Inside the Mosque of Córdoba, Spain Inside the Mosque of Córdoba, Spain. Photo: Jerzy Kociatkiewicz / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

The long history of Western persecution and antisemitism demolishes right-wing ideas about the ‘clash of civilisations’ and slurs against Muslim cultures, argues Chris Bambery

I am writing this while on a half-term break with my youngest son in Banyoles in Catalonia. Half an hour to the north is the lovely medieval town of Besalú. On my last visit I was disappointed that the mikveh, the ceremonial Jewish bathhouse, was not open to visitors.

It was sealed up by members of the town’s 200 strong Jewish population in 1435 as they fled, faced with anti-Jewish pogroms. That guaranteed its survival prior to its discovery in more recent times. For a long time it was thought to be the only one of its kind remaining within the Spanish state. Then in 2014 another was discovered in Girona, half an hour south of Banyoles.

That I have visited and will go again. The Jewish museum there traces the history of the Jewish quarter, more accurately a ghetto. It was significantly reduced in size in 1391 after a particularly vicious pogrom, in which the ghetto was sacked. Jews were blamed for the Black Death. A Dominican friar, Vincent Ferrer, urged the killing of Jews and the burning of their homes. In Barcelona the call, the ghetto, was destroyed. Some 3000 Jews were forcibly converted, and 300 who refused were murdered.[1]

Eventually in 1492, following the conquest of the last Muslim Kingdom of Grenada, the Catholic Monarchs of the newly united Kingdom of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand, ordered the expulsion of all Muslims and Jews who would not convert to Christianity. The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was created to check converts did not wash too often, ate pork and drank wine, and did not worship in secret. Where did the Jews expelled from Spain go? The vast majority found new homes in North Africa, Greece and other lands ruled by the Ottomans or other Muslim rulers.

Spain still struggles with its Muslim heritage. In 711 CE, Arab and Berber armies had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and within a remarkably short time conquered all of the Iberian Peninsula, aside from some pockets in the Pyrenees and the mountains of Asturias, creating Al-Andalus. By 1000 CE, its capital, Cordoba, was the biggest city in Europe – far, far bigger than Paris or Rome. Unlike them, its streets were lit, there was running water, sewers and bathhouses. Unlike them, there were significant Christian and Jewish communities (most Christians accepted Muslim rule because they saw it as an improvement on the previous Visigothic kingdom) who, as elsewhere, were allowed to follow their religion and laws in return for paying a tax.

You might think that was unfair but their treatment contrasted with the fate of Jews in Christendom (the concept of Europe would come later). Cordoba, Toledo and other Muslim cities were great places of learning, where scholars from different faiths translated the Greek and Roman classics (thus saving them) and pursued the great Arab advances in medicine, mathematics and much more.

Legacy

At the centre of Cordoba was a great mosque, the Mezquita, which remains one of the architectural wonders of the world. Unfortunately, when the city fell to the Christian forces of the King of Castille, it was vandalised. A hideous Catholic church was built right in its middle.

Why do I say Spain struggles with its Islamic heritage, so evident in so much of its culture? I have two Muslim friends who have visited the Mezquita. Both wear the Hijab. On entering both reported they were approached by security guards and told, ‘no praying’. Catholics can pray at the Christian church but not Muslims. Attempts to hold inter-denominational services involving Muslims and Jews, to try and atone for 1492, have been refused.

The Spanish far-right party, Vox, regularly spins the myth that Spain is being taken over by migrants and there needs to be a new ‘Reconquista’, the name given to the military takeover of Al-Andalus. It’s no accident that this was a term used by General Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, alongside ‘crusade’. Franco wanted to cleanse the country of leftists of all shades, Catalan and Basque ‘separatists’, and other dupes serving the ‘Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik’ threat, in which he so fervently believed, which aimed to destroy Catholic Spain. In his May 1939 victory speech, after the fall of Madrid, he warned it was necessary to be always alert to: ‘The Jewish spirit which permitted the alliance of big capital with Marxism.’[2]

The Pope sent Franco a personal telegram conferring his blessing on him and giving gratitude to God for ‘Catholic Spain’s victory’. Franco replied, expressing his pleasure at the Pope’s blessing and support for what he described as: ‘The complete victory accomplished by our arms in the heroic crusade against the enemies of Religion, of the Fatherland, and of Christian civilisation.’ Two weeks later, the Pope went on Vatican Radio to praise once more Franco’s victory and the dictator’s ‘very noble Catholic sentiment.’ This was a man responsible for the death of 150,000 people. A true champion of Christian civilisation![3] The Spanish fascists, the Falangists, attacked ‘judeo-Catalans’. After the Fall of France, in the summer of 1940, when Spain grabbed Tangiers, they carried out an anti-Jewish pogrom.

