A brief history of Spanish Jews

August 30, 2007 13:02
2 minute read.


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Unlike other Western European countries, its Jewish citizens are still an enigma for Spain. Nevertheless, a Jewish presence in Spain can be traced back to the third century CE with the grave in Almeria of a child called Ana Solomon. Historians generally believe, however, that Jews first came to the peninsula with the Roman legions, followed by further arrivals after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. According to Israeli-Australian historian Yair Davidy, it is possible that the Tarshish referred to in the Bible was Tartessos, situated in the province of Cadiz on the west coast of Spain. In that case, the prophet Jonah was headed to Spain to be able to avoid his gig at Nineveh, and King Solomon, in the days of the First Temple, sent ships to a barely-populated Spain together with the Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre. American historian Jeff Malka says some Spanish-Jewish families claim direct descent from King David, basing their claims on the prophecies of Obadiah, who uses the name Sepharad for the land that Jews exiled from Jerusalem were to live in. In the 12th century, he adds, Spanish Jews appear to have made up 90 percent of world Jewry and lived not only in towns and cities, but also among the peasants in small villages. The Inquisition changed all that and even until 1865 - 30 years after its abolition - purity-of-blood laws had closed the doors to public positions, universities, religious orders and other institutions to those with Jewish ancestors. At the start of the 19th century, German, French, Moroccan and Gibraltarian Jews began visiting Spain on business and staying for protracted periods. This resulted in a royal decree in 1802, approved in 1816, prohibiting Jews from living in Spain. From this date, there are several cases of foreign Jews accepting baptism to be allowed to live within Spanish territory. It would take another century for the Jews to establish a viable community in Spain, with the first opening in Seville in 1914, and the first synagogue in Madrid in 1916; 1929 saw the appearance of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Spanish diplomats abroad saved thousands of Jews, mainly Spanish citizens, from the Holocaust. Even so, the ravages of the Spanish Civil War were to whittle the community down by 1935 from 6,000-7,000 - including some 3,000 refugees from Nazi Germany - to a mere 1,000. It wasn't until the 1950s that immigration from Morocco began to bolster the numbers. The '70s saw the start of Latin-American Jewish immigration, in particular from Argentina, with several Spanish descendants of conversos - Jews who converted to Catholicism to be able to live without persecution - deciding to rejoin the faith. The Iberian Peninsula is also populated with unknown numbers of crypto-Jews - an entire village in Portugal, Belmonte, turned out to be crypto-Jews in the '60s.

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