Around the Jewish World Church Reaches out to Spanish Jews, Seeking Allies Against Prime Minister
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Around the Jewish World Church Reaches out to Spanish Jews, Seeking Allies Against Prime Minister

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Earlier this month, the archbishop of Madrid set foot in the city’s main synagogue for the first time, joining Spanish Jewish leaders in marking 40 years since the Vatican opened the door to contact with Judaism and other faiths. The gesture to commemorate the 1965 papal decree known as Nostra Aetate comes as the Catholic church in Spain is trying to gain allies in its growing conflicts with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist government.

Though Zapatero is better known abroad for his military pullout from Iraq, in Spain he has angered conservatives and the church by legalizing same-sex marriage, easing regulations on divorce and abortion and authorizing stem-cell research.

The latest controversy is over Zapatero’s proposed new education law that would make religious instruction optional, and non-gradable, for students in public elementary and high schools.

The church wants classes in religion — or an alternative course in ethics, morality and world religions — to be required in public schools, and to count toward students’ grade point averages. Hundreds of thousands of parents, clergy and other demonstrators marched through Madrid recently to voice their opposition to Zapatero’s proposed law.

Spain’s estimated 35,000 Jews are a negligible electoral quantity in this country of more than 40 million people. In theory, they might be swayed by the government’s threats to end the church’s historic privileges, particularly the $35 million it gets annually from the state Treasury.

But the Jewish leadership has sided with the church in the gay marriage debate — and the cardinal’s overtures to the Jewish community in the midst of the religious-education debate reinforces the church’s claim that Zapatero is out of touch with a broad sector of Spanish public opinion on moral issues.

“I do think it’s important for the state to support religious education,” said Jacobo Israel Garzon, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain. “Religious education means a certain moral education for the young, and I think that’s good for society.”

Still, despite the appearance of ecumenism in Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela’s visit to the Bet Yacob synagogue in Madrid, some Catholics and Jews say the four decades that it took for a Spanish cardinal to make the visit underscores the reluctance with which Spanish bishops still view dialogue with Judaism and other faiths.

“They still think as if they’re in the 16th century,” said Father Mariano Perron, a delegate to interfaith gatherings who sat in the first row as the archbishop spoke at the synagogue.

Perron was referring to a time in Spanish history when the bishops wielded considerable political might — after Jews had been expelled from Spain, Muslim armies had been defeated and Catholicism was all that existed in Spain.

Despite Nostra Aetate, “it’s been very difficult for bishops to find a way to relate” to other relations, Perron said.

Varela is a former president of the Spanish bishops conference. For many liberal Catholics in Spain, he symbolizes the arch-conservative flank of the church hierarchy in this country.

Varela made no mention of the tragic history of Jews in Spain during his groundbreaking visit to the synagogue. Neither did he express any regret over the church-sponsored anti-Semitism that produced countless pogroms in the run-up to the 1492 expulsion, and that continued with teachings on the supposed perfidiousness of Jews imbibed by Spanish children in Catholic and public schools as late as the Franco dictatorship that ended in 1975.

Many Spanish Jews today are descendants of those who fled the Inquisition. The families began returning in the 19th century.

Still, Garzon told JTA, the cardinal’s presence at the synagogue said enough.

“I think the church is aware of the harsh history it has had toward the Jewish people,” he said. “And I believe that a big part of the church today feels that they should be close to the Jewish people.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a majority,” Garzon added. “But we have to make an effort to promote the ideas of” Nostra Aetate. That encyclical repudiated anti-Semitic teachings in the Catholic tradition.

In his speech at the synagogue, Varela called Nostra Aetate “a beautiful, profound declaration of the rich spiritual patrimony” that Jews and Catholics share.

However, he conceded that the document has been the victim of “forgetfulness” and said Spanish Catholics need to be reminded of its importance.

In his own speech, Garzon acknowledged that Nostra Aetate had jolted many Spaniards “who thought their world was just, even though it excluded others.” But he added that “soon it was forgotten by many and hardly anything was done so that the whole of the population would understand the encyclical.”

In fact, Spain didn’t recognize the State of Israel until 1986 — and then primarily to gain admission to the European Union.

Still, Garzon called the bishop’s visit “a symptom of a normalization” in relations between Jews and Catholics in Spain.

Indeed, both faiths have found lately that they have more and more in common, at least politically. Earlier this year, Garzon endorsed a church-sponsored statement criticizing the government’s gay marriage law. On the issue of religious education, Garzon is in favor of public funding.

Nevertheless, he would not endorse the church position entirely. The proper place to learn about one’s own faith is in Catholic, Jewish or other religious schools, “not in public schools,” he said.

Despite his harsh criticism of the bishops, Father Perron believes they are “absolutely right” on the issue of religious education.

He pointed out that Spanish Catholics do not send their children to Sunday schools for religious instruction, as many do in America. They rely on schools, whether public or private, to provide it.

“Here in Spain, it’s a tradition,” he said, comparing it to having wine with lunch.

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