The Expulsion

“The expulsion of the Jews from Spain was brought about by essentially the same factors that caused their expulsion from England and France and other places in Europe. It was caused by the completion of a historical development that began with the Kings’ support of the Jews against a popular opposition, which was originally minor, and ended with the withdrawal of the royal support when that opposition became intense and widespread, and assumed a revolutionary character. In Spain the kings’ support of the Jews lasted longer than anywhere else...” – B. Netanyahu

So writes Professor Benzion Netanyahu in his 1,400-page study Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain.[i] Netanyahu is one of many scholars, several of them Jews, who find little or no fault in Queen Isabel regarding the expulsion of the Jews. The Queen’s priority had to be public order, the defence of innocent life and the integrity of Spain.

The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306 and from the Italian duchies of Parma and Milan in 1488 and 1490. Monarchs of various European countries, citing threats to Christianity were urging Spain to act likewise. In Castile there were nine million Christians and perhaps 1-200,000 Jews. They were killing each other. This blood-letting began long before Isabel was born and by the time she came to the throne, despite all her efforts to stop the killing and the measures she took to protect the Jews, the killing continued. Christians and Jews would not desist from attacking each other and it is fanciful to think the queen could do anything more than she did. It was obvious to the royal court that the newly-united state was vulnerable to internal disintegration or to re-conquest by Muslims. Both of these would carry an enormous cost in life. The Christians and the Jews had to be separated. Isabel saw no other choice but to rescind the permission of the Jews to stay in Spain.

The Jews were not citizens of Spain. By royal indult they had been granted leave to remain on the dual conditions that they not revile the Christian religion and that they not proselytise. Both conditions had been persistently broken opening a legal course for the Kings to suspend the permission of the Jews to remain. Thus the “expulsion” of 1492 was more correctly the withdrawal of the Kings’ protection. Among the strongest advocates for this were many former Jews. Tomas de Torquemada and Hernando de Talavera, both of Jewish descent and intimate confidants of Queen Isabel, pressed for expulsion. King Ferdinand became in favour of the action but he had not the power to rule on it without Isabel. Finally she acted by giving the Jews three months notice to leave the country.

The decree was published on March 31st in the year of Discovery, 1492. It established that:

“the Holy Catholic and evangelical faith should be preached to all the Jews in Castile, and that it was necessary to allow them time until the end of July to be baptized or to leave the country forever.”

This decision caused grievous distress to Jewish families. [ii] Tens of thousands converted to avoid expulsion.[iii] At most about 30,000 households preferred to leave. Kamen’s research puts the figure at less than 40,000 individuals. When it became clear that the Jews needed more than three months to prepare, the deadline for leaving was postponed. An edict of 14th May allowed the Jews to sell their land. All debts owed to them were ordered to be paid. When the expulsion came many properties went for very low prices. But Isabel ordered that anyone who stole from the Jews at this time would suffer a penalty of death. The law was enforced. Royal escorts were also appointed to guard those departing—though some of these robbed their charges at the end. Those who were caught were punished.

The expulsion itself was heart-breaking and pained Queen Isabel. The royal chronicler Bernáldez described what happened. The Jews:

“confiding in their vain blind hopes left the lands of their birth, children and adults, old and young, on foot and in wagons, and the caballeros on asses and other beasts, and each journeyed to a port of embarkation. They went through roads and fields with many travails and [mixed] fortunes, some falling, others rising, others dying, others being born, others falling sick, so that there was no Christian who did not feel sorry for them and always invite them to be baptized. And some sorrowfully converted, but very few. And on the way the rabbis heartened them, and had the women and youths sing and play tambourines to cheer the people, and so they went through Castile and arrived at the ports…When those who went to embark arrived at Cádiz or Puerto de Santa María and saw the sea, they shouted loudly and cried out, men and women, great and small, in their prayers demanding mercy of God, and they expected to see some marvel of God and that he would open a path through the sea for them…”[iv]

In Genoa a diplomat who saw refugees arriving commented:

“no one could witness the sufferings of the Jews without being moved...They could have been mistaken for wraiths, so haggard and emaciated did they look, undistinguishable from dead men.”[v]

While at sea some of the Jews were robbed by pirates off the Moroccan coast, and others who landed in North Africa received from the Muslims gruesome treatment, being savaged and raped “in the sight of their fathers and husbands”.

