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Spain’s Jews gave Vox an easy ride. Now they’re regretting it.

Many Jewish organisations sat idly by while the far-right stoked Islamophobia. It was only a matter of time, however, before the party and its supporters came for them, too.

“Who won the second world war? The Jews. Who directs the governments? The Jews. Who owns the banks? The Jews. Who owns the big pharmaceutical companies? The Jews. Who created the coronavirus?….Adolf Hitler Was Right.” So reads a tweet from March, an early expression of the wave of antisemitism that has swept through Spain along with coronavirus, much of it shared on social media with the hashtag #AHTR, for Adolf Hitler Tenía Razon (Adolf Hitler Was Right).

The pandemic hit Spain early and hard. As information-hungry citizens under Europe’s toughest lockdown engaged with social media at record rates, conspiracies theories – many with a distinctly antisemitic flavour – flourished. 

In Spain as elsewhere, George Soros is often the protagonist. During the coronavirus crisis however, he has migrated from far-right fantasy into the mainstream imagination. In early June, José Luis Mendoza, President of the Catholic University of Murcia (UCAM) gave a televised speech in which he claimed that Soros had conspired with Bill Gates to create Covid-19 in order to gain world domination via microchips (adding, for good measure, that the pair were slaves of Satan).

Mendoza is a longtime supporter of Vox, the far-right party whose 2019 electoral victory turned them into the third largest parliamentary force. Though neither his ideas nor the conspiracies circulating online reflect the party’s official position (although party leader Santiago Abascal liberally references Soros), politics is the backdrop against which public opinion crystallises. The presence of the far-right in parliament has given a peripheral ideology legitimacy, dragging more extremist tendencies closer to the mainstream.

The impact is an emboldened and increasingly vocal hard right. In the vein of populist-right parties worldwide, Vox has created a movement which transcends the political organization itself. Its complex network of activists, journalists and actors are instrumental in furthering ideas while blurring the lines between mainstream politics and extremism. The boundaries between are porous; Javier Negre, a journalist and outrider for Vox, recently handed over his YouTube channel (with half a million subscribers) to the former head renowned neo-Nazi entity Hogar Social to discuss Soros conspiracies. 

Though Vox figures are careful to maintain distance between official channels and the more extremist views of their supporters, at times the line is unavoidably blurred. Until the easing of the lockdown filled pavement cafes with socially distanced revellers, for several weeks the evening’s silence was broken by Vox’s nightly protests against the government and lockdown. Protesters spanned disaffected citizens to those with Falangist sympathies – but also featured individuals with AHTR T-shirts, a key feature of online neo-Nazi dissemination – and others performing the Heil Hitler while draped in Spanish flags.

An incipient coronavirus-induced antisemitism extends beyond Spain’s borders; a recent report from Tel Aviv university highlights how far-right politicians globally are capitalising on the health crisis to foster hatred towards Jews. Though representative of a wider phenomenon, the expressions of antisemitism among Vox supporters may come as a surprise to those Jewish entities that have passively accepted or actively allied themselves to the party.

The Jewish community in Spain is small – comprising around 40,000 people. Vox’s rapid rise and its enabling of extremism has not been met with resolute opposition from the community. The most representative body – the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain (FCJE) – told Vashti that it works to eradicate all kinds of discrimination in Spain, but at pains to be seen to be politically neutral, it refuses to expressly criticise Vox.

Others are less guarded. Action and Communication of the Middle East (ACOM), a pro-Israel lobby that is purportedly non-denominational though run by Spanish Jews, has written in defence of Vox and its Twitter feed contains pictures of its leadership cosying up to party leaders. Jonás Benarroch, spokesperson for the  Barcelona-based Jewish community organisation J Call – part of the nation’s nascent Jewish left movement – sees the relationship as strategic. “Vox uses a small minority of wealthy Jews – and it is important to highlight the class aspect – to whitewash their racism and also their antisemitisim.”

Fundamental to Jewish backing or toleration of Vox is their fervent support for Israel, a factor that is as important to Spanish Jews as for Jews elsewhere in the diaspora. Assumed indicative of philosemitism, Vox’s pro-Israel stance is in practice a product of the party’s ideological confluence with the similarly far-right governing Likud Party in Israel. Yet from America to Hungary, we know that Zionism does not by any means preclude antisemitism. 

