Background: Jews may have lived in Spain before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. For example Paul described going to Iberia in 64 CE in Romans 15:23. 24. Anti-Jewish legislation began to appear with the Council of Elvira in the fourth century. The Third Council of Toledo (589) forbade Jews from holding public office, having sexual relations with Christians, and forcibly baptized children of intermarried couples. By the Eighth Council (653) all Jewish rights were forbidden.

The arrival of Islam in 711 marked the beginning of what was described as the Golden Age. Although still considered “dhimmi,” below Muslims, Jews were allowed to practice professions, served in the military and government. Scholarship flourished and over the next centuries Jews even adopted Arabic as their common language. Four centuries of relative peace ended with intra-Muslim conflict and, not surprisingly, the advance of the Reconquista, the successes of Catholic armies in pushing the Moors from Iberia. During these years the Jews suffered under Islam as they previously had on Christianity.

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During the early Reconquista the Jews were seen as allies of the Christians, 40,000 fought in the army of Alfonso VI which conquered Toledo in 1085. Although the Jews enjoyed some degree of autonomy, scholarship rebounded, the hiatus was short-lived, and gradually the ground for the Inquisition was laid. Edicts restricting Jewish practice and livelihood, forced conversions, pogroms in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed.

The more forced conversions, the greater the suspicion of the Conversos, the Marranos:

By the mid-15th century, hatred toward the Neo-Christians exceeded that toward the professed Jews.”

When the Inquisition was officially launched in 1478 its principal target was the Conversos.

Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, (Wikipedia)

The Inquisition, intended to root out Catholic heresies and heretics, was created through a papal bull at the end of the 12th century. Although the Inquisition of Spain is most commonly identified with the term, “the Inquisition,” the bull was intended to track down and put an end to heresy throughout all the lands of Christendom.

The Jews of Europe were under constant pressure to convert, were forced to wear identifying clothing, to sit in church as observers of Catholic services. Since conversion was typically coerced, sometimes at the point of a sword, the converts were always suspected of insincerity. Those most likely to be targeted by the Inquisition were the Conversos, suspected of secretly remaining Jews, of practicing Judaism in the privacy of their home while “passing” as Catholic in the street. But this was not always the case. The head of Poland’s Inquisition, John Capistrano, also known as the “Scourge of the Jews,” targeted both Jews and converts (See, Grosser, Paul and Halperin, Edwin, 1978, Antisemitism: Causes and Effects, p. 136).

In addition to its mission to track down heresy, the Spanish Inquisition was also used to unify Spain and consolidate Catholic power under the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Its primary target was the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. The Jews, that other foreign population, were given the choice of expulsion or conversion.

In the early years the Inquisition of Spain was most concerned with establishing the credibility of those conversions. As the years went by and some Conversos had risen to positions of authority within the Church itself (according to some sources the head of the Spanish Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada might have been descended from Conversos). The more Jews were forced to convert the greater and more universal suspicion by the Church of their sincerity, the greater the fear of “Jewish influence” within and outside the Church. This was the inspiration, the motor which drove forward the inquisitors. Tortured until they confessed their insincerity the Conversos were then burned at the stake based on their “confession.”

Portuguese Jews saw the Inquisition unfold across the border in Spain and expected it to cross the border. Many fled, some to the New World. The first auto de fé held in Mexico was in 1528, where two Jews were burned at the stake. Although the Church insisted on the Inquisition continuing in the New World practicality made the faithful and its officers rarely prosecute Conversos, or full Jews for that matter. These also provided warm bodies to do the labor, possessed skills needed to develop the economies of the emerging colonial project. And so,

social contacts between the Jews and their Christian neighbors in America during the colonial era were not marred by the religious intolerance of the Spanish Church symbolized by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.”

The dangers of the frontier, the need for sheer numbers made such a luxury impractical.

Estimates vary regarding the actual number of Conversos who died in the fires of the Inquisition. Based on statistics drawn from the records of autos da fé’, as many as 8,000 may have been burned at the stake. Jewish Virtual Library estimates that, in addition to “Conversos” directly murdered by the Spanish Inquisition, “Tens of thousands of refugees [expelled from Spain by the 1492 edict] died while trying to reach safety.” The common date representing the end of the Spanish Inquisition is around 1834. I recall having read somewhere that it actually continued into the early twentieth century.

Limpieza de Sangre: In response to fear of the “Jewish Influence” posed by the Conversos, the Inquisition took a step beyond determining the degree of sincerity of the new Catholics by extending their investigation into the degree of Jewish pollution, the pedigree of Catholics back generations. Purity of blood, or limpieza de sangre, became the hallmark of who was, and not, a Catholic.

“Now Jewishness is… a permanent inborn characteristic that even baptism does not remove… Those who wished to hold public office had to present a certificate … showing that there were no Jews in their lineage, that they were free of… mala sangre, bad blood (William Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism, A History of Hate).”

Limpieza de Sangre pursued Jews across the Atlantic, carried by the Conquistadors.
According to Grosser and Halperin, p. 154, conversion and assimilation

“were no longer a guarantee against prejudice and persecution. The Jewish taint survived and contaminated. In this sense the Inquisition [was] the intellectual and historical precursor of the racial anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries epitomized by Nazism.”

Four centuries after limpieza de sangre, German law adopted the principle and used it to determine who was, who not worthy of life.

Recent writings in this Series:

4. Foundations of antisemitism: The Gospels 

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