Many thousands returned to Spain to be baptised. The expulsion was a grievous tragedy. It is very important to seek out the causes. To blame Isabel is not only an injustice to her, but worse it blocks the way to the truth, thus allowing evil to recur.[vi] Kamen writes, “[Ferdinand] and Isabella may have been zealous Catholics, but they were by no means anti-Jewish or even anti-converso.”[vii]

Why the Expulsion Happened
It is worth establishing that the reason for the expulsion was not economic. As in other European countries of the time (and in keeping with derivative customs laws today) there was a general law against removing gold or silver from the country. However Jews were permitted to make transfer money abroad before leaving. Although there was robbery and gross defrauding of the leaving Jews, it is untenable to say the expulsion was done for financial gain. Kamen cites Maurice Kriegel:

“The decision to expel, however, was the crown’s alone, and it appears to have been taken for exclusively religious reasons: there are no grounds for maintaining that the government stood to profit, and Ferdinand himself admitted that the measure hurt his finances.”[viii]

A more credible contributing factor to the expulsion was concern for national security. The victory over the Muslims in 1492 was tenuous, as future uprisings proved. Muslims were on the advance in this period across vast swathes of Christendom. A generation earlier all Christendom had been shaken when the Muslims took Constantinople. Also of pressing concern were:

“the ruthless victories of the Grand Turk, Mohammed II, who, angered by his failure to storm Rhodes, sent his fleet westward, ravaged the coast of Apulia, and on August 11, 1480, took the city of Otranto in the Kingdom of Naples. Nearly half the civil population of about 22,000 were butchered in cold blood, while the Archbishop and priests were slaughtered after the most brutal tortures.”[ix] [A bishop was sawn in half.]

Before and after 1492 Jews served as spies for Muslim raids on Spain.[x] If the Jews on behalf of Jewish interests harboured spies, then they all became liable. Many modern states enjoy such stability and resources that it appals us to think of collective punishments. But in the Middle Ages people shared the fate (the favour or punishment) of the lords and leaders to whom they were loyal.

Even without the Muslim dimension, the core problem was a powerful body of people said to be one thing—loyal Christians—but inextricably mixed with another—Judaizers who harboured an ambitious agenda for political domination. The Judaizing movement was not an innocuous attempt to spread a particular faith.[xi] But it combined pervasive undermining of the Catholic Church with aspirations for a New Jerusalem. There may never have had a chance for this to succeed, but the attempt and the popular reaction against it, was causing uncontrollable bloodshed and instability across Spain. Thus “Ferdinand and Isabella did not cease to protect their Jews while simultaneously trying to eliminate Judaizing among the conversos.”[xii]

It is difficult for us today to understand how closely political and religious law were interwoven in the Middle Ages.[xiii] The State was built upon Catholic foundations. The monarch’s authority was God-given. An enemy of the Church was an enemy of the State. Powerful groups of conversos and Jews sought to weaken the Church in Spain. Isabel first sought to minimise the damage they could cause. She further sought, through the Inquisition, to identify those who were guilty so that the innocent need not be punished with them. But Spain lacked the apparatus to succeed in this.[xiv] As a Catholic sovereign, Isabel opposed all attacks on the Church and on Spain. Faced with escalating riots, bloodshed and potentially catastrophic disunity, even the disintegration of Spain, Isabel resorted to ordering the Jews to leave.[xv]

Norman Cantour concludes that the expulsion of the Jews happened, ostensibly at least, due to fear of Jewish influence on the loyalty and religious orthodoxy of many powerful conversos:

