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Spanish Jews

Spain expells Jews
Figure 1.--The synagogue became the center of Jewish communty life throughout medieval Europe. A synagogue is pictured here in this 14th century Haggadah. The rabbi holds the Torah. Note the Tablets of the Law beneath him. The men and women with children are pictured togther. For some reason the artist has not separated them. Note their colored clothes. This may have been an artistic convention more than a realistic depiction.

Jews have a long history in Spain. After the Roman supression of the Jewish Revolt (70 AD), exiled Jews established communities in Spain. There they were tolerated for centuries in both Islamic and Christian kingdoms. Jews developed a sophisticated culture in Spain. Many individuals made important contributions. Perhaps the best known is Moshe Ben Maimon (Rambam), a noted scientist, physician and a Torah Scholar. With Christian domination of Spain, the Spanish soverigns and the Inquisition pressured Jews to convert. Spain's Jews were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after the fall of Grenada and the completion of the Reconquista (1492). The expelled Jews became known as Sephardic Jews. They played an important role in the economic suucss and cultural life in countries like the Ottoman Empire and Netherlands. The expulsion of Jews and Moslems by Ferdinand and Isbellaoccured at the same time that Spain burst on the world scene with Columbus' discoveries. The gold and silver which poured in to Spain with the conquest of Mexico and Peru made Spain for a time a European super power. Spain's subsequent decline is in part due to the decling shipments of bullion. Many histoians believe that the impact of repressive policies such as the use of the Inquisition to curtail discent (and free thinking) and the expulsion of the Jews and Moslems were major factors in Spain's decline. Jews who converted were called Marranos. Many who did so continued to secretly peactice their faith. The Inquisition attempted to ferret out the false confesos. Eventually Spain's Jewish community was totaly destroyed. Generalismo Spain played a fole in saving thouands of Jews during the World War II NAZI Holocaust. Franco who was rumored to be of Marrano descent refused to turn over the small number of Spanish Jews to the NAZIs during Workld War II. He also permitted Jews to escape from occupied France and and transit Spain to safety.

Pre-Roman Era

Jews have a long history in Spain. Information on the pre-Roman history of Spain is very limited and even more for the presence of Jews during this period. The Celts settled in the Iberian Peninsula. Some scholars believe that some Jews reached Spain before the Roman period. Jews mayhave been present in Spain since the era of King Solomon (965-930 BC). More Jews may have arrived at the time of the Assyrain and Baylonian invasions. Little actual evidence of Jewish life exists, however, until the Roman era. Jews were probably present with the Pheonenciams trading ships that dominated the Mediterranean. The first Spanish Jews would have lived along the Mediterranean coast. Carthiginian general Hamilcar Barca conquered much of the Iberian Peninsual (237-228 BC). It was Carthage which founded modern Barcelona. Another important Cathaginian City was Carthago Nova (New Carthage). The Carthiginan success in Spain was one of the factors which precipitated the Punic Wars.

Roman Empire

Spain had been one of Cartahage's most important colonies and became an important Roman province. Roman armies defeated the Categinians a tribes which suported Carthage or resisted Roman rule. The Roamns suceeded in heavily Romanizing the Celtic population. After the Roman supression of the Jewish Revolt (70 AD), exiled Jews established communities in Spain. Again information on thes early Jews is vey limited, but traces of a Jewish presence has been foundd traces have been found Ampurias, Mataró, Tarragon, Adra, Malaga, Cadiz and Merida. One of the earliest definitive archeological find is the funerary stone of the Samaritan Justin of Merida (2nd century). This epitaph, along with those of the girl named Salomonula and the rabbi Lasies testify to the presence of Jews. We are not sure about the status of these Jews. Some after the Roman Revolt may have been slaves. Gradually they seemed to have prospered in Roman Spain. After Rome accepted Christianity, the Iberian peoples were Christianized. More historical evidence comes from this period. The Council of Toledo (305 AD) approved an edict forbidding Jews from blessing the crops of non-Jewish farmers and forbidding Jews from eating with Christians. The Council of Elvira, Granada, targeted several rulings at them, apparently concerned about judaizing. We do not know how the Jews of Roman Spain made their living, but among other occupations thaey seemed to be invplved with agriculture.The Hebrews had begun a cautious subsistence agriculture. The Church began to target Jews. The Jews of Mahón were forced to convert.

