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SIDIC Periodical XXV - 1992/2
Spain and the Jews 1492-1992 (Pages 02 - 07)

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Why has the expulsion of the Jews from Spain so tragic?
Lea Sestieri



At the inauguration of the first Sephardic Bibliographic Exhibition in Madrid in 1959, Solomon Gaon, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of London, linked the present with the past and said "Beyond doubt, Sephardic influence will be felt in the new life that is emerging in the country of the fathers; and Spain will have a special place in it". These words clearly refer to the rediscovery and the rebirth of Sephardic culture in contemporary Judaism.

The influx into Israel of about half a million Jews from North Africa seems an important factor in this renaissance. They are descendants of Jewish families that left Spain between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. These immigrants are now integrated into the social, political and cultural life of the State of Israel and are renewing their ancient culture. This renaissance has led to an increased interest by historians and scholars in Sephardic Judaism and to a recognition of its importance in the Mediterranean belt, both in the Spanish period and today. The new attitude of Spain towards the two Semitic cultures (Arabic and Jewish) which have contributed to the formation of Spanish culture, is also relevant, as the foundation of the Arias Montano Institute for the study of the two cultures in 1941, the abolition of the Edict of Expulsion in 1968 and the return of Jews and the setting up of three communities in Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga, as well as a series of other initiatives, testify (1).

Sephardic Judaism

Sepharad is a place-name in Obediah 1:20, perhaps the city of Sardis. From the eighth century it indicated Spain. The Jews who lived in the Peninsula were called Sefardim. It is probable that the Jews first settled in Spain in the first century. Certainly by the fifth century, during the time of the Visigoths, the Jews were already numerous and firmly established throughout the land.
The Arab occupation in the eighth century changed the whole aspect of the country. Only a few centres in the North remained in Christian hands. These would be the starting points of the Reconquest which would follow until Granada fell in 1492. All Spain finally came under the rule of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. However from the eighth to the end of the fifteenth century power remained divided in the Iberian Peninsula between Muslims and Catholics; with Muslims dominating until the end of the twelfth century, after which Catholic power increased.

The Golden Age

In the Arab regions, Jews came under the same category as Christians as Dhimmi (2) and experienced a new and positive period of community life. Renewing contacts with the talmudic schools of Babylonian Jewry (the Caliphate of Baghdad), beginning useful interchange with a flourishing Arab culture and engaging in commerce with the Mediterranean world, they were firmly inserted in the socio-economic and cultural evolution of the Peninsula. The political situation fostered this: Arabs and Christians had many difficulties in their mutual relations and considered it important to keep up good relations with the Jewish minority. They favoured and facilitated commercial, cultural and religious development so that the Jews would be on their side in case of conflict. Thus in the areas of the Arab influence as in that of the Christian (which was small at first but always increasing), the Jews enjoyed a liberty (not without some limits) which they had never had in any other Christian country. This contributed to the creation of an atmosphere of relative tranquility in which its own life could develop whilst at the same time it could also participate in that of the country, to the extent of constituting its very "administrative structure". The physician Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (tenth century), political councillor to the Caliph of Cordova and the Talmudist and Poet Shmuel Ibn Nagreia (eleventh century), political guide to the city of Granada, were among the most representative Jews of that sector. There were many other Jewish administrators even in Catholic Spain right up until the time of the expulsion.

Many physicians contributed greatly to the life of the country, from Ibn. Shaprut, who translated works from the Greek, to Sheshet Benveniste (fourteenth century), author of a treatise on gynaecology. Likewise with regard to astronomy, which was known as "Jewish Science", the famous Alphonsine Table, a basic document of modern scientific astronomy, was produced and even in the period of the expulsion, the works of Abraham Zacuto who, perfecting the astrolabe, facilitated the expedition of Vasco da Gama and later scientific discoveries.

This active cohabitation with two very different cultures, the Arab and the Christian, influenced Sephardic Judaism, giving it a much more complex aspect, richer than that of Western Judaism of the same epoch. The mastery of various languages: Hebrew, Arabic and the vernacular, to which were often added Greek and Latin, is the obvious result of the double relationship. It was precisely the good use of languages that became the vehicle of Sephardic influence in the Western world. In fact Christendom came to know the philosophical and scientific works of the Arabs thanks to the schools of Spanish translators, especially Jewish ones, among which the most famous was the school of Toledo. In this context the first translation into Castilian of the Bible, carried out at the court of Alphonus X "The Wise" (1231-1284) and later the Bible of Casa d'Alba, work of Moses Aragel de Guadalf agar (1422-1430), must not be forgotten. Scientific Biblical Exegesis (on the basis of which Abraham Ibn Ezra (eleventh century) expressed doubts about the Mosaic authorship of the whole of the Pentateuch), emerged from this study of languages. In another field, the study of the polished linguistic forms and varied structures of Arab poetry led to new metric styles in Sephardic liturgical and secular poetry. A splendid new poetry was born and developed, linked to the names of Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-1051), Moshe ibn Ezra (1080-1139), Yehuda ha Levi (1086-1115).