“The demand for expulsion of the Jews in the 1490s was justified on the grounds that as long as there were observant Jews in Spain, the converts would be tempted to return secretly to their religion, would be corrupted in their faith to betray Christ.”[xvi]

This is supported by the expulsion edict itself, which gives as the principle cause:

“the great harm suffered by Christians from the contact, intercourse and communication which they have with the Jews, who always attempt in various ways to seduce faithful Christians from our Holy Catholic Faith...The only solution to all these ills is to separate the said Jews completely from contact with the Christians, and expel them all from our realms.”[xvii]

In an explanatory letter sent the same day as the edict was promulgated, the Catholic Kings made their ultimate motive very clear, saying of the expulsion: “we do so despite the great harm to ourselves, seeking and preferring the salvation of souls above our own profit and that of individuals.”[xviii] An examination of Isabel’s life reveals the salvation of souls was indisputably her deepest pre-occupation.

Isabel was no fool. She never attempted to force the conversion of individuals and nor did she attempt to enforce religious unification of the state. But she was dealing with a crisis. So intense did the conflict become that, having tried everything else, Isabel’s only remaining answer was separation.

[i] Netanyahu p.1091.

[ii] For the number of Jews who left Spain Norman Cantor refers to Henry Kamen’s studies of “…around 1990 on the reality of the Spanish expulsion of 1492, placing this famous event in the context of Iberian culture and society and also greatly reducing the numbers of Jews putatively departing in that tumultuous year, from the traditional 300,000 to the much more conceivable 40,000…”

[iii] Joseph Ha Cohen and Rabbi Capsali in David Raphael, The Expulsion 1492 Chronicles, (Hollywood, 199) p.17, 106

[iv] Andrés Bernáldez, Memorias del reinado de los Reyes Católicos

[v] Angél Alcalá, ed., Judiíos, serfarditas, conversos (Valladolid, 1995)

[vi] To fully understand the conflict between Jews and Christians in Spain we should account for supernatural evil. It bodes ill to blame just the Jews and inane to blame only Christians. Furthermore, it is wearisome to blame Queen Isabel who by all evidence was such a virtuous woman. What made the situation intractable? What made every attempt at an agreeable accommodation fail? What drove the two sides together to clash so murderously? Part of the answer is Satan. Satan is the explanation for anti-Semitism, and Satan is the explanation as to why a certain number of Jews—in every generation for 2,000 years—has hated Jesus Christ. Besides all the Jews who desire peaceful co-existence, besides all the Jews who love God so ardently they have no moment for cruelty, there are nevertheless those who give vent and expression to their hatred of Christ no matter what trouble this causes. Satan would have the two peoples destroy each other.

[vii] Kamen, p.45

[viii] Ibid p.20, cf.Maurice Kriegel, La prise d’une décision: l’expulsión des juifs d’espagne en 1492, RH, 260, 1978

[ix] Walsh, Characters, p.151

[x] Powell, p.55

[xi] Judaism does not seek to propagate itself through evangelisation; it is an inheritance.

[xii] Kamen, p.61

[xiii] Even in the eighteenth century the ‘liberal’ Jean Jacques Rousseau held in his Contrat Social: “there is a profession of purely civic faith the articles whereof it is for the Sovereign to determine. He can force no one to believe in them, but can exile all those who do not. And should any one, after publicly acknowledging these dogmas, behave as if he did not believe in them, let him be punished by death; he has committed the worst of crimes; he has lied before the laws.” Quoted by Madariaga, Essays, p.153

[xiv] Police forces as we know them today, capable of investigating each individual member of a group, did not even exist.

[xv] It is worth recalling that Spain had only just been united. Before Isabel’s reign the peninsula comprised several large and separate kingdoms, and these were largely in a state of chaos.

[xvi] Cantor, p.189

[xvii] Patronato Real, leg. 28, fol. 6, CIC, IX, 716, pp.392-295

[xviii] Pilar Léon Tello, Judíos de Toledo, I, p.347

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