Visigoths (409-711)

With the colapse of Rome, Germanic barbarians swept into the Empire, eventually reaching Rome. It was the Visigoths, one of several Germanic tribes, that entered the Iberian Peninsula, in part because of resistance from the Franks. The Visigoths conquered Spain (409). The Visigoths set up a Christian kingdom in Spain. The Visagoths at first were tolerant toward Jews, treating them no different than their Christian subjects. Most Jews appear to have neen small landowners. Others were involved in trades and commerce. Ricared's conversion and the Third Council of Toledo brought the era of tolerance to an end. After conversion to Christianity they began treating the Jews harshly. The Visigothic Christian monarchs at the urging of the Church began to persecute Jews. The Spanish Church issued a canon prohibiting the marriage of Jews and Christians (589). Thiswas not a racial cannon, but a purely religious one. Jews who converted could marry Christians. Further moves against the Jews followed. The Council of Toledo ordered Jews to be baptized and gave them 1 year to do so (612). The Visigoths outlawed the practice of Judaism. Sisebut expelled the Jews. Egica pursued them and ordered them to live separately from Christians. Chintilla forced the Jews of Toledo to convert. The Church would seize Jewish children and have them raised as Catholics. There are archeological finds from the Visigothic period, including the Tarragon Basin and the Meliosa Memorandum. A stone has been found decorated with royal peacocks and a menorah (6th-7th centuries).

Islamic Conquest (711)

Muslim warriors known as Moors from what is now Morocco crossed the Straits of Gibralter and invaded Spain (711). The Moorish army consisted of Moslems of varying origins. The Moorish army was predominately Arabs, but included Berbers, Syrians, and others). The Moors at the Battle of Río Barbate defeated the forces of Roderick, the last Visogothic king (July 19, 711). The Moors moved through the Toulouse Kingdom destroying any armed resistance and over the space of a few years totally dominated the Peninsula. They then crossed the Pyranees amd moved into southern France. There they were defeated by the Frankish leader Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers/Tours (732). The Moors moved back accross the Pyraneees and never again seriously threatened France. The Muslim conquest released the Jews from oppression at the hands of Catholic Visigoths.

Moorish Spain (8th-11 Centuries)

The Arabs who dominated the Moorish conquest administered the Iberian Peninsula as part of Province of North Africa which was subject to the Caliphate of Damascus. The caliph began appointing emirs to rule Spain in his name (718). Spain was the most distant extension of the caliph's domians. Little communication was possible in the 8th century between Iberia and Damascus. The emirs often abused their authority, distant as they were from the watcheful eye of the caliph. Word did eventually get back to Damascus and the result was considerable instability. One report suggests that there was 20 Spanish emirs in a 40 year span. The situation was further complicated by the struggle for power in Damascus between the Ommiads and Abbassides. Yusuf, the last Spanish emir, supported the Abbassides, but many local officials supported the Ommiads. The Ommiads chose a family member Abd-er-Rahman to replace Yusuf and rule Spain. Abd-er-Rahman proceeded to found an independent emirate which was to develop into the caliphate of Córdoba (756). The center of Muslim Spain was in Cordoba, the capital of Al-Andalus. Here the Moors built the most advanced a civilization in Europe--the cultural capital of the West. And Jews played an important role in Moorish Spain.

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewery (8th-11 Centuries)