For Vox, Zionism is a mask for multiple hatreds. There are ugly Islamophobic overtures in the party’s 10-point defence of Israel, which exalts the middle eastern country  as the “only true democracy from Morocco to Afghanistan”. Benarroch explains to me that Vox’s support for Israel is borne not out of any love for Jews per se, but of the belief that Israel is combatting Islam, and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy puts it, “All of a sudden it’s not so terrible to be anti-Semitic. Suddenly it’s excusable as long as you hate Muslims and Arabs and love Israel”. 

Vox’s antisemitism may be well-masked, but its Islamophobia is not. In 2019, the party’s second-in-command was recorded saying that the “Islamist invasion” of Europe was the common enemy of Europe, progress, and democracy. A few months later, a grenade was thrown into a centre in Madrid housing minors from northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. The source of the attack is currently unknown.

In 2018, the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain sounded the alarm about the increase in Islamophobic incidents in the country. This has not gone unnoticed by the Jewish community: FCJE President Benzaquén made clear to me that combatting Islamophobia is central to their work, and highlighted the strength of the relationship between FCJE and the Muslim community. Yet Jewish communal organisations remain reluctant to draw clear links between Vox’s anti-migration, anti-Islam rhetoric and the escalation of racist incidents.

Support for Israel aside, it is likely the law of parsimony that explains Jewish silence. Spain’s tiny Jewish population is not Vox’s target, nor likely to ever be the primary target of racist attacks in the way Muslims are. 

Vox are frequently cast as ethnonationalists, even fascist. The reality is more nuanced.  Though the party is likely home to a sub-current of white supremacism, their rhetoric tactically moves away from racial essentialism towards positing a battle for the survival of the West against the invading forces of Islam. This culture war pits Christian Spain, with Vox as its vanguard, against Muslims and low-income racialised migrants, often deliberately conflated. But the same exclusionary logic operates to expand definitions of cultural “others”. European Jews today bear the emotional weight of the conditionality of their whiteness and concomitant inclusion in European life.

This new culture war, a hangover of an historic one, should be a red flag to Spain’s Jews. Vox is deeply nostalgic for the “Reconquista”, the centuries-long Iberian Christian conquest of Spain’s Moorish territories that heralded the end of Muslim era in the Iberian peninsula, the installation of Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and the expulsion of Spain’s Muslims and Jews.

Vox’s repertoire of Reconquista rhetoric is a charged reminder of their desire for cultural and religious hegemony. It draws from a deep well of latent ethno-religious supremacy manifested in non-violent antisemitism and increasingly violent Islamophobia. Benarroch explains: “The antisemitism that exists is the leftovers of the Spanish-Catholic-Inquisition culture. But I want to stress that antisemitism isn’t much of a problem [in Spain] because there aren’t many of us. I don’t know what would happen if there were more.”

None of this should be a surprise to Spain’s Jews. – Vox has demonstrable links with neo-Nazis – several have joined its ranks as members and elected representatives. In 2019 Fernando Paz, the party’s Holocaust-denying parliamentary candidate for the Albacete province, was forced to step down after the public became aware of his views. For Benarroch, the reality is evident – “Vox are antisemitic, of course they are. They are heirs of a discourse based in nationalism, with values that attack cosmopolitan Jewishness and Jewish diversity.”

As the Reconquista reveals, the ideological roots of Spain’s antisemitism are intertwined with those of its Islamophobia. The pursuit of cultural and religious purity will necessarily target both Jews and Muslims, eventually. 

Vox’s pro-Israel stance, the Jewish community’s desire to keep their heads below the parapet, and the persistent failure to acknowledge the connectedness of different racisms have made the Spanish Jewish establishment reluctant to indict Vox and its supporters. But as pandemic-induced antisemitic conspiracy theories proliferate across the country, they might want to ask themselves why they have given the party a free pass for so long.

Eleanor Rosenbach is a writer, communications consultant and educator based in Madrid.

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