Only last year, Spain was still the undisputed bastion for the BDS movement in Europe.
Some 50 Spanish municipalities had passed resolutions in recent years endorsing BDS — an acronym for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — more than in any other European country.
Relying on backing from a strong far left, the branches of Spain’s BDS movement were able to exert considerable pressure.
Last August, BDS activists pressured the organizers of a reggae festival near Barcelona to demand that the American-Jewish singer Matisyahu sign a statement condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Matisyahu, who was the only artist asked to sign the document, was disinvited when he declined. He was reinvited following an international outcry over what was perceived as an anti-Semitic measure.
It was not an unusual occurrence in a country that topped the Anti-Defamation League’s 2015 anti-Semitism index in Western Europe, and where Jews are often conflated with Israel — including by a Catalan lawmaker who in May demanded the head of Barcelona’s Jewish community be removed from the local government’s parliament for being “a foreign agent.”
But the wind has shifted for BDS in Spain, where the movement was recently labeled discriminatory in a series of legal defeats and resentment growing against its activists because they oppose trade with Israel at a time of economic crisis.
Over the past year, pro-Israel activists have obtained 24 rulings, legal opinions and injunctions against BDS in Spain, according to ACOM, a nonprofit based in Madrid. Thanks to litigation by its volunteer team, including several lawyers, BDS motions have been repealed, defeated or suspended this year in a dozen Spanish municipalities.
“The BDS movement in Spain is established and works systematically,” said ACOM’s president, Angel Mas. “But for the first time, they are encountering a response that is as systematic.”
Last month in Campezo, a town 210 miles north of Madrid, an ACOM ultimatum forced the City Council to scrap a resolution passed in June in support of BDS. ACOM threatened to sue based on precedents set this year in Spanish tribunals ruling that BDS is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
In January, Spain’s Council of State, the country’s highest consulting body, made a similar ruling, forcing the government to compensate a West Bank Israeli university to the tune of $107,000 over its exclusion for political reasons from a state-sponsored scientific competition.
Such rulings are commonplace in neighboring France, where BDS is included among other forms of illegal discrimination against countries or their citizens under a 2003 law introduced by Pierre Lellouche, a Jewish lawmaker. Dozens of BDS activists have been convicted in France of inciting hate or discrimination based on the Lellouche law and other legislation. Britain’s ruling Conservative Party in February said it would pass similar laws.
But in Spain, where a judge in 2009 opened a war-crimes probe against the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, such strong judiciary treatment of BDS is unexpected and revolutionary, according to Yigal Palmor, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman who had served in Spain during the 1990s as cultural attache and embassy spokesperson.
Palmor said the BDS shift coincided with several developments in Spain that were welcomed by Israeli diplomats and Jewish community leaders. They include legislation to naturalize Sephardic Jews, support for Israel’s position on Palestinian statehood, a crackdown on anti-Semitic hate speech and a massive investment in the restoration of Jewish heritage sites.
Palmor attributes these changes to a mix of factors, including Spain’s gradual adoption of European standards on hate speech, improved rule of law and the election of a relatively stable centrist government.
And then there’s the effect of the financial crisis. Many Spaniards feel their country cannot afford to spurn any partners — especially not an affluent Western country like Israel. Last year, Spain had 21 percent unemployment and 45 percent among workers under 25.
The effects of the financial crisis on popular attitudes toward BDS were on full display last month in the northern city of Santiago de Compostela. After its City Council passed a nonbinding resolution supporting BDS, Israel’s national airline El Al reportedly ended talks on opening a direct connection to the city.
Local politicians for Spain’s conservative Popular Party accused the local government, led by a far-left party, of sabotaging the local tourism industry and precious jobs.
Israel, whose GDP per capita in 2015 was 36 percent higher than Spain’s $25,831, provides Spain with approximately 350,000 tourists annually.
Some observers also see a financial incentive in Spain’s historic legislation last year to grant citizenship to Sephardic Jews with ties to Spain.
Spanish officials described the move as correcting the historical wrong done to Iberian Jews during the Spanish Inquisition — a state- and church-backed campaign of persecution that began in 1492 and was not abolished until 1834. During that period, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Spain and countless others became Christians under duress.
At least 4,500 of their descendants became Spanish citizens under the legislation in a process that generated millions of euros in revenue for Spanish notaries, government offices and language instructors. The legislation coincided with several Spanish initiatives to draw wealthy residents from abroad as well as tourists.
In 2014, Spain’s Congress passed a nonbinding motion conditioning support for Palestinian statehood on direct negotiations between both sides. The motion was considered a diplomatic victory for Israel and its supporters, especially after the parliaments of Britain, France and several other European countries pledged unconditional support for Palestine.
Until recently, Spain’s largely independent judiciary was subject to pressure from BDS supporters, noted Ramon Pérez-Maura, a journalist for Spain’s ABC newspaper.
“The problem was pressure and intimidation of judges by lobby groups with anarchist traditions and violent tactics,” he said. “There has been a crackdown on this sort of thuggery and this has empowered the judiciary, not only on Israel.”
Representatives of the BDS movement in Spain did not respond to requests for an interview. But a campaign launched on their website in April showed they are feeling the heat.
In a petition titled “Stop criminalizing BDS,” they asserted that “activists of non-violent struggle [against Israel] are under threat.” They urged the European Commission to enforce in Spain “human rights guidelines guaranteeing freedom of speech and the right to boycott.”
Though Spain has modernized greatly since the fall in 1975 of the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco, “it is still a decade or two in arrears in many areas” compared to other Western European countries, Palmor said. Many Spaniards display strong anti-American — and by proxy, anti-Israeli — sentiment and “a worldview of Jews that’s at times based on medieval imagery,” he said.
With a Jewish population of only 45,000, there is “a lot of ignorance about Jews,” Palmor said. That manifests itself in phenomena that hardly occur elsewhere in Western Europe, including the airing of anti-Semitic screeds on public radio and cases like the Matisyahu affair.
Those tendencies suggest why Mas of the ACOM group is not celebrating his victories over BDS just yet. He calls it a fight against a rival much larger and stronger than his group of volunteers.
“The Spanish Jewish community is small and overstretched,” he said. “It’s not the kind of community that can easily confront over time a challenge presented by well-entrenched activists with foreign funding and a foothold in government.”