From the symbiosis of the three cultures something new sprang up which gave to Sephardic culture its distinctiveness. I refer to philosophy and mysticism. It was above all through these two disciplines that Sephardic culture flourished and spread into the western world. The philosophers, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Paquda, Yehuda Halevi, Moses Maimonides, sought in their works to adapt the neo-Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical thought to the concepts of their own religious tradition. The mystics, Moshe ben Nachmanides, Mose de Leon and Abraham Abulafia, with renewed enthusiasm, gave form to complicated Kabbalistic theories. The philosophers came from Arabic, and the mystics from Christian, Spain. There are clear cultural links revealing different influences on Jewish religious life, which tended in the Arab part to rationalize the problem of faith and in the Christian part to a mystical consciousness of God. If philosophy was born and developed in Arabic Spain, it very quickly spread into Christian lands. The thought of Ibn Gabirol (known as Avicebron) influenced Christian scholars in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus), and that of Bahia and Maimonides influenced Thomas Aquinas. Moreover the importance of the contribution of Sephardic philosophy to European culture is not to be undervalued, since modern philosophy can be traced back to the Sephardic Jew, Baruch Spinoza.

We have stated that Sephardic Mysticism developed in Christian regions, but it had received its first impetus from contact with Muslim Sufi mysticism. The Zohar (the Book of Splendour), the mystical book par excellence, is largely the work of Moses de Leon whilst Abulafia transmitted dangerous ecstatic experiences and his own fearful emotions in his writings. These texts spread through Europe and after the expulsion, in the sixteenth century, some Christian scholars came under their influence. Sephardic mystics, reaching Safed in Galilee, opened new schools from where the so-called Kabbala of Luria developed. Its concepts and offshoots are still alive today, not only in Jewish writings but in other philosophical, mystical and psychoanalytical works.

To complete the picture of Sephardic activity in the fourteen centuries of settlement in Spain, it could be useful to say something about daily life. Speaking various languages, having commercial and diplomatic contacts and being almost unrestricted in their activities, (they could own houses and land, were famed for viticulture, practised the crafts and liberal professions), they soon became middle-class both in Arabic and Christian Spain. They lived in fine mansions and possessed the money that governments needed, either for the reconquest or to develop the country. Perhaps they were not loved but they were considered a necessary evil and sometimes indispensable. Conscious of that, they lived in peace. Many of them wanted to enjoy life to the full and religious feeling weakened, with a certain agnosticism taking its place. They felt secure being in their own land from which no-one had ever driven them, even if every now and then persecution, a "mantanza" broke out, as in the crusade of the Pastorelli or during the Black Death, or under the influence of new monks coming from France.

Progressive Deterioration

In the fourteenth century signs of conflict became evident but the Jews did not take much notice. At the end of the century the monk Martinez Ferrant stirred up and provoked religious hostility, arousing real anti-Jewish fanaticism. 1391 is considered the year that already signalled the destiny of Spanish Jewry. At Seville 23 synagogues were destroyed and 4000 died; at Cordova 2000. Many, especially intellectuals and those in high places, followers of a certain "Averroism" and Agnosticism, were easily converted to save their lives and keep their position. The most important case is that of Rabbi Solomon Halevy, known by his Christian name, Pablo de Santa Maria; he was to become a great adversary of the Jews.

In 1412 anti-Jewish laws were issued from Valladolid, and in 1413-1414 there occurred at Tortosa a dispute on the theme of Messianism. In all these Pablo de Santa Maria was involved. As a result of this dispute other conversions occurred. The problem of the "Conversos" was born. Some emigrated in order to return to Judaism. Those who remained tried to insert themselves as best they could into the upper ranks of society, while the Jews resumed their activities under the protection of the government classes who re-established, as far as possible, the ancient liberties of the communities. At the same time various monks continued to stir up the people to "liberate themselves from the Jews". In 1474 the two Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united under Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile; their administrator was once again a Jew, Don Abraham Seneor, who was joined by Abraham Benvenista and in 1483 by Isaac Abrabanel.

