History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Spanish Expulsion.

The Inquisition was not ostensibly directed against professing Jews, but against neo-Christians suspected of being Jews. It concerned itself with the heretic within the Church, not with the "unbeliever" outside of it. But with this very programme, ultimately it reached the Jew. For these Maranos desiring that their children be secretly reared in the tenets of Judaism, needed the co-operation of their brethren in faith, to supply them with prayerbooks and manuals, to inform them of the occurrence of the Jewish holidays and to send them matzoth on Passover.

It is true that prior to the introduction of the Inquisition the Jews were confined to their Juderias in order to separate them from both Maranos and Christians. But even after the institution of the "Holy Office" its alert spies could not always prevent the prohibited intercourse. Some Christians still preferred entrusting their sick to Jewish physicians and had more confidence in Jewish lawyers.

Granada Passes from Moslem to Christian.

In the meantime a great event occurred that indirectly tended to bring the Jewish status to a crisis. In 1491, after a ten-year's contest, their last stronghold in the Peninsula—Granada—was taken from the Moors. It was in 711 that the triumphant legions of the Crescent had reached Spain. That advent (with which this work opens) made an epoch for the Jew, for Spain and for the world. Their nigh eight hundred years' regime which offered the favorable environment for a golden era for Jews and Judaism, and which had established a centre of enlightening culture in the midst of Europe's dark ages, came at last to an inglorious close. Spain was now a wholly Christian land.

But instead of success bringing toleration it brought fanaticism to a climax. This was its logic: "Why should a Christian realm any longer harbor the enemies of the Cross?" The Jew was a thorn in its side and helped to maintain the intolerable Marano situation. Granada had brought a rich loot to the State which, together with the booty acquired by the Inquisition, made the financial aid of the Jews no longer necessary.

So on March 31st, 1492, was issued the terrible proclamation that within four months the Jews must leave Castile, Aragon, Sicily and Sardinia, on penalty of death.


Who, at this critical hour, was at the head of Spanish Israel? In these bitter times, strange to say, Isaac Abravanel (or Abarbanel), a refugee from Portugal, was still engaged in the service of the State—for he was a financial genius. He was a scholar, too. He had written some Bible commentaries and some apologetic works in defense of Judaism, which were widely read both by Jews and Christians of a later day. For he was at home in the writings of the Church as well as of the Synagogue. He was also something of a philosopher, but he has little to tell us of value in that field. He lacked the logical and analytic mind to distinguish between rationalism and mysticism, though he seemed to grasp better, perhaps, than most Jewish scholars the historic background of each era. But his greatness lay in his knowledge of "affairs." Indeed he was the last of that line of Spanish statesmen that began with Samuel Ibn Nagdela.

It was this man who, now that the edict had gone forth, concentrated all his efforts to avert the blow. He appeared before Ferdinand—so runs one story—accompanied by some Christian friends and guaranteed to collect 600,000 crowns (30,000 ducats) if the Jews could be permitted to stay. Ferdinand, the avaricious, hesitated. Then Torquemada, the bigoted Inquisitor General, theatrically entered the presence of the King and holding aloft a silver crucifix, cried out, "Judas Iscariot sold the Savior for thirty pieces of silver; would you sell him for thirty thousand ducats?" That clever thrust told. It decided the really religious though fanatic Isabella. The Jews must go.

Jews Expelled in 1492.

Like Haman's edict of extermination on the Jews of Persia, fell the edict of expulsion on those of Spain. But there was no Esther on the throne to redeem them now. For fifteen centuries Jews in smaller or greater numbers had lived in Spain. In this as in some other European countries, their settlement preceded the introduction of Christianity. We have to go back twelve centuries to find the first discrimination against the Jews by the Spanish Church. As much as any land could be home, Spain was home to them; aye, and more than any other European land. For England had expelled her 16,000 Jews in 1290, and the embargo had not yet been lifted. Their history in France was so far largely made up of a series of expulsions. In the different German States their tenure had always been precarious. In Poland they had only settled for two or three centuries. In other lands their numbers were insignificant; while Northern lands they had hardly reached at all.

In Spain they had dwelt longer than Israel and Judah had lived in Canaan! For from the monarchy of Saul, about 1100 B.C. to the Babylonian exile was but five hundred years; from the Exile to their final overthrow and dispersion was barely seven hundred more. But no Titus' arch was to be erected to mark their banishment now. Yet next to that dispersion in the year 70, by Rome, it was, considered in all its consequences, perhaps the most terrible calamity in Israel's tragic annals.

The edict, cruel in its general character, was still more cruel in its details. For the avaricious Ferdinand utilized it as a means of despoiling the Jews as he had used the Inquisition with which to despoil the Maranos. The exiled Jews were forbidden to take with them gold, silver, money or non-exportable articles. Their houses and lands they had to dispose of for trifles—a vineyard for a piece of linen! Their synagogues became churches, their schools monasteries.

It is true that money can be transmitted by commercial notes or bills of exchange (invented by the Jews by proverbial necessity). But these are comparatively modern devices. We have already indicated in chap, xxxii that Italy was the only land where anything like these modern conditions prevailed. Where they prevailed in Spain at all, they were in the hands of Jews (and Maranos) who had developed a genius for finance; some slight avail was made of it now. How pathetic it is to read, that not allowed to take the precious metals or coin with them, some carried away fragments of the tombstones of their ancestors. No preventive edict interfered there!

In Aragon, where Ferdinand had more exclusive control, all Jewish monies and debts were confiscated—this as a means of forcing the impoverished victims into the Church. This brought out at least the lights in this dark picture. Persecution revealed the faith and heroism of this long-suffering people. For although even emigration was not made possible for all, as between apostacy and martyrdom few chose the former. Never, too, was the Jewish dictum "All Israelites are responsible one for the other" more nobly fulfilled. The rich shared with the poor the remnants of their fortunes "snatched from the burning." Maranos also aided their brethren at the peril of their lives.

