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Alhambra Decree is Set, 1492

On This Day in Jewish History: March 31, 1492


We’ve all heard of Columbus sailing the ocean blue, but that’s not all that happened in 1492. In fact, on this very day that year, the lives of over 100,000 Spanish Jews would be changed forever, as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Edict of Alhambra. It decreed that all Jews, and other minorities in the newly conquered united Spain who would not convert to Christianity, abandon their homes and possessions and leave Spain altogether. The expulsion produced a mass exodus of Sephardic Jews who would brave a long and perilous journey, many dying along the way, to the Ottoman Empire from Morocco to lands as far east as Ottoman Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Some opted to settle in Greek cities like Salonika and other regions then under Ottoman rule. Still others, in fact some 200,000 Jews decided to remain in Spain, opting to allow themselves to be forcibly converted to Catholicism, while continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Their descendants continued to defy the power of the Church and insisted on keeping some Jewish customs alive through the generations which today make up about 25% of the population of Latin America. But the injustice didn’t begin there, it began over a century before in 1391, when violent pogroms became more frequent and the office of the Inquisition made life impossible for anyone who was not a Catholic, especially the Jews. That was a time before Spain was Spain, when it was still a loose confederacy of several kingdoms and their provinces, most of whom had been ruled by the Islamic Moors for nearly 800 years. The 8 centuries from 711 to 1492, were known as the Golden Age of the Iberian Peninsula, lovingly called “Sefarad” in Hebrew since Biblical times when the first Jews arrived fleeing the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem circa 586 BCE. Sefarad which suggests “The farthest point,” because it was considered then to be one of the most distant lands from the ancestral homeland of Judea. Its Jewish inhabitants became known as Sefardim, and produced great culture, science and medicine. It was an age of remarkable tolerance and coexistence of several different cultures sharing the same land; notable rabbis such as Maimonides (aka: Rambam) and Nachmanides (aka: Ramban), among others, became legends of their time. All that came to a violent and dramatic close, with the marriage of two Christian monarchs, uniting two of the most powerful kingdoms in the Iberian peninsula and waging war on Granada, the last standing Moorish kingdom in Iberia.

It was the marriage of the century, as King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile got married in October of 1469, uniting both their kingdoms into one dominant superpower in the region. Encouraged by the Vatican as a seemingly conclusive sequel to the Crusades centuries before, the Catholic kings waged a continuous war termed “La Reconquista” (The reconquest) on the Kingdom of Granada to the South, where the Moors held on to the last independent territory of Islamic Iberia, and where Jews and other religions were still free to practice as long as they paid the jizya tax for non-Muslims. In October of 1492, Grenada fell to the Spaniards, a day still celebrated festively as Spain’s independence day. It was not so festive for non-Catholic minorities. Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Africans, and even Protestant Christians were all heavily persecuted, but none received more focus of the Church’s wrath than Jewish communities. On March 31st of that same year, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain Tomas de Torquemada, himself born to a family of Converso Jews, convinced the Spanish kings to decree the Edict of Alhambra. He demanded that all Jews who would not convert to Catholicism flea their homes and Spain altogether, leaving their homes and possessions to be plundered by the Church and the Spanish government. July 31st, 1492 also happened to coincide with the 9th of Av, the day of Jewish mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent long exile of the Jewish people. Before the edict Iberia was home to over 300,000 Jews. Of that population it is thought that between 40,000 to 100,000 Jews chose to leave rather than submit to the humiliation of conversion. Many died along the way, of starvation and disease, others chose to return and convert, the rest of the exiled Sephardim settled and established communities all over North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, to Salonika in Greece, throughout the Ottoman Empire still farther east into the regions of Syria and Iraq. A flourishing community of Sephardi Jews resettled in the ancient Jewish Kabbalist city of Tzfat (Safed) in northern Israel. The Office of the Inquisition had already been long established throughout Europe, they were a kind of “thought police,” relentlessly pursuing and punishing those who would dare express views that differed from that of the Church, and subjecting them to some of the most cruel and unusual forms of torture and even burning them alive in public spectacles known as “Autos da Fe” in Latin, meaning “Acts of Faith.” It is estimated that some 200,000 Jews chose to remain under Spanish rule, possibly viewing a quick public humiliation of a forced conversion ceremony to be preferable to spending years or possibly the rest of your life exposed to the unknown and very real perils of life in exile in those days. These “Conversos” or “New Christians,” as they were often called, adopted Catholic tradition in public, but continued to practice Judaism in secret, some teaching their children to fully embrace Judaism, others out of trauma and fear chose to completely abandon Judaism and only retain a few old Jewish customs, their children and grandchildren often growing up as Spaniards, and later as Hispanics throughout the Americas, practicing Jewish customs yet completely unaware of their Jewish identity, many of these formerly Jewish communities were often called “Marranos” by non-Jewish Catholic Spaniards, a derogatory word from Arabic meaning “Swine,” in modern times, scholars have taken to calling these communities, “Crypto Jews.” Thousands of Jews decided to seek refuge in the neighboring Christian Kingdom of Portugal, where King Manuel I was unwilling to expel the Jews from his kingdom, mounting pressure from Ferdinand and Isabella, however, caused him to cave in. In 1497 Manuel had all the ports in Portugal closed, demanding that all Jews be converted to Catholic Christianity or leave, since there was no way for the Jews to leave, he effectively forced a mass conversion on the entire Jewish population, Catholic priests carrying entire loads of holy water actually went around sprinkling people and declaring them Christians. Many were eventually expelled, and those who stayed suffered intense persecution even after public conversions. The years that followed, however, were the worst. The Inquisition ramped up its activities, actively seeking out and arresting countless individuals for the crime of being “Judaizantes,” (Judaizers). In 1506 over 2,000 Converso Jews were gathered in Lisbon, tortured and burned to death, an atrocity known as the Lisbon Massacre. These activities including mass public executions, went on for centuries in Spain and Portugal, and even chased Crypto Jewish communities as far as Central and South America, people who were otherwise just trying to survive, and keep at least some aspect of their Jewish heritage alive. Today the Spanish and Portuguese Governments have openly offered to grant citizenship to all descendants of the exile that began with the Edict of Alhambra in 1492. Jewish life is beginning to grow once more in “Juderias” (Jewish Communities) throughout Spain and Portugal. A chilling and prophetic letter was written by Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, a legendary Portuguese Jewish philosopher and statesman, in part stating, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, King and Queen of Spain, for I, Don Isaac Abravanel, speak unto you. I and my family are descended directly from King David. True royal bold, the blood of the Messiah, runs in my veins. It is my inheritance, and I proclaim it now in the name of the God of Israel.On behalf of my people, the people of Israel, the chosen of God, I declare them blameless and innocent of all crimes declared in this edict of abomination. The crime, the transgression, is for you, not us, to bear. The unrighteous decree you proclaim today will be your downfall. And this year, which you imagine to be the year of Spain's greatest glory, will become of Spain's greatest shame.”






(Abarbanel’s full letter can be read here!)

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