The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)
Return of Spain's Sephardim
Steven Philip Kramer
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
In November of last year, Spain's government announced its intention to make amends for one of the greatest injustices in the nation’s history. The ministers of justice and foreign affairs promised an easing of naturalization requirements for descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. (Portugal, which banished its Jewish population in 1497, followed suit by speedily passing a law that granted the same right to members of the Portuguese Jewish diaspora.) Slight though it might have seemed, Spain’s proposed act of restitution signaled a real commitment to righting an old and grievous wrong.
For centuries before King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile acceded to the request of the Spanish Inquisition to expel all Jews who had not converted to Christianity, the Iberian Peninsula had been home to one of the largest and most dynamic Jewish communities in the world. First under a succession of Muslim caliphs who ruled what was known as Al Andalus (the present-day region of Andalusia), then in regions slowly reconquered by Christian forces, Jews played a vital role in the intellectual, cultural, administrative, and commercial life of Spain, not least as intermediaries between the frequently antagonistic Christians and Muslims. The courts and great urban centers of Córdoba and Toledo shone all the more brilliantly because of the ongoing contributions of Jewish scholars, translators, craftspeople, bankers, physicians, and philosophers.
The “Golden Age” for Spanish Jewry and the atmosphere of convivencia, or coexistence, began to fade under the later and less enlightened Muslim rulers of the twelfth century. Conditions rapidly worsened in the fourteenth century; popular anti-Semitism fanned by Christian mendicant orders led to widespread massacres of Jews in 1391. Faced in some cities with the choice of death or conversion, many Jews accepted baptism. But after baptism, there was no going back to Judaism—at least not openly. These converted Jews, or conversos, were caught between their official Christian identity and their deeper ties to Judaism and the Jewish community. Many of them continued to practice Judaism secretly; indeed, the Inquisition was established in 1478 to prosecute suspected backsliders. Finally, in 1492 it was decided that the only way to “solve” the converso problem was to expel all unconverted Jews. Approximately 100,000 left the country, many dying in their attempts to find refuge. The more successful settled in neighboring Portugal (if only briefly) and around the Mediterranean basin, especially in the lands of the Ottoman Empire, where they were cordially received. Eventually establishing communities farther afield in the Americas and northern Europe, these Jews and their descendants became known as Sephardim (after Sepharad, a biblical Hebrew word eventually applied to Spain), and distinguished themselves through their worldly and intellectual achievements....