Meanwhile the problem of the "conversos" was gathering strength and visibility and became the real problem of Catholic Spain. In 1449 at Toledo and Ciudad Real there took place a massacre with Judaisers being condemned to the stake. The statute of "blood purity" was promulgated, a truly racist decree. In 1478, under Catholic rule, the Inquisition was set up and put into effect in 1481 in Seville and Andalusia. In 1483 Torquemanda was named Grand Inquisitor, and the expulsion of the Jews from Andalusia was decreed. In less than ten years, from 1481 to 1490, two thousand judaising "conversos" were sent to the stake and fifteen thousand reconciled. In 1490, with the object of stirring up animosity still more against the Jews, the trial of Santo Nino de la Guardia was set in motion; in it two Jews and three "Con-versos" were accused of having killed a Christian child to take out his heart for sacrilegious use, and of having profaned the host. Meanwhile some Jewsremained court administrators and supplied money for the final war against the Arabs. The reconquest was in its last stage: Granada fell into Christian hands on 2 January 1492.

The Expulsion

The Arab occupation was ended. The ambition of the Christian Kings, who in former times had boasted of ruling over three religions, was now to rule over the unique Catholic religion and thereby to affirm, not only political, but above all religious unity. It was necessary, therefore, to resolve the Jewish and Muslim problem. The first to be dealt with was that of the Jews. The policy of protection became the policy of liquidation. On 31 March 1492 the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews was published. The Jews had to leave the country within 4 months, or be converted. Exile meant selling everything and carrying little away, without having anywhere to go. It was the Ninth of Av, 2 August 1492, when the last group of Jews left Spain, the land of their dreams, where they had lived without interruption for fourteen centuries, and which remained in their hearts and in Ladino, the familiar language, which they have spoken throughout the generations until today. Those who remained, who had chosen Baptism so as not to abandon their beloved land, paid with long years of penalties and persecutions, under constant threat from the Inquisition, which was ever ready to sacrifice them on the pyre in the name of a misplaced sincerity of faith. A long period of intimidation began in 1491 and lasted until 1834, the year in which the Inquisition was suppressed.

Tragedy for the Jews

The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain is always spoken of in terms of tragedy and indeed it was a tragedy and not only for the great number of people forced to take the road of exile. It is said there were at least 100.000. The first feeling of tragedy was born in the unbelievable moment when the Jews heard of the Edict and realized that any share in Spanish identity was now being taken away from them. The historian Americo Castro writes: "The Jews left behind a Spain largely Jewish, and set out largely Spanish". He captured in this statement the symbiosis and identity that had been created between the two cultures.

The countries towards which the exiles turned were:

1) Portugal, where they were welcomed mainly for economic reasons. However 4 years later in 1496 a policy of forced baptisms was imposed with unparalleled cruelty. Children were torn forcibly from parents who refused to convert. Where it was possible, many of them left Portugal and took refuge in other countries. They formed the active Marrano communities of Amsterdam, Hamburg and Antwerp; later they also arrived in England, the south of France and various Italian cities.

2) The countries of North Africa: Morocco, Tunis, Algeria; and further east in the Ottoman Empire: the Balkan Peninsula, Turkey, Palestine, especially Galilee (Safed, Tiberias).

3) Italy where they were established for a brief period in Naples, then in Rome, Venice, Ferrara, and later in Leghorn, where they created an active and remarkable Portuguese Sephardic community.

Those are the countries, but the wanderings of those 100.000 persons were certainly not easy. Many of them were penniless. They were cheated by unscrupulous ship captains, who often sold them to pirates. They were not readily accepted by many of the settled Jewish communities. If the Abrabanels could find safe refuge, first in Naples, then at Genoa and finally in Ferrara and Venice, many others had to suffer hunger, illness and death. The best-off were probably those who chose the countries of the Ottoman Empire, where they were welcomed without too many problems, perhaps for economic and administrative reasons. The Sultans in fact employed them for diplomatic contacts with the Christian world, and made use of their commercial, military and medical knowledge. One clear example is the activity of Jose Hanasi, a Marrano from Portugal who returned to Judaism at Constantinople together with his aunt Donna Gracia Mendes. He was the right hand of Sultan Selim II who named him Duke of Nasso. Having obtained a concession in Tiberias, he dreamed of bringing back the Jews to reconstitute a first little Jewish state in Israel, for which he is often considered a precursor of Zionism.

