Op-Ed by José Eriel Muniz Gomez
Although Catalunya is not an independent state, non-formal relations between the regional Government of Catalunya (Generalitat) and the Government of Israel have been persistent and active since 1986. One of those who has made this closeness possible was Jordi Pujol, President of the Generalitat of Catalunya between 1980 and 2003. Interestingly, Pujol studied at a private, German, pro-Nazi middle school in Barcelona because his father wanted a secular education for him. Although he grew up in such environment, Jordi Pujol always had misgivings about Nazism. These reservations were consolidated when he was in college and learned about the atrocities perpetrated in Auschwitz and Buchenwald by the Nazis.
It was during this period when Pujol began to see the Jews as an inspiration – at least from a Zionist perspective. Through this ideology, he learned that a group of people sharing ideals can stand up and claim their culture, language and national aspirations (or right for self-determination). It should be remembered that anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish rhetoric was constant throughout Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Interestingly, Catalans were called the “Jews of Spain” under the fascist ruling and suffered a lot of repression. They were even forbidden from speaking Catalan in public, just like Jews couldn’t speak Yiddish in several European countries. This was why Pujol sympathized with the national aspirations of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. This affinity was strengthened because of three main reasons: his personal closeness to the Tenenbaum family-a Jewish family who had established in Catalunya during the 1930’s-, the comparison that the Francoism created between the Jews and the Catalans, and the struggle the Jewish people had to have a state after the Holocaust.
David Tennenbaum was a Jew, originally from Galitzia. In Catalunya, he became a businessman and met Florenci Pujol-Jordi Pujol’s father. Alongside Florenci Pujol, David Tennenbaum established a bank in Catalunya. So during his childhood, Jordi Pujol met David Tennenbaum and his family. The constant interaction with this family made Pujol start getting interested in Israel. His curiosity and persistence to learn more about Israel, made Mr. Tennenbaum recommend Jordi Pujol two textbooks: Theodor Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat and the biography of Chaim Weizmann. Pujol read those books and got amazed with all he learned. His interest led him to closely follow the Israeli diplomatic efforts at the UN in 1947. That same year the UN Partition Plan was also approved. In addition, he closely followed the development of the War of Independence of Israel in 1948 and the later conflicts that this country will have with its Arab neighbors. Like the Catalan socialists in exile, who during the 1950’s and 1960’s supported Israel and saw it as a sociocultural and economical example to follow in the future, Jordi Pujol strongly believed in the right of the State of Israel to exist. That is why Pujol considered it essential for the Catalan nationalism of the future to promote the revival of the Catalan culture, language and identity. In 1965, Pujol wrote, anonymously, an article entitled “Israel” in which he praised that “the Jews evoked their past, history, language, culture and religion to create and shape a state, and that should be an example to the us.”
When diplomatic relations between Israel and Spain were established in 1986, Pujol was seen as a reliable politician. He was key in the process of establishing serious and close diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel. A year before diplomatic relations were established, Pujol made clear that if Spain wanted to enter the European Economic Community it should recognize all the countries that the members of this entity recognize.
On July 10, 1986, Pujol met with recently appointed Ambassador of Israel in Spain, Samuel Hadas. One year later, from May 5th to May 9th, 1987, Jordi Pujol visited Israel, accompanied by a delegation of about 90 people. Although Catalunya had no foreign affairs competences, in Tel Aviv he was received by the Spanish ambassador Pedro López Aguirrebengoa and several other Israeli cabinet members. An interesting detail is that although the President of the Canary Islands (Spain), Jerónimo Saavedra, had visited Israel a few months before Jordi Pujol, institutional support and relevant political figures met with Pujol and not with Saavedra. Moreover, Pujol’s visit had the support and explicit consent of the Spanish Government. It is important to highlight that Pujol officially, during his 23-year mandate, visited Israel on three occasions with the purpose of promoting business, investment and cultural exchange in the years 1987, 1994 and 2003.
Pujol’s first visit sought to make Catalunya visible and to demonstrate that he was pro-Israel and to prove that Catalunya could have influence at the international stage. During his first trip, Pujol attended several conferences where he talked about how to invest and how to do business in Catalunya. During this trip, his delegation managed to establish a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Barcelona, and many Israeli companies showed interest in investing in Catalunya. Although it was already the Spanish region that exported the most to Israel, and more than 20,000 Catalans had already visited Israel in 1987, these sectors were expanded after his visit.This trip also achieved an agreement by which Israelis would help the Catalan government to establish the kibbutzim model in certain areas of Catalunya, while the Generalitat would provide the Israelis with half a million fish from the Ebro River to repopulate the Dead Sea.
In more recent times, the arrival of former President Artur Mas to the Generalitat brought back a more sympathetic position from Catalunya to Israel with regard to the conflict and many other issues. The failure of the 2006 Catalunya’s Statute Reform brought back a rising pro-independence movement. Despite the fact that the pro-independence movement was in full swing, the visit of President Artur Mas in 2013 gave a lot of international and domestic exposure to the Catalan pro-independence leaders. It is actually during this trip when the Catalan leader was received by President Shimon Peres at the presidential residence in Jerusalem. There he made clear that “as in Israel, in Catalunya, there is a people also determined to be free.” This phrase was very controversial among the Spanish media and the passivity shown by President Peres worried the Spanish government.