The Moors were much more tolerant than the Visigoths. Neither Christians are Jews were forced to convert and both were allowed to continue to practice thaeir religion, although under some contraints. Both Christians and Jews had a recognized status under Islamic law. There were "People of the Book". This meant that they were second class citizens or dhimmis. Whle second-class citiznship does not sound progressive t our modrn sensibilities, it was a definite improvement for Jews who essentially had no lega standing in Visigothic society. The Moors placed a range of constraints on their daily lives and religius practice and dhimmis had to pay a tax--the jizha. But dhimmis (Christians and Jews) were able to practice their religion as long as they did so unobtrusively. For Jews this was a vast improvement. For the first timr since the advent of Christianity in Spain, Jews could peacefully coexist and interact with their neighbors. Schlars describe this ra as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. Jewish cultural, intellectual and spiritual life flourished. The cultural and intelectual achievements wee especially impressive. Jewish scholars in Toledo, translated Arabic texts into Latin making them available to scholars throughout Europe. The Arabic texts include copies of Greek and Roman works that had been lost to the West. The Arab world at the time was much more advanced intelectually than the West. Thus the largely Jewish translations gave European scholars access to the scholarly work in the Muslim world. The Jewish translators also translated Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. This cultural cross-polinization was part of the phenomeal success of Morrish Spain. The Jewish work was critical. Few Moors spoke Latin and few European scholars spoke Arabic. Jews not only trabslated these works but used them in fields such as botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. The Jewish work in medecine was particularly important. Perhaps the best known Jewish scholar was Moshe Ben Maimon (Rambam), a noted scientist, physician and a Torah Scholar. Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970) was the doctor for the Spanish Caliph. Other important scholars were Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Judah Halevi. There were also noatable works of poetry. There was nothing like this scholarly brilliance from Christain Spain. Nor do we note anything like it across the Straits of Gibraltar in Moorish Morocco. Spanish Jews during the Moorish period lived in a kind of ghetto, the aljamas or Jewish quarters. The Moors granted than a kind of autonomy over their communal affairs. Jews had their own comunity court system caled the Bet Din. This system applied when the litigants wre both Jews or when Jews committed crimes against other Jews. Here rabbis served as judges and delivered both religious and secular decesions. Jews dressed like their Moorish neighbors, although they were not permitted to dress ostentaiously, such as wearing expensive material and fabrics like silk or furs. Some authors report athe Jews had to wear distinguishing clothing, such as a yellow turban. I'm not sure when that was introduced. Destinguishing clothing for he dhimmis were a topic Islamic scholars debated for centuries. Actual regulations varied over time and from place to plave. Jews were a largely urban population and worked as moneylenders, jewelers, cobblers, tailors, and tanners. Islamic culture influenced the Spanish Jews. Muslim and Jewish customs and practices to a considerable degree became intertwined. Arabic was commonly used for prayers rather than either Hebrew or Spanish. Jews before entering the synagogue, began washing their hands and feet--an Islamic ritual.


Spanish Jews flourished under both Muslim and Christian rule. The community rose from a small group to he largest and most prosperous Jewish community in the world, meaning Europe and the Middle East. There were, however, eras of persecution. Fundamentalist Muslims driove them from al Andalus inio the Christian north. Persecution of Christians and Jews under the Almoravids was severe. This contributed to the decline of both populations in Muslim lands. This was a major factor in the declimne of Muslim power. The largest pogrom of Jews in Europe up to that time occured in Granada when the Muslims murdered the entire Jewish population, some 4,000 people (1066). Jews fled Muslim lands in large numbrs. Curiously some who remained continued to reach high rank. There were also Christian attacks on Jews. An enflamatory preacher in Seville, a Christian monk named Ferdinand Martinez, preached for years against against the Jews and their 'hardened infidelity, their pride, their heaped-up riches, their greed and their usury.' [Graetz] Marunez incited months of violence against Jews in he cty (1391). It inituated a cycle of violence and hatred toward the Jews of Castile. At the time Jews were living peacefully with Christians and Muslims in Seville. They wre permitted to operate three large synagogues and 20 small ones. Both they and the Muslims were protected by the crown. Thousands if Jew were killed. Christian rioters forced more than a third of the city's Jews to convert. [Gorsky]

Reconquista (11th-15th Century)

The Almovarids seized power (1055). This was the beginning of the decline of Moorish Spain. The Christians conquered Toledo (1098). The next dynasty, the Almohads, followed (1147). This was another weak dynasty and Moorish Spain continued to decline. As Christian power rose and Moorish power declined, the Jews in the two areas were affected. The forunes of Jews in Moorish Spain declined while Jews in Chritian Spin prospered. Christian Spain as was the case of the Moors at first were realtively tolerant toward both Jews and Muslims. Both participated in the cultural, intellectual, coomercial, and financial life of Christian Spain. for example when a Christian prince wanted a translation of the Bible prepared, he turned to Jewish scholars, This spirit of toleration and coexistence gradually changed as Christians became the dominant military force on the Iberian Peninsula.