To conclude: The Sephardic diaspora took place in two phases: the first of Jews, the second of Marranos. The former centred chiefly in the Ottoman Empire and became famous for the Kabbalistic studies which developed in Italy and Safed in Galilee. The second turned rather towards Northern Europe and formed the important communities of Hamburg and Amsterdam. From there the return of the Jews to England was brought about through Menachem ben Israel. These Marrano communities gave a strong impetus to commerce and to the expansion of the countries in which they lived (cf. the Dutch East India Company). They also made an important cultural contribution. One need only mention Baruch Spinoza.

Some tragic material consequences and some more positive outcomes of this expulsion have been recalled. However, the true tragedy of the expulsion lies above all in what is called Rootlessness, the annulment of an identity, which was, at certain times, stronger even than identity with the land of Israel itself. For Sephardic Jews, the expulsion from Spain evoked feelings akin to those of exile from the land of Israel, so close was the bond. Even today, five centuries later, Sephardic Jews still speak their ancient Casilian language (Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish) within their families and sing the ancient cradle songs brought from Spain.

Tragedy also for Spain

But it was tragedy for Spain also and the beginning of its decline. In spite of the great geographical discoveries and the riches that arrived from America, Spain in the sixteenth century lacked craftsmen and merchants. Economic decline resulted from which it has recovered only in this century. The cause was the absence of the Jews from so many areas of productivity, the refusal of many Spaniards to engage in trades which, after the expulsion of the Jews, had become the domain of the "Conversos". Some of these trades were abandoned by the "Conversos", in the hope that their origin would be forgotten. Consequently Spain remained outside the main course of European history and capitalist development, as its relations with England and the Low Countries show.

It could be said that the Edict of Expulsion and the decision of the Catholic monarchs to establish a unified Catholic State, brought about "the problem of the relation between the ethics of Spanish Catholicism, the cult of purity of blood, the absence of the mercantile spirit, cause of the decadence that lasted for four centuries". Beatrice Le Roy writes: "The expulsion of the Jews from Spain was really an amputation. Spanish society of the fifteenth century [which was] so complex, had deliberately deprived itself of one of its components, and one of its most dynamic" (The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Berg International, 1990, p. 153).


The Sephardic Jews who landed in the Ottoman Empire (c. 40.000), experienced a period of important commercial, diplomatic and cultural activity throughout the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth, as the Empire began to decline, so did the Sephardic community and the communities of North Africa soon sank into real decadence.

Some Sephardic communities settled in Europe: France, Holland, England, Italy. The historian Cecil Roth comments: "They were, perhaps, the most vital element of the Jewish people". The Dutch Sephardic Jews founded the first Jewish colony in the New World at New Amsterdam (1654), today New York, and the first Jewish newspaper of the diaspora was published at Amsterdam La Gazetta de Amsterdam, 7 January 1675. About the middle of the 17th century, through the work of Rabbi Menachem ben Israel of Amsterdam, some Marranos settled in England where there had been no Jews since the expulsion in 1290. In France, Marranos who returned to Judaism settled in the cities of Bordeaux and Bayonne. Members of these communities held important posts even before emancipation: personalities like David Solomon, Moses Montefiore (envoy to the Leghorn community), Benjamin Disraeli in England, and in France the great bankers, the Pereiras, and the politician Adolph Cremieux.

Where are the Sephardic Jews today? Communities exist in the New World, from Tierra del Fuego to Canada. They are numerous, are involved in the development of the country in which they live and support the State of Israel. There is a real renewal of Sephardic activity and a reawakening of their unique identity, not only because Sephardic Jews represent the majority in the State of Israel, but because of the work of the reborn Sephardic communities in the two Americas and in Europe, now including Spain.

Because of this rebirth, the tragic historical expulsion can be objectively researched and the important role that Sephardic Judaism has played in European society and culture can be clearly acknowledged.

* Lea Sestieri Scazzochio is an Italian Jewish historian of Sephardic Catalan origin who has lived for a long time in Latin America. Author of several book in Spanish and Italian, she is very involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, giving courses in the Pontifical Universities in Rome and in the Jewish-Christian Friendship Association.

(1) see Sr. lone! Mihalovici, pp. 12-14
(2) Dhimmi Jews and Christians who were not converted to Islam became a dhimmi, protected, in exchange for a determined tax; The Protected enjoyed his public and individual rights and a relative freedom of worship.


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