Catalans Compare Situation to Israel’s in 1948

Nationalists see a parallel with the Jews – an oppressed nation that survived centuries without a state

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Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

BARCELONA – The silence from Jerusalem on the crisis in Catalonia had kindled false hopes there that Israel might be the first foreign state to support the independent republic the Catalan separatists declared a week ago.

Catalonia’s preoccupation with Israel’s attitude had even fueled speculation that the autonomous region’s ousted president, Carles Puigdemont, might seek asylum here. Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after his government was sacked, has a Spanish arrest warrant against him on sedition, rebellion and other charges.

But the Catalan interest in Israel was more than just a hope that Netanyahu would endorse their independence to pay back Madrid for its support of the Palestinian cause. Many in Barcelona compared their situation this week to Israel’s in 1948: They declared their independence and now must to fight to implement it.

The Catalans are often inclined to compare themselves to the Jews – a nation that survived hundreds of years without a state, under oppression and branded with stereotypes as misers and being good with finances. These stereotypes contributed to the view that the Catalans’ desire for independence stemmed from their being a rich, spoiled community that wants to cut itself off from its poorer neighbors. But the Catalan aspiration for self-determination is rooted in a profound national identity.

A visit to Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood, two metro stations away from Placa Catalunya, Barcelona’s central square, offers a glimpse into the complexity of this identity. The neighborhood, which has become the city’s hipster hub in recent years, sports possibly the largest number of Catalan flags in the windows. Its population is predominantly middle class, which constitutes the backbone of the Catalan national movement.

Until the end of the 19th century Gracia was a separate town, rather than part of Barcelona, and more than 100 years later its residents still take pains to mention this in their conversations with foreigners and emphasize the neighborhood’s unique character. This identity is based on centuries of tradition. For example, the pastas de Gracia, the neighborhood’s central festival, has been held in its streets for eight days every August since 1817.

For many separatists, the Spanish and European unawareness of the distinct Catalan identity served as a catalyst for the national awakening. After recent events in Barcelona, with the referendum and the declaration of independence, Catalans traveling in Europe may have less difficulty explaining who they are.

As in most national movements, the heart of Catalan nationality is the language. All Catalans speak Spanish, but their main language is Catalan. The schools teach in this language, reducing studies in Spanish to a number of hours a week. In a considerable part of Catalonia’s cities and towns, apart from Barcelona, Spain’s presence is hardly felt and the Spaniards are seen as foreigners. Generally speaking, the region’s residents are less open, quieter and more reserved than their Spanish neighbors – less Mediterranean and more European, as some put it.

The Catalans have their own historical narrative. This story holds that Spain’s conquest of the Americas was the point at which Catalonia’s withdrawal from the empire began. While Madrid wallowed in the mountains of gold it looted from native South Americans, the Catalans did not share in the imperial plunder and had to fend for themselves. Catalonia developed between the 17th and 19th centuries into a thriving industrial and commercial center. Many Catalans refer with deep conviction to the 300 years over which Spain conquered their own country.

But the Catalan national awakening, like in the rest of Western Europe, occurred only toward the end of the 19th century. This national aspiration was briefly successful when they were granted autonomous status in republican Spain, until the latter lost the civil war to Franco’s troops.

Catalonia was the center of the resistance to Franco during the civil war and the site of some of the war’s most horrific atrocities. Afterward, the dictatorship applied brute force to eradicate Catalan identity. The echoes of this oppression are a central component in current Catalan nationality.

“The Spanish government never denounced the Spanish dictatorship. No minister of Franco’s has paid for his crimes,” says Alex Miqel of Omnium Cultural, one of the two separatist organizations that spearheaded the demonstrations for the referendum. Omnium, whose influence on the Catalan street is much greater than the political parties’, was formed to preserve the Catalan language, culture and institutions after Franco’s regime banned the official use of the local tongue. The organization operated underground from 1963 to 1967, and its activists were persecuted.

“We’ve discovered in recent months that Francoism isn’t dead,” says Mikhel. “To many of us, when the transition to democracy took place, the dictatorship wasn’t buried but underwent an evolution. Spanish nationalism has awakened. In demonstrations against Catalan independence, far right activists performed the Nazi salute.”

“Before the October 1 referendum, the Spanish police blocked Catalan sites, like ours. They fined activists who hung posters in the streets. Francoism may have been defeated in some areas, but not in territorial issues. The Spaniards see Spain’s unity as sacred,” he says.

Apart from the sense of persecution and anger at past injustices, Catalans stress that they have different social positions. They see themselves as much more liberal than conservative Madrid.

“In the Catalan parliament we passed numerous laws in favor of same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization. Time after time, Madrid vetoed them. Every time the Catalan government tried to pass new, progressive laws, Spain blocked it,” he says.

Although they compare themselves to 1948 Israel, the Catalans reject the idea of resorting to violence to carry out their aspirations. This doesn’t mean they won’t take to the streets. On Monday this week, they waited for the call to demonstrate – but the call never came.

Ousted president Carles Puigdemont’s flight was castigated by the radical left, and the absence of steps to implement the independence frustrated many. But despite the disappointments, the mainstream of the Catalan independence movement hasn’t lost hope.

“Puigdemont kept his referendum promise to declare independence,” says Mikhel. “It’s a David and Goliath struggle; we must act wisely.”

The Catalan leadership split, with half of it leaving the country and the other half reporting to Madrid to face charges. This also fits the Catalan narrative. Puigdemont’s spokesman issued a statement on Wednesday with the decision, together with a list showing that seven of 11 former Catalan presidents ended up in exile, in prison or were executed.

The Spanish court’s decision to arrest the eight leading Catalan officials who obeyed the summons to go to Madrid and the European arrest order issued for the officials who fled for Brussels led the main civil Catalan organizations to call, for the first time since Friday, for street demonstrations.

The legal process will provide Puigdemont and his colleagues with plenty of opportunities to remind the Catalans of the oppression they have suffered at the Spaniards’ hands ahead of Catalan parliamentary elections due in less than two months. If their campaign succeeds and the separatists win again, it will uphold their claim that Madrid is quashing their desire for independence by undemocratic means.

Will this strategy work? On the one hand it’s hard to believe that independence could be achieved without bloodshed. But in a year when the Basque underground finally announced its disarmament and violent struggles for independence in other parts of the world also don’t appear to be yielding fruit, alternative approaches should not be dismissed out of hand.

Many Catalan separatists are ready in principle to compromise and accept a more extensive autonomy – although they don’t believe Madrid would grant it. But despite the past week’s hardships, the national sentiment in Catalonia has remained the same, if not stronger, and the Catalans intend to continue fighting, in their own way, to implement their ambitions.

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