Rising Anti-Semitism

Christian Spain dominated the Iberian Peninsula by the mid-13th century. Only small Muslim enclaves heald out in the south. Christians began forceing Jews to covert. These conversos (new or baptized Christians) were called Marranos--a pejorative term. Many continued to practice Jusaism in secret and instruct their children in Judaism. At this time, many Church prelates believed that Jews could be shown the evil of their waves through discourse and debate. Jew were forced to participate in these religious discussions. The Christians scholars involved wee frustrated that the Jews were able to effectively answer their arguments. Attacks to Jews began to occur. Anti-Jewish riots were reported in several cities (1391). Details on the genesis of these riots are scarce, but they are likely related to Church preching.

Spanish Inquisiton

With Christian domination of Spain, the Spanish soverigns and the Inquisition pressured Jews to convert.The situation worsened for Jews with the advent of he Spanish Inquisition. The final episode of the Reconquista is of course the Spanish Inquisition. This was the effort of their most Catholic magesties, Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish Church to finally and irrevocably root out any lingering Islamic and Jewish influence in Spain. It is a sad conclusion to the history of the one corner of Europe where religious toleration and cultural openess existed over such a long period. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel established the Spanish Inquisition as separate from the Roman Inquisition (about 1480). They and suceeding Spanish monarchs appointed the officers of the Spanish Inquisition and they were not responsible to the Church in Rome. After finally defeating the Moors in 1492, the Spanish monarchy embarked on an effort to purify Spain. Spanish authorities dealt harshly with suposedly insincere converted Moslems and Jews ( conversos ) as well as illuminists. The Spanish Inquisition with its massive public autos-da-fé became notorious throughout Europe.

Expulsion (1492)

Father Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inqisitor, concluded that if the Jews remained in Spain, then they would influence the Marranos, the new converts to Christianity. He reached this conclusion in part because he had participated in the disputations (debates) with Jews and was frustrated that he could not convert Jews by his arguments. With the fall of Granada (1492), the last Moorish outpost in Spain had been reduced. Father Torquemada advanced the idea with the Catholic monarchs (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) that the Jewish religion should be banned in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella obtained financial support for the operation against Geanada from Don Isaac Abravanel and Don Abraham Senior, Senior Comptroller of Castile and Chief Rabbi of the kingdom. The Catholic Monarchs, none the less, were drawn to Torquemada's advice. Queen Isabella in particular was a fervant Cathlic. Ferdinand may have been more attracted by the money to be made. Torquemada concinced the two soverigns to expel the Jews. They issued the fateful Edict of Expulsion on March 31, 1492. Don Isaac Abravanel pleaded for mercy, but his pleas were rejected. The order allowed the Jews 4 months to leave Spain. Those who refused to convert had to sell their homes, businesses, and other possessions at low prices. There are no definitive records, but scholars believe that about 100,000 Jews remained true to their religion and fleed fom Spain. The expulsion is today commemorated on the holiday of Tisha B’Av. The expelled Jews became known as Sephardic Jews. They played an important role in the economic success and cultural life in Muslim North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, and other countries. The descendants of the Jews expelled by the Spanish and subsequently the Portuguese are referred to as Sephardim. "Sephardim" is the Hebrew word term for Spain and it appears in the Old Testament, one suggestion that Jews in Spain predate the Roman era.

Sephardic Diaspora

The Sephardic community which arose because of the earlier Jewosh diaspra from the Middle East had a diaspora of its own, ironically some returning to the Middle East. Most of the Sephardic Jews found refuge in the Islamic lands of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. In North Africa their treatment varied. They were better received by the Ottoman Sultan. They also found refuge in some corners of Christian Europe. The most notable was the Netherlands which was about to begin its own struggle with the Spanish monarcy.

Spanish Empire

The expulsion of Jews and Moslems by Ferdinand and Isbella occured at the same time that Spain burst on the world scene with Columbus' discoveries. Isabella and Ferdinand ensured that Jews would play no role in the Indies. Jew were strictly prohibited. And at times there were even attemots to ban conversos from the Indies. This proved futile ans conversos played a major role in both financing voyages to the Indies and actually laying the ground work in building the Empire. [Thomas] The gold and silver which poured in to Spain with the conquest of Mexico and Peru made Spain for a time a European super power. Spain's subsequent decline is in part due to the decling shipments of bullion. Many histoians believe that the impact of repressive policies such as the use of the Inquisition to curtail discent (and free thinking) and the expulsion of the Jews and Moslems were major factors in Spain's decline.

