Promise and pain

A new tome traces peaks and deep valleys of Jewish life in Spain.

A painting by Moshe Maimon of a Passover Seder held by Marranos, or secret Jews, in Spain during the time of the Inquisition (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A painting by Moshe Maimon of a Passover Seder held by Marranos, or secret Jews, in Spain during the time of the Inquisition
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain is the story of the unique achievements of Spanish Jewry during almost a thousand years of their great political, spiritual and economic progress.
That period, of course, ended in 1492 with humiliation, persecution, exile and wholesale robbery. This is also the story of how Christians, for the first time in history, introduced racial theories, the purity of blood nonsense, the treacherous racial poison that still lingers worldwide.
Jeffrey Gorsky, a lawyer and US diplomat, is an experienced intelligence analyst.
During his consular service in Bilbao, he assumed that he was the sole Jew in town until a friendly priest told him that “mountains of Jews live here,” and quoted their names.
The fact that the priest regarded Christians, who converted 400 years earlier, as Jews aroused Gorsky’s interest. Inspired, he conducted painstaking, in-depth research, revealing to us the Jewish Spain in both its greatness and pain, a penetrating and frank historical study.
The remains of a third-century synagogue were discovered in Ekche, near the Mediterranean coast. At first the Visigoths, who replaced the Romans, treated Jews well. This ended in 612 CE under King Sisebut, who freed Christian slaves, forbade Jews from hiring Christians and instituted a death penalty for proselytizing. What followed were cycles of repression and tolerance until King Chintila required the Jews to convert or leave his territory.
In general, Jews were welcome in Islamic Spain, though under the dhimmi status. They had to rely on the protection of the Muslim rulers, but they retained their separate identity and community status and enjoyed over half a millennium of convivencia – Christians, Muslims and Jews living together. They accumulated wealth, developed intellectually and reached high positions in the administration.
It was, however, their dhimmi status, dependence on the whims of the local rulers and the occasional outbursts of hate by the local population that depressed them deeply.
The story of Samuel ben Joseph Halevi ibn Nagrela is the best example of the negative Spanish Muslim experience.
Born in Cordoba in 993 into a family of Levite Jews, he became the grand vizier of Grenada. His success, however, came at a terrible price. He broke the caliphate’s Islamic law of dhimmi subservience and his wealth bred a resentment that would rebound on his son, Joseph. A popular Muslim poet sang: “He laughs at us and our religion... sacrifice him for he is a fat ram and do not spare his people!” In 1056, the incited mob murdered Joseph together with all Grenada Jews, and stole their property.
Still, there were many great Jewish luminaries in those days: Yehuda Halevi, the author of The Kuzari, who became fascinated with the Khazars, a Jewish kingdom where people embraced Judaism and where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived successfully together. He dreamed and wrote about Zion and apparently died in Jerusalem. Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-970) served Caliph abd el-Rahman III as court physician and was his confidant.
Although Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, the Rambam, left Spain at an early age for Cairo, his religious and philosophical ideas came out of the Spanish traditions. He signed letters as Moses ben Maimon ha-Sefardi (the Sephardic Jew) and was the most important religious and intellectual figure of Spanish Jewry.
The breakup of the caliphate and the invasion of the intolerant North African tribes forced Jews to flee to Christian Spain. There, supported by the Crown for financial and another services, they found initial welcome, and by the late 14th century, Spanish Jews enjoyed a level of security, prosperity and power unthinkable anywhere else in Europe.
But their vulnerability again manifested itself in 1391 when a fanatic priest incited mobs against the Jews throughout Castile and Aragon with the demand: “Convert or die.” One-third to fully one-half of Spanish Jewry embraced Christianity, the greatest mass conversion in history.
The Catholic Church, well aware of Jewish success, started planting seeds of destruction against both the converted and the unconverted. This was achieved by public Jewish-Christian disputes, during which Jews, on pain of death by fire, had to be careful not to be accused of deicide. There were attacks on the Talmud and blood libel trials that made Jewish life progressively more difficult.
At first, both King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had good relations with their Jewish officials. They even issued several decrees to protect them. However, their treasury was empty due to the war with Grenada, and the Inquisition promised to fill their purses by the confiscated victims’ properties. The conversos (converts) could easily be accused of practicing Judaism in secret, while Jews could be tried for attempting to return them to Judaism. The combination of religious and financial considerations persuaded the king to request the pope to establish the inquisition in 1478.
The Edict of Expulsion was signed on March 31, 1492. All Jews were ordered to leave Spain. They were given two months to depart without their possessions. Many converted and stayed, but those who left lost everything and suffered greatly. Fez, the only North African country willing to take them, robbed and murdered the helpless refugees.
A LARGE PART of Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millennium in Spain is devoted to Pero Sarmiento’s and Marcos Garcia de Moras’s invention of racial exclusion laws. A local dispute in Toledo in 1449 led to the first example of legalized racism in history. From now on, both Jews and conversos were discriminated against on a racial rather than religious basis.
Christian scholars claimed that since Jews inherited the hatred of Christ, one eighth of Jewish blood was sufficient to be considered infected. Such laws initially spoke of a stain that passed through race or linkage, but quickly the concept of “impure blood” started to be taken literally.
Schools adopted the “purity of blood” standards. All kinds of fantastic theories led to a ban on marriages between “old” and “new” Christians. Conversos who were directly affected protested, but to no avail, and continued to live in fear.
Portugal followed the Spanish example in 1496, after mass conversions. Finally, Jews were exiled from the entire Iberian territory and from some overseas colonies as well. The fact that the priest at Bilbao regarded Christians who converted 400 years earlier as Jews proves how firmly he must have been convinced of his own “purity of blood.”
The author writes very well and with great feeling and understanding. Numerous quoted poems, thoughts and experiences of Spanish Jewry that he brings to our attention are an inseparable part of our national heritage. ■