Book Review: The Spanish Right and the Jews

June 1, 2010

Isabelle Rohr, The Spanish Right and the Jews, 1898-1945: Anti-Semitism and Opportunism, Brighton/Portland Sussex University Press, 2008.

This is an intriguing study of the relationship mostly of the Spanish Right, but also until the post-Franco years, of the Spanish state itself, with its own Jews, so to speak, the Sephardic community. It hearkens back to 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Now the survivors of that ancient Diaspora share with the veterans of the International Brigades the right to Spanish citizenship.

The Jewish component of the Spanish Civil War played a role in right-wing myth but also in the make up of the membership of the International Brigades. For the right, the enemy was the Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevist conspiracy. Capitalism was added to the mix, represented by Britain and the United States, at the time of World War II, including the idea that Roosevelt was of Jewish descent. Also, not surprisingly, quite a few members of the International Brigade were Jewish, according to one source 5 to 10 thousand of the 40,000 volunteers. With great specificity, Joseph Toch, a veteran from Austria, stated that there were 7,758 Jews in the Brigades, with 2,250 from Poland, 1,236 from the United States, 1,043 from France, 214 from Britain and 267 from Palestine. One is skeptical of such exact figures, but the comparatively high proportion is likely to be true. There was even, at the insistence of the French Communist party, a small Jewish unit, named after Naftali Botwin, a Communist who had been executed by the Poles in 1925.

But the thrust of this book is much more on the internal story in Spain and a discussion of how the Right viewed those expelled in 1492. Over the years there was in Spain a deeply entrenched anti-Semitism but also it could run alongside a tradition of philosephardism: a paradoxical position that even though the Sephardi were the enemy, they were “our Jews” with whom the Spanish state had a special relationship. In the period considered here, the state wished to exploit the dispersed Sephardic communities as it attempted to recover from the disaster of 1898 and the disappearance of its empire. The comparatively large Sephardic population of Morocco could be helpful both in imperial and financial ways. The Sephardi in French Morocco, particularly during World War II, might assist in bringing that area under Spanish control. Similarly the Sephardic population of the Balkans earlier in the 20th century might strengthen economic ties with the “old” country, even though it had been thrown out centuries before.

A similar split attitude manifested itself during the Second World War. Franco supported the Axis (but refused to declare war) which had been so important for his winning the Civil War. Some made favorable comparisons between Hitler and Ferdinand and Isabel. As the tide turned in favor of the Allies the regime wildly exaggerated the degree that it tried to help Jews. In fact, however, it was quite adamant against allowing even Sephardic Jews to escape to Spain and settle there. On the other hand, Spanish officials did, in no consistent way, allow some Jews to travel through Spain to Portugal and on to the Western Hemisphere. It also made some special efforts to assist small Sephardic communities, such as those of Budapest, Salonica and Athens, to get to Spain. But it was on the understanding that they would not remain (and while there they might have to reside in prisons or concentration camps) and would move on. This is fundamentally a very interesting story of incredible prejudice. What is particularly intriguing about it, however, is that it was a prejudice not against “others” but exercised against those who were very much part of the same history.

Peter Stansky, with William Abrahams, is the author of Journey to the Frontier: Two Roads to the Spanish Civil War.



8 Responses to “ Book Review: The Spanish Right and the Jews ”

  1. Hershl Hartman on June 11, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    The comment by Eduardo Montagut Contreras avers that some Jews fought with or supported Franco and refers specifically to the pro-fascist leader of Revisionist Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinski. It should be noted that Jabotinski is a hero of the right-wing in Israel (there’s even a medal in his name) and that the now-dominant party is a direct descendant of his black-shirted gangs that, under British rule in Palestine in the 1930s, launched attacks on trade unions, Yiddish-speakers and Palestinian Arabs.

    It was the Jews in the IB, whatever their specific number, who upheld the honor of the Jewish people. Their spirit of inter-nationalism (the significance is in the hyphen) will, one hopes, lead to the eventual two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. ¡Salud!

  2. Richard Modiano on June 23, 2010 at 12:17 am

    I visited Spain for the first time in autumn 1978 and stayed with my father’s cousin who recently returned from Mexico with her family. I joined them for Yom Kippur services at the recently re-opened temple in Barcelona. It had already been defaced with a painted swastika, and across the street a poster depicting Hitler as a knight on a white horse killing a dragon representing the soon to be voted on constitution. There is no question that the far right in Spain was historically and down to the present time virulently anti-Semitic.

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