic sentiment in the media, but when working in diplomacy or the media there, one can also find both friends and supporters. That too should be the lesson from a weekend in Barcelona.