It was on August 2nd, strangely coincident with the ninth of Ab (so fatally significant in Jewish annals), that Israel took up the wanderer's staff and left the inhospitable land. Not a triumphant exodus, "with a high hand," as from Egypt, but a humiliating exit. Thus (at the lowest estimate) two hundred thousand observers of what the Inquisition called "the dead Law of Moses" shook the dust of Spain from their feet without knowing where they would find a place to lay their heads.

The loss was not all theirs. Many towns dwindled into villages after their departure. With the expulsion of the Jews (and with the later banishment of the Moors) Spain lost her most industrious subjects—her merchants, her artisans, her scholars, and her healers. Retribution was to come, but not at once. The new wealth, the new conquests, the acquired realm beyond the seas, all brought for a while greater prestige to Spain and she reached her zenith when her Charles V was chosen Emperor. Then came the anti-climax. The Inquisition that temporarily brought wealth to Spain ultimately ruined it.

Havens of Refuge.

To follow the exiles. Many took refuge in Portugal, and of their fate we will tell in the following chapter. Some twelve thousand were given a short respite in Navarre. But heartless Ferdinand followed them there and compelled Navarre to offer them choice of baptism or exile. The rest had to embark in the ships provided by the king to sail to whatever ports would give them an entry. But open doors were few. Overcrowding in the ships brought the natural consequence of contagious disease, which would bar admission to refugees even today. Some of the hapless exiles had to encamp in open plains, like the earlier fugitive Israel in the wilderness, in earlier flight from Egypt. Many starved to death. Many to save themselves from starvation returned in despair to Spain to accept Christianity. It meant bread for their children. Some of these may have gone to swell the ranks of Maranos elsewhere.

Italy, the progressive, for the most part, received them kindly. Naples hospitably opened its doors. Nor would its humane king drive them forth—in spite of the protests of his people, when pestilence, due to their treatment on the ships of passage, broke out among them. He even established hospitals for their sick. Hither came Abarbanel, not too despairing of heart to continue his literary labors. Great men are rarely allowed to linger in obscurity; just as he was chosen by the Spanish State when driven from Portugal, so now he was offered a post of financial responsibility in Naples when driven from Spain. Fresh woes yet awaited him and his more scholarly son Leon. In the evening of his life we find adverse fortune had driven him to Venice. Even here his genius for financial administration singled him out for distinction and counsel.

Across the narrow stretch of the Mediterranean to Africa, many refugees sailed. But only permitted to build huts outside the town walls, many starved to death and some children were sold as slaves.

We have not space to tell of the sufferings and indignities they encountered when knocking at the doors of most of the "civilized" nations of the world. When nature ceased her ravage with famine and plague, man began with lust and greed. They well might have cried with the Israel that fled from Egypt: "Were there no graves in Spain that we need have left it to be slain in other lands?"

Genoa, unlike Naples, only allowed them to encamp on the shore. When their starving children drifted into the town they were given bread on condition of baptism. The renunciation of Judaism was also the basis of admission at other ports. In some, their own brethren were induced to reject them for fear of the plague. But the compassionate Jews of Greece sold their synagogue ornaments to feed their brethren and redeem them from slavery.

Well treated in Spain while it was Moslem, it was a Moslem land that now gave them heartiest welcome—Turkey. The Sultan Bajazet II threatened with death whoever dared oppress them. The bulk of the Jews in Turkey to-day, or in the larger Turkey of yesterday, are descendants of the exiles from Spain.

The wanderings of smaller groups we cannot follow in detail, nor have we space to record their privations and sufferings, of which stories have come down to us from many quarters and in many forms. Spanish exiles were to be found in Alexandria and Morocco in Asia Minor, in the East and the West Indies, in the Old and the New World.

In North and South America those denied the right of being allies of Spain at home became its rivals abroad—diverting its trade to Holland and Italy. Thus was Israel enabled to show gratitude to its friends and visit retribution on its foes.

Lines on the Expulsion.

Look, they move! No comrades near but curses;

Tears gleam in beards of men sore with reverses;

Flowers from fields abandoned, loving nurses;

Fondly deck the woman's raven hair.

Faded, scentless flowers that shall remind them

Of their precious homes and graves behind them;

Old men, clasping Torah-scrolls, unbind them,

Lift the parchment flags and silent lead.

Mock not with thy Height, O sun, our morrow.

Cease not, cease not, O ye songs of sorrow;

From what kind a refuge can we borrow,

Weary, thrust-out, God-forsaken we?

Could ye, suff'ring souls, peer through the Future,

From despair ye would awake to rapture;

Lo! The Genoese boldly steers to capture

Freedom's realm beyond, an unsailed sea!

Translated by Minnie D. Louis.


The Expulsions of Jews and Moors:—As late as 1480 the Spanish Cortes decided that Hebrews and Mohammedans should be assigned certain districts, where they could live freely and build synagogues and mosques. Therefore, Ferdinand did not consult the Cortes on the edict of expulsion.

The expulsion of the Moors of Granada was in violation of treaty, since they had yielded on condition that religious liberty should be granted to them and their posterity. Ferdinand and Isabella took an oath to that effect. But the Primate of Spain, Ximenes, told them they were under no obligation to tolerate the Moslem. Therefore, when the Moors resisted his attempt to force Christianity upon them, he informed the monarchs that their rebellion absolved them from their compact.

The expulsions were followed by the decline of civic liberty of the Spaniards. Read Religious Intolerance in Spain. De Castro.

Theme for Discussion:—To what extent may Spain's decline be attributed to the banishment of the Jews and Moors?