In 2014, a year before the Catalan pro-independence political parties won the parliamentary elections, Santi Vidal- a former judge and member of the Republican Left of Catalunya (RLC) party- said in a political event that Israel was one of the possible countries that could finance an eventual independent Catalan state. But not only that, Mr. Vidal also stated that the Mossos d’Esquadra-the Autonomous Catalan Police- had contacts with the Mossad to receive advice about security issues. The Catalan Government denied the veracity of these declarations, and Vidal had to resign. It is important to highlight that Mr. Vidal also filtered that the Catalan Government was illegally collecting data from its own citizens in order to use it for a future referendum’s purpose. In the end, this turned out to be true and the Catalan government illegally collected information to organize polling stations for the referendum of self-determination this past October 1st, 2017. Therefore, Vidal’s declarations cannot be entirely discarded. In one of his political rallies Mr. Vidal even went further, stating, “There is a non-European State that has offered to give credit to the Generalitat in case of independence, and there is a non-official agreement with two non-European investment funds to open a credit line up to €20,000 million in case the central government suspends the aid of the ALF (Autonomous Liquidity Fund) to Catalunya. Also, there is a foreign government, which is not European, who is currently forming a counterintelligence unit of the Mossos d’Esquadra.”.
Interestingly, it is during this period of time that security officers of the Generalitat visited Israel constantly. However, the only visit that is known by the media is the one made during the beginning of 2017 by the Mossos to meet with Mossad officials. This visit strengthened the theory that Israel might be helping the Mossos to create a counterintelligence unit in case that Catalunya separates from Spain. Perhaps this is why the former Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, was hesitant to allow the opening of Israel’s new Honorary Consulate in Barcelona. This is probably why the recently appointed consul in Barcelona was Antonio Sánchez Molina. Mr. Sánchez Molina is a right-wing, anti-independence Catalan attorney who is close to the pro-Spanish bourgeoisie in Barcelona. The Israeli Honorary Consulate in Barcelona has been vacant since 1997 and to take over the delegation several names of people aligned with the sovereignist strategy were believed to be under evaluation by the Israeli Embassy in Spain. But the person chosen by Daniel Kutner, Israel’s ambassador to Spain and Andorra, and accepted by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has no sympathy for the pro-independence. Mr. Sánchez Molina is a very active member of the Jewish Community of Barcelona, and a converse who joined the community because of his linkage with the Tarbut Shorashim. Evidently, the current diplomatic policy of the Israeli ambassador in Madrid and Andorra, Daniel Kutner, is very different from that of his predecessor, Alon Bar, who had made numerous gestures of sympathy towards the Catalan and Basque nationalist pro-independence movements.
Despite the fact, in 2016 former President Carles Puigdemont, met secretly with members of the Jewish community in Barcelona and with the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Kutner. During that reunion President Puigdemont talked about the pro-independence process that he was leading, however, his efforts had no impact on the views of the ambassador. Clearly, President Puigdemont did not achieve the endorsement he wanted from Israel regarding his political project.
After the police violence and repression Catalans suffered after the unconstitutional self-determination referendum that was held on October 1st, 2017, I emailed the Israeli ambassador in Spain to see what was his position now and what was Israel’s position with respect this issue. In a cold and resounding email, Ambassador Daniel Kutner told me, a day after, that “Israel does not meddle in internal affairs.” This position has been reaffirmed by the Israeli government. On November 1st, 2017 Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that “a peaceful solution should be encountered as soon as possible”. Despite this, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not express what the Spanish Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Manuel Gómez-Acebo, wanted Israel to say, which was that Israel believed in a “strong and united Spain”. Mr. Gómez-Acebo wanted Israel to reject the self-proclaimed Republic of Catalunya as the United States, the United Kingdom and several other western countries had previously done. However, Israel did not.
It is important to mention that in December 2016, Spain voted in favor of resolution 2334, while presiding over the United Nations Security Council. This resolution condemned and declared illegal all the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Even with regard to Jerusalem, Spain has not supported Israel at the UN and has previously supported the various resolutions that deny Jewish ties to the capital of Israel. This fact could explain why Israel has not energetically rejected the October 27th, 2017 Independence Proclamation of Catalunya and has not publicly supported a “united and strong Spain”. Interestingly, during his visit to Spain from November 5th to November 8th, 2017, the current President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, just talked about how to stop the expansion of the BDS movement in Spain. Also, President Rivlin celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the reestablishment of Jewish presence in Spain, and during his speech, at the Spanish Senate he only mentioned that “Spain is a State, a single sovereign state entity, and all the problems it is dealing with these days are internal affairs”. In my opinion, Israel prefers to keep an ambiguous opinion with regard to this political conflict. It is a way to pay Spain back for everything it has done to Israel at the international stage.
José Eriel Gomez is a student in Israel Studies and Neurosciences at the American University in Washington, DC. Among his accomplishments, he has held professional internships in the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico and the National Committee of the College Republicans in Washington, DC. In addition to his passion for legislative lobbying in Washington, he emphasizes his interest in US and European politics and Middle East related issues. Aside from collaborating with the Times of Israel, José also collaborates with Diario Judío (Mexico) and with the Daily Capitol (Puerto Rico). His columns have also been published in Argentina and Chile. José just published his ever columns collection textbook titled “Panorama Internacional: Una mirada a la geopolítica e historia internacional (2016-2017)”.Currently, Jose is a columnist for Diario Judio in Mexico and a blogger for the Times of Israel. His articles have been published in Latino Rebels (United States), El Vocero de Puerto Rico and El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rico), Anajnu (Chile), United for Israel (Israel) and RadioJay (Argentina). Most recently, he published his first ever book titled: “Panorama Internacional: una Mirada a la Geopolítica e Historia Mundial (2016-2017).