Historical amnesia

What am I trying to get at here? In recent days, following Hamas’s attack on southern Israel, and the military onslaught on Gaza which followed, a narrative is emerging which argues that if you scratch the surface of Islam, antisemitism will quickly emerge, that Muslims are naturally anti-Jewish (and by implication non-Muslim supporters of Palestinian rights) and that Israel is defending Western civilisation from ‘irrational’ Islam. European or Western civilisation owes a great deal to Islam, which, during what historians used to call the Dark Ages, kept alive the classic works of Greece and Rome and which gifted us so much; algebra, for instance, and the Arabic numerals we use daily.

Let’s repeat, the Jews forced to quit Spain in 1492 found new homes in Islamic countries, not Christian ones. One such place was Salonika, now in Greece, but then part of the Ottoman Empire, and a city where Greeks, Slavs, Jews and Turks lived and mixed. Or at least they did until 1922, when the defeat of a British-backed Greek invasion of Turkey led to the city’s Turkish population being deported to Asia Minor. Then in 1941, the city fell to the Third Reich. The Jewish population of 45,000 were forced into a ghetto and in 1943 sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

One of those involved in this operation was a future Secretary General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981, and president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, Kurt Waldheim. Documents proved he had been an interpreter and intelligence officer for a German army unit that engaged in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported of the Jewish population of Salonika. Despite becoming available in 1986, this evidence did not stop him being re-elected President a year later.

I have no wish to whitewash the Ottoman Empire, but for all its crimes, it permitted a degree of toleration not seen in Christian Europe for religious minorities, including Jews; including in Palestine which had a Muslim, Jewish and Christian population living in relative harmony. The problems really began in the early twentieth century with its dissolution and then defeat in the First World War. In what is now Turkey, the attempt to create an ethnically based nation state led to the massacre of the Armenians. Post-1918, French colonialism encouraged religious divide and rule in its new colony of Lebanon, favouring the Christians. The British encouraged the Zionists to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Post Second World War Jewish communities in the new post-colonial Arab states were encouraged to migrate to Israel, and also suffered persecution following the defeat of the Arabs in 1948.

The West’s antisemitism

Antisemitism is a Christian construct from Late Antiquity when Christianity became the ideological cement for the late Roman Empire. The Church blamed Jews for Jesus’s death. Medieval Christendom inherited this form of antisemitism, but it remained largely theoretical until the eleventh century, when persecution of various groups considered as ‘Others’, like heretics, began to spread virulently across society.

What happened in Besalú and Girona happened across Christendom. In Germany, the declaration of the First Crusade in 1096 led to the massacre of Jews in Rhineland cities by French and German crusaders. In England, aristocratic mob violence led to attacks on the Jewish community in London on the accession of Richard I in 1189, and the massacre of the Jewish community in York in 1190. In 1290, the entire Jewish population (about 3,000 people) was expelled from the country on the orders of Edward I. Jews were only allowed to return in the 1650s, when they were invited to resettle by Oliver Cromwell’s Republic.

In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, antisemitism moved away from religious justification to become racist, championed by the state in Tsarist Russia. The autocracy officially backed massacres of Jews: pogroms were regular. Jews only achieved equality with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but antisemitism returned, though less murderously, with Stalin’s counter-revolution.

To the west, France saw the notorious Dreyfus Affair, whereby the military command, the Catholic Church and the centre right defended the life-imprisonment term on Devil’s Island given to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, for supposedly spying for Germany. Despite his imprisonment, the Germans still received high-level intelligence and much of the documentation provided by the army command to condemn Dreyfus proved to be fake.

The defence of Dreyfus was spearheaded by liberals and the left. That led to the formation of Action Française in 1898, whose key idealogue was Charles Maurras. This was, in many ways, the first fascist organisation, espousing anti-Semitism as well as defending Catholic civilisation. In the inter-war period, anti-Semitism reached new, murderous heights with the rise of fascism and authoritarian governments.

The Shoah or Holocaust, the world’s greatest crime, flowed from the antisemitism of Hitler and the Nazis. It was carried out by citizens of one of the bastions of European civilisation. Today, comparisons with it are constantly flying around, but Muslims were not responsible for this genocide – Christians were.

Today, those who champion a ‘clash of civilisations’, an idea beloved by neo-cons, between a rational Judeo-Christian tradition and an irrational Muslim, have to leave this all out. Among those selling such ideas in Europe at the moment are the heirs of Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain. They understand antisemitism is no longer acceptable, but target Muslims and migrants in ways strongly reminiscent of the 1930s and support Israel in the supposed clash of civilisations.

Its important to know our history so we are not fooled into believing notions such as that Islam is the enemy of world civilisation, or that Israel is its champion. Our rulers don’t want us turning over so many stones in European history so we don’t discover unpleasant truths.

One of our tasks is to turn over those stones.


[1] Michael Eaude, A People’s History of Catalonia (Pluto Press 2022), p.26.

[2] Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography (Fontana Press 1995), p.330.

[3] David I. Kertzer, The Pope at War: The Secret history of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler (Random House 2022), p.38.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.