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1492: The Expulsion Of The Jews From Spain

September 6, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

May 1: The royal decree expelling unbaptized Jews from Spain is published.

The expulsion of the Jews from what was slowly becoming the modern state of Spain by King Ferdinand of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castile is one of the signature moments in the rise of Western racism. For that reason alone it’s worthy of inclusion in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s 1492: The Year The World Began.

But Fernández-Armesto uses his examination of that event to investigate and illuminate several other reasons for and consequences of the expulsion. Among them are:

*The multiple impacts of the decree on Spain –From every rational point of view, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain seems to have been a foolish and disastrous policy. The assumptions on which it was based were false. The evidence cited in its favor was faulty. The arguments used to justify it were unconvincing. The material cost to the Spanish kingdoms in wasted wealth and talent was incalculable. Instead of solving the problem of converso inconstancy, it worsened it by increasing the numbers of insincere or imperfectly instructed converts. In part, however, it has to be understood as a successful episode in a much longer and bigger story: the consolidation and homogenization of European states….

In one respect, for Spain, the effect of their policy toward Jews was positive. Spain derived a kind of bonus, in the form of the talents of former Jews who opted for baptism. The number of converts exceeded those of the expelled. So much talent, so much potential had formerly enriched the Jewish community. Now, by effectively compelling conversions, the monarchs garnered that talent, forcing former Jews into the mainstream of Spanish life…. (T)he scale of the achievements of former Jews and their descendants in letters, learning, science, and the arts was formidable—out of all proportion to their numbers. Converted Jews were the alchemical ingredient that made Spain’s golden age.” (p. 113-14)

*The degree to which Jews in medieval Spain had been a separate “estate” –Jews were exempt from tithes and, if they lived in their own ghettos (which by no means all did), were not obliged to pay municipal taxes. They elected the officials of their own communities. They enjoyed their own jurisdiction, and until 1476 they regulated their own business affairs among themselves according to their own laws. Even after that date, lawsuits between Jews were settled outside the common legal system, by judges specially appointed by the crown. The Inquisition—the tribunal everyone else feared—could not touch them unless they were suspected of suborning Christians or committing blasphemy. Because their own customs allowed higher rates of interest than those chargeable under Christian law, they had an advantage in any form of business that involved handling debt.” (p. 88)

*The degree to which medieval Spain had been a haven for European Jews – Iberia tolerated its Jews for longer than other parts of western Europe. England expelled its Jews in 1291, France in 1343, and many states in western Germany followed suit in the early fifteenth century.” (p. 92)

*Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews despite the financial cost to their realms – “Money grubbing was not the motive. By refusing a bribe to abrogate the decree of expulsion, the monarchs of Castile and Aragon surprised the Jewish leaders who thought the whole policy was simply a ruse to extort cash. The Jews were reliable fiscal milch-cows. By expelling those who worked as tax gatherers, the monarch imperiled their own revenues. It took five years for returns to recover their former levels….

…Jewish communal property was assigned to be held in escrow for settlement of Jews’ debts…. Jews could realize the value of their assets in cash and, by a modification of the original decree of expulsion, take the proceeds abroad with them, together with unlimited movable wealth in the form of jewels, bonds, and bills of exchange….

In every diocese, the monarchs appointed administrators to look after personal property that Jews left unsold at the expulsion and, when its value could be realized, to pay the proceeds to the expulsees in their new homes abroad, and to recover and remit unpaid debts owed to expelled Jews.” (pp. 93-4)

*The division of the Mediterranean into Christian and Muslim spheres of influence – “The most secure destination of exiled Jews, where their communities and culture found a ready welcome and were able to survive and thrive for centuries to come, was the Ottoman Empire—one of the world’s fastest-expanding states, which covered almost the whole of Anatolia and Greece and much of southeastern Europe. Ottoman rulers…maintained a culturally plural, confessionally heterogeneous state in which Christians and Jews were tolerated but were subject to discriminatory taxation and burdensome forms of service to the state…. Among the inducements that made Jews settle in Ottoman lands were fiscal privileges, free plots for housing, and freedom to build synagogues…. (p. 105)

Throughout the 15th century, the Ottomans—traditionally a land-based power—increasingly built up their naval capabilities, culminating with their defeat of Venice in the war of 1499-1502.

“…the Ottomans were elevated to something like superpower status—commanding force greater than that of any conceivable alliance of the empire’s enemies. In the new century, Egypt and most of the North African coast as far as Morocco fell under Ottoman dominion.

While the Ottomans took command of the eastern Mediterranean, Spain ascended to something approaching similar control in the western half of the same sea….

So in the aftermath of 1492, and partly as a result of the events of that year, battles lines were drawn in the Mediterranean for the next century. If neither of the giant powers that faced each other across that sea ever established overall supremacy, it was in part because sailing conditions in the Mediterranean naturally divided it in two halves. The Strait of Messina and the sea around Sicily is like a stopper, corked by the racing current and hazardous whirlpools against shipping in both directions…. The consequence of the stalemate between Spain and Turkey was that the unity of the Mediterranean world, of which Greek and Phoenician navigators laid the foundations in antiquity, and which the Roman Empire achieve, was never reestablished…. The sea that was once the ‘middle sea’ of Western civilization became and remained a frontier.” (pp. 111-12)

Other posts in this series:



From → Books, History

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