If Spain can accept liberal multiculturalism, there is no reason to think Israelis can’t do so as well.
The year 1492 is important in world history. As every school boy and girl in America learns, that was when Christopher Columbus sailed the proverbial ocean blue and so ‘discovered’ America. Or, at least, some inhabited, offshore islands that he then commenced to claim for Spain, and whose inhabitants were quickly enslaved by rapacious Spanish colonialists.
Less well known, but equally portentous, 1492 also marked the year when the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel of Castile completed the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, ending 780 years of Muslim rule in what would eventually become modern Spain.
Al-Andalus, as Muslim Spain was called, was at one point the leading center of culture, commerce and civilization in Europe, and its cities boasted libraries and universities – which the Arabs called madrassas – that collected scholarly works from all over the Islamic world, among them Arabic translations of classical Greek and Roman scholars whose works had long since been lost in the West.
What’s more, al-Andalus, like much of the rest of the newly forged Arab empire, was a relatively tolerant place. Christians and Jews, though subject to Muslims, were nonetheless granted special rights and allowed to practice their faith in peace. Compared to what was to come after the Reconquista, Muslim Spain was, if not perfect by today’s standards, for a long time a rather open and tolerant society for the medieval world. It was certainly more advanced than the vast majority of its Christian contemporaries.
The fall of the last Muslim emirate in 1492, however, ended all that. Spain’s new Christian rulers, fanatical in their belief and devotion, vowed to purify their land for Christ and so promptly issued the Alhambra decree. The decree ordered, upon pain of death, the expulsion or full conversion to Christianity of all Jews residing in the lands ruled by the Catholic monarchs who had just re-conquered Spain within the space of three months.
The decree, meant to rid a newly-unified Spain of a potentially traitorous fifth-column of religious subversives, was a culminating point of medieval anti-Semitism in which hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. Tens-of-thousands more who decided to stay and convert or practice their faith in secret were systematically hounded by the Spanish Inquisition, and as a result often tortured and executed without cause. From a once vibrant community that accounted for perhaps 5 percent of the population of old al-Andalus, Judaism in Spain went extinct.
Those who fled dispersed throughout North Africa, the Near East, and Southern Europe, finding succor particularly in the Ottoman Empire, by then a growing power that had superseded the old Arab Caliphate in strength and was to shortly take Islam straight into the heart of Christian Central Europe. The descendants of these desperate refugees later became known as the Sephardic Jews, and until the foundation of the State of Israel, they could be found as a distinct religious and ethnic community throughout the Middle East.
However, 1948, marked the beginning of another episode of relocation for the Sephardim. In retaliation for Arab Muslim Palestinians who were forced to flee their homes as a result of Israel’s victory in its war for independence against its neighbors, Sephardic Jews residing in many Arab countries were similarly expelled or otherwise found to be undesirables in the Muslim-majority states they resided in. As in India, a country that had also recently experienced a bloody and violent partition and population transfer, one religious community effectively traded place with another.
As if this sad tale were not enough, history has now decided to throw this community a bit of a twist. It turns out that Catholic Spain has, since democratizing and liberalizing during the 20th century, decided that maybe expelling all those Jews from its territory so long ago was something of a mistake. Trying to make amends, the current Spanish government looks set to compensate the victims of the Alhambra decree by declaring that the Sephardic descendants of the victims of most Catholic monarchs can, if they wish, claim full Spanish citizenship 522 years after they were forced to leave the ruins of old al-Andalus – all without having to give up their current citizenship, too.
Sephardic Israelis, by all accounts, are rather excited by the prospect of taking advantage of this new and quite unexpected right of return. While not officially law as of yet and with many details still to be worked out, many in this religious community see some advantage to having a second passport tucked away, especially one, like Spain’s, that allows full and open access to the countries of the European Union. Since Sephardis tend to come from Israel’s more disadvantaged communities, the prospect of being able to freely travel to, reside in, and work throughout Europe is an amazing opportunity. At the least, it gives those tired of the near-constant threat of war or terror attack a relatively safe bolt hole to escape to if the situation should warrant it.
