Ask Jews which country they consider to be the European hotbed of anti-Semitism, and you will probably get a variety of responses. Some will no doubt invoke Poland and Germany, in light of the Holocaust, while others will insist that France has become the home of modern anti-Jewish sentiment on the continent. Still others may argue that the Swiss or the Hungarians are competitive candidates for this dubious distinction.
And yet, if three recent studies and a host of nasty incidents are any indication, then the top spot, as it were, would belong to Spain, which is far and away the most rabidly anti-Semitic country in Europe.
Last fall, the Pew Global Attitudes Project published a wide-ranging study on how Jews and Muslims are viewed in various countries. It found that 46 percent of all Spaniards hold negative views of Jews - by far the highest percentage recorded in any non-Muslim country. The runners-up, Russia and Poland, trailed Spain by 10 or more percentage points.
Pew also found that Spain was the only country in Europe where the percentage of those holding negative opinions of Jews exceeded those with a positive view, with just 37% of Spaniards viewing Jews favorably. By contrast, 50% of Poles, 64% of Germans and 73% of Brits have positive views of Jews.
Ample evidence supporting Pew's findings could be found in a study released in February by the Anti-Defamation League on "Attitudes Toward Jews in Seven European Countries." It revealed that more than half of those surveyed in Spain embrace classical anti-Semitic stereotypes regarding Jewish power, loyalty and money.
And then there was a recent poll commissioned by Spain's Education Ministry, which found that more than 50% of students between 12 and 18 said they would not want to sit next to a Jew in school.
No matter how one looks at these figures, they are indisputably harsh, and signify that anti-Semitism in Spain is profound and deeply-rooted.
WHAT MAKES this phenomenon even more troubling is the fact that there are so few Jews in Spain. With just 20,000 out of a population of some 40 million, Jews constitute less than one-tenth of one percent of Spain's citizenry, and the community maintains a very low profile. Clearly, then, Spaniards' firsthand knowledge of Jews is extremely limited, if not nonexistent. And yet they seem to hate us with unbridled passion.
Events in recent months have unfortunately borne this out. In May, Israeli Ambassador Rafi Shotz was a victim of Spanish anti-Semitism. While walking home after attending a soccer game in Madrid, he was accosted by three men who hurled a torrent of anti-Semitic slurs his way, calling him a "Jewish dog" and "dirty Jew."
In mid-January, the windows of Barcelona's Chabad house were smashed by unknown perpetrators, who sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the building. Two weeks later, a man wielding a baseball bat was apprehended after striking a Barcelona synagogue and then attacking one of its employees.
And then, of course, there was the outrageous decision earlier this year by Judge Fernando Andreu of Spain's National Court to investigate senior Israeli defense officials for the 2002 assassination of senior Hamas terrorist Salah Shehadeh. The Spanish parliament later took steps to rein in this judicial adventurism.
Various reasons have been offered in an attempt to explain Spain's rising intolerance. These include deep-seated prejudices rooted in the medieval anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, the rising political power of the far Left which is hostile to Israel, as well as the Spanish media's unbalanced and often biased coverage of the Middle East.
BUT MORE IMPORTANT, perhaps, than the causes behind this phenomenon is the perennial question: What can be done about it? A key part of the answer may lie with the Bnei Anousim (Hebrew for "those who were coerced") - the descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism centuries ago yet continued to cling to their Jewish identity.
Because of their personal background and historical connection with the Jewish people, many Bnei Anousim feel a strong affinity toward Israel. As citizens of Spain, they are perfectly positioned to serve as goodwill ambassadors for the Jewish state, and many of them are more than willing to do so.
Take, for example, Rafael Perez of Zaragoza. He launched a popular Web site in Spanish, Kolisraelorg.net, which promotes Israel and its cause in Spain's often hostile cyberspace. Others, such as Dr. Itzhak Kalafi and his wife Nuria Guash in Barcelona, blog about Israel and work to counter anti-Zionist propaganda in the local press.
Nevertheless, Israel has yet to make use of their talents and commitment. For reasons known only to itself, the Foreign Ministry has done little to reach out to Bnei Anousim, despite their readiness to help. This oversight is a grave mistake. It is simply unthinkable that Israel would fail to tap into this natural pool of support, especially when the overall atmosphere among the Spanish public is so dour.
Clearly, Spain's Jewish problem will not go away overnight. Indeed, 500 years may have passed since it expelled its Jews, but the country still seems to have trouble tolerating even a small Jewish presence.
But that doesn't mean that more cannot be done to improve the situation, and reaching out to the Bnei Anousim seems like a good place to start.
The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that reaches out to the Bnei Anousim in Spain, Portugal and South America.