Catalonia Independence? Here's A Tale Of Two Cities

The regional government of Catalonia will hold a controversial independence referendum in October. Opinion is deeply divided in the cities of Lleida And Berga.

Demonstrators fly the Estelada, the unofficial flag of independent Catalonia, in February.
Demonstrators fly the Estelada, the unofficial flag of independent Catalonia, in February.
Mathieu de Taillac

LLEIDA — Three flags hang from the mayor's office in Lleida, in northeastern Spain. There is a burgundy-colored municipal flag; the flag of the Catalan Autonomous Community, with four red bars on a yellow background; and the Spanish flag, with its three horizontal strips, red over yellow over red with the national coat of arms off-centered toward the left. About 150 kilometers away, in the Catalan town of Berga, the balcony of the municipal hall displays just one flag: the Estelada (lone-starred banner). Its red star over the red strips of the Catalan flag represents both state and revolution, and is an important insignia of Catalan independence.

Little wonder that come October 1, the regional government of Catalonia will have everything it needs in Berga to follow through on its promise to hold an independence referendum. Municipal premises will be transformed into voting offices, and all city officials will be asked to give a hand. Sister cities abroad will even be invited to send international observers. And just in case voters forget the date, an electronic clock has been fitted under the Estelada with a countdown marking the remaining days, hours and minutes until the referendum.

But in Lleida, things will be markedly different that day. Unlike in Berga, city hall won't be assisting the referendum effort. By a slim margin, the Lleida city council voted against organizing the poll. At the same session, the pro-Spanish majority invited Spain's national soccer team — which has not played a match on Catalan soil for 13 years — to come and play at the municipal stadium. That was more than enough for Spanish media to depict Lleida, effectively a loyalist district surrounded by a pro-independence countryside, the last holdout in the land of the separatists. The conservative daily ABC titled one report, "Lledia and the Rebellion of Catalan Cities."

On the second floor of the Paeria, the 18th-century town hall, Lleida's mayor, Ángel Ros, says he is surprised by journalists taking an interest in "a mayor's office respecting the law in Catalonia. Before, you only heard about the law being broken." The Spanish Constitutional Court has, at the government's behest, issued several rulings qualifying as unconstitutional the Catalan government's efforts to organize a self-determination referendum without Madrid's approval.

I am against allocating public resources to an illegal referendum.

But for Montse Venturos, the mayor of Berga, obeying Spanish laws is the least of her concerns. Elected on the left-wing, separatist ticket CUP (Candidatura d'Unitat Popular), she has even been arrested by police. In late 2016, an anti-independence association filed a lawsuit alleging that hoisting the Estelada at the last general elections violated the principle of neutrality. Police had to take her before a judge, as she had refused to present herself when summoned. The court dismissed the case but the prosecutor appealed.

"The decision to raise the Estelada was made by the city council after it was proposed by a local association," Venturos explains. "The Spanish state has no business telling us what to do."

Berga is considered one of the most solid bastions of separatism. It illustrates what some call a "mental disconnection" from Spain. Without awaiting a hypothetical independence, a significant portion of its residents already live as if they had nothing to do with a country they consider a neighboring state. People watch regional television, listen to Catalan public radio and read local dailies, says on young Berga resident whose parents moved to Catalonia from southern Spain 30 years. "They get their information in Catalan only," she says.

The local bookshop sells no books in Spanish and visitors will rarely find a Spanish brochure at the tourist office. On Avinguda Canal Industrial in Berga, a self-service laundromat has its sign in two languages, Catalan and English. In the town center, the only obvious symbol of the national reality are the yellow post office boxes.

Divided opinion on independance

Still, not everyone in Berga has the same views on independence. One resident, Albert, cites the pragmatism of his father. "He has two years left before he retires from work. He tells me, "Independence is all well, but who'll pay my pension?"" Albert explains.

In Lleida too, opinions are divided. On a wall facing the city's Segre river, someone has painted the words: "Denying the right to decide is fascism! Defend the referendum by all means." And at the Lo Marraco cafe, in one of the city's central plazas, a decidedly pro-independence patron named Ivan is sure the referendum will take place in Lleida even without the help of city hall. But he doesn't think that if the "Yes' vote wins, independence will be proclaimed within 48 hours, as the Catalan parliament claims.

That's one of many questions awaiting answers in October. Until then — between the enthusiasm of some and the deep concerns of others — the people of Catalonia will have plenty to think about.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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