For those familiar with the current status of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, that Sephardic Jews are now, after so many centuries, being offered Spanish citizenship and a warm welcome home is deliciously ironic. For one, the Palestinian parallel with the Sephardic community is an obvious one. Like the Sephardim, the Palestinian people were forced to flee their homes in the wake of war by the leaders of a young, insecure state bent on consolidating its control over newly-won territory. For another, the Palestinians have also found themselves to be a people without a state or their own home, and, like Spain’s expelled Jews, have been forced to form refugee communities in countries that have not often been welcoming.
What’s more, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants remains a major obstacle to the conclusion of any final peace treaty between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. To Israelis the claim to lost property and homes by Palestinians refugees who were forced to leave their home as a result of Israeli expansionism is a ploy meant to extract further concession from the Jewish state. To the Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes, however, the demand is both real and based on a strong emotional attachment to the land and lives they once had. Indeed, for Israelis to dismiss Palestinian demands for some right of return as a mere bargaining gambit is to diminish the very real hurt and anger that their own people experienced centuries before at the hands of similarly arrogant hostile invaders.
Finally, the importance of democratic liberalism here in facilitating Spain’s offer of citizenship to Sephardi descendants cannot be understated. Spain has evolved a great deal since 1492, and the days when a dogmatic Catholicism that brooked no dissent was synonymous with Spanish national identity have long since passed. Today, Spain is a democratic country comfortable in its identity as a full member of the liberal West, and its offer of citizenship to Sephardic Jews is a sign of its maturity as a modern example of such a society. Spaniards, after such a sad, bloody history, have learned to confront the ghosts of their past and lay open the deep-seated founding myths of their country for all to see. It is quite remarkable.
Israel, in turn, would be well advised to look hard at what Spain has done. A country can only be secure in its idea of itself when, like Spain, it can talk honestly and openly about its past. Spain, after all, could have done the opposite by hunkering down in its comforting founding myths and parochial identity as a supremely Catholic country by refusing to admit what it had done. Instead, Spain took the difficult step of putting its former identity properly where it belongs – in the past – and in so doing reinforced the country’s modern view of itself as a diverse, democratic country.
The point is that democratic multiculturalism, even after 500 years, is hard, but it is worthwhile precisely because it is so difficult to pull off successfully. Out of necessity it takes us out of our comfort zones by forcing us to acknowledge the basic dignity those who are different and, in so doing, accord them the same rights and respect that we accord members of our own community. It asks, in essence, for us to take the stranger into our homes and become one with them even as the stranger becomes one of us. Modern liberal democracy, with its secular focus on the rights of the individual, is uniquely well placed to facilitate this difficult, seemingly impossible transition in worldview, which is precisely why it is opposed by cultural chauvinists – be they Spaniards, Israelis, or Arabs – the world over.
The great benefit of modern liberal democracy and its emphasis on embracing diversity is that it accomplishes this feat by liberating the individual from the legal constraints imposed by or on one’s own culture. Being so liberated, one must out of necessity do without the comforting myths of tribe and faith and, in so doing, approach the world and its dizzying complexity as it is and not as we would like it to be. For those unprepared for the diverse, uncertain tumult of the modern, kaleidoscopic world, it can be a terrifying prospect – which is why it took Spain over half a millennium to make the transition.
Israel, unfortunately, doesn’t have the luxury of waiting that long. Unlike Spain, Israel is surrounded by states and peoples that deeply resent its presence in the region, and who see its exclusivist Zionism as deeply threatening. Internally, Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian land is inexorably creating a situation where, soon, Jewish Israelis will be a minority within their own borders.
But as tough as it may be for Israelis to accept given their remarkable achievements, fate has dictated that Israel cannot simultaneously remain liberal and democratic, an expression solely of Jewish identity and in control of all the territory it won in 1967.
Eventually, Israel will have to choose what it most values. If Israelis rule out a two-state solution, then a binational, multicultural democracy that accepts and respects both Israelis and Palestinians as full and equal citizens could be a viable option. In many ways, just such a state was envisioned by the most idealistic and progressive of Israel’s earliest leaders, who saw Israel as potentially being a place where both Jew and Muslim could live together in peace and friendship. History turned out differently, of course, but such a vision is still valuable.
After all, if Spain can accept liberal multiculturalism, there is no reason to expect Israelis can’t do so either. Such a path is risky, though, and for the well-armed, risk-averse Israelis sitting comfortably inside their fortified settlements, the status quo seems safe enough for now, despite the ticking clock of demographic change. For Israel’s sake and our own, let’s hope they work up the courage to come out from behind their walls before it’s too late.