The roots of today’s racial and religious structures can be found in late medieval Spain and its colonies. It was in the Iberian Peninsula, during the fifteenth century, that terms like raza (race) and linaje (lineage) went from being used to describe horse or dog breeding to being applied to Jews and “Moors.” This switch coincided with the appearance of anti-converso ideologies, which would turn theological categories (like Jew and Muslim), into biological ones (limpieza de sangre).

It is precisely this concept of “race,” one that associates issues of blood purity with relatively recent conversion to Christianity, which was later applied to the classification of peoples in the Spanish colonies. This ordering was crucial for the correct organization of a colonial enterprise whose stated mission was to impose Christianity upon a population of pagans and heretics. The consequences of these developments went far beyond the already vast Spanish Empire. Indeed, it was through the repudiation of its ethnic diversity and the subsequent establishment on the American continent of systems of production based on the exploitation of ethnically differentiated groups that Spain established, more than five hundred years ago, the fundaments of globalized modernity.

It is against this background that Jews and Muslims in Contemporary Spain: Redefining National Boundaries analyzes the place granted to Jews and Muslims in the construction of contemporary Spanish national identity. In the book, the focus is put on the transition from an exclusive, homogeneous sense of collective self toward a more pluralistic, open and tolerant one, in a European context. Given Spain’s crucial role at the genesis of the global hierarchization of the world population along “racial” lines that took place about five hundred years ago, the efforts undertaken by the end of the twentieth century to adopt the country’s structures to the increasing valorisation of diversity, borders permeability, and coexistence of minority cultures within the nation-state can be considered as paradigmatic of the reassessment of religious difference in late modernity. The book is the result of an original combination of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, approached from a rich trans-disciplinary analytical framework. In addition, the choice in favor of a comparative study of Muslims and Jews, uncommon in the context of studies of contemporary Spain, proves to be particularly fruitful and revealing.

The study approaches this process from different dimensions. At the national level, it analyzes the reflection of this process in nationalist historiography, the education system and the public debates on national identity. At the international level, it tackles the problem from the perspective of Spanish foreign policy towards Israel and the Arab-Muslim states in a changing global context. From the social-communicational point of view, the emphasis was put on the construction of the self–other (Jewish and Muslim) dichotomy as reflected in the three leading Spanish newspapers (El País, El Mundo and ABC). In addition, attention was paid to the changes undergone by the Jewish and Muslim local communities during the same period.

The work shows that since 1986, Spain experienced significant transformations at the social, cultural, and international levels. These changes affected the construction of Spanish contemporary identity directly, as the different national narratives were conveniently adapted to the circumstances. The images of Muslims and Jews generated in this context were often ambivalent, in correspondence with the intrinsically problematic attempt at avoiding any explicitly ethnocentric rhetoric while implicitly preserving it. Since then, this central contradiction permeated Spanish nationalist historiography, education system, and predominant national narratives.

There is an active line of continuity between the perceptions of Muslims prevalent at the birth of the Spanish empire, which according to Anibal Quijano laid the basis for the global structures of coloniality still commonplace in today’s world, and those widespread in today’s Spain. During the period under study, Muslim otherness had two main dimensions: the complementarity between their legal marginalization as immigrants and their incorporation into the economic system as underpaid laborers, on the one hand, and their construction as internal and external enemies, on the other.

In the case of Jews, the central role they have historically played in the construction of Spanish national identity and their small numeric presence in contemporary Spain make their difference more conceptual than practical. Unlike Muslims, Jews – even those coming from North Africa – are not “colored” in modern Spain. They are not assigned attributes of “racial” inferiority to justify economic exploitation and/or political paternalism. Instead, Jewish otherness is related to deeply rooted notions of extraordinary power and moral purity/impurity.

Martina L. Weisz is a Research Fellow at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA). She studied Political Science and International Relations at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario in Argentina, holds an M.A. in International Relations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed her Ph.D. there as well. Her publications focus on human rights, foreign policy, racism and religious difference. Her book Jews and Muslims in Contemporary Spain: Redefining National Boundaries was published by DeGruyter Oldenbourg in 2019.