Inquisition Targets

Jews who converted were called Marranos. Many who did so continued to secretly peactice their faith. The Inquisition attempted to ferret out the false confesos. Spanish officials had put Jews under great pressure to convert. Legally Jews, however, did not come under the preview of the Inquisition unless they cmmited infractions like trying to convert Christians or a variety of lesser regulations. Once they converted, hoewever, they came very much under the purview of the Inquisition, especially if they secretly practiced Judaism or someone accused them of doing so. Conversos at first were given realtively little attenton. The Convrsos were no ministered to or instructed in their new faith. The situation changed dramatically in Spain after Martin Luthur launched the Protestant Reformation in Geramny (1519). The Church became increasingly less tolerant of non-conformity. And Jews wre seen aslittle different from Protestants. Spain had few Protestants, but qite a number of Marranos. Thus the full force of the Inquisition was losened on the Marranos. Eventually Spain's once vibrant Jewish community was totaly destroyed, surviving only in the Sepahrdic communities of foreign countries and throughly converted Spanish Marranos.

Spanish Morocco

Spain held tiny enclaves in Morroco for several centuries. Spain like France began expanding its North African possessions. The Spanish effort in Morocco began (1859). By this time France was already established in neighboring Algeria. The Spanish found that the Moroccans were no eay target, especully the Rift Tribes. Spanish units experienced heavy casualtes as they pressed forward. Admist the Arab/Berber hostility the Spanish encountered a small friendly population--tens-of-thousands of Sephardic Jews. They were the descendants of some of the Jews that Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled (1492). These Jews spoke Ladino, a Jewish dialet based on archaic but understandable Spanish. (Rather like how Sjhakespeare's English sounds to us.) Although the Arbs had taken them un,they were also mistreated. as a result, many were nostalgic about Spain, regarding it as their ancestral homeland. Many Spanish soldiers were releaved to find a friendly element, even a touch if home, amist the harsh, unfriendly environment populated with the fervently hostile Rift tribesmen prone to blast away at them with their obsolete if surprisingly accuate long-barreled flintlocks. The result was a momentous change in Spain. The intolerant Catholicism of Spain and the notorious Spanish Inquisition had mellowed by the 19th century. The Spanish royal government decided that having at least some allies in Morocco would be a good idea as the Rift Tribes continued to resist, often effectively. And in Spain liberal ideas were finlly percolating. A new Spanish constitution conferred religious freedom to 'all foreigners resident in Spain' (1869). This was a limited, but major step. It essentially meant that after 400 year, the exiled Jews of Spain were finally able to return to their ancestral homeland. As far as we can tell, few did. Spain established a formal protectorate in Morocco (1912). It followed a treaty with France over Morocco. As a result of the 1869 Constitution, the Moroccan Jews had full legal rights. Neither the Proctecorate or World War affected continued Arab/Berber resistance to the Spanish. And one of the young Spanish soldiers who fought the Rift Tribes and short-lived Rift Republic was none other than Francisco Franco. He destinguished himself in the fighting, rapidly advancing to become the youngest general in the Spanish Army. It is likely that Franco's experiences in Morocco and contact with Sephardic Jews there affected his thinking toward Jews, probably more profoundly than possible Marrano ancestors.

Citizenship (1924)

The Spanish government of Miguel Primo de Rivera took the surprising step issuing a decree that every Sephardi Jew was granted the right to claim Spanish citizenship (1924). Primp de Rivera's son, José Antonio, during the Second Republic founded the Falange -- the Spanish Fascist party (1933). Jose Antonio would develop a close relationship with Franco who would make the Falange Spain's governing party. Unlike Hittler and Mussolini, Franco was never the head of the Falange Party.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

The Second Republic's left-wing bent according to some sources encouraged thousands of Jews to immigrate to Spain. As far as we can tell at the time of World war II there were obly about 6,000 Jews in Soanin and this included some foreign Jews. Even so conervative right-wing groups accused the Second Republic of being part of a Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy. After Franco launched the Civil War, there was a Jewish involvement. The small Spanish Jewish populatiin had little impact. The interntional brigades that fought for the Reoublic, hoeever, included men with a left-wing orientation and this did include quite a number of foreign Jews.

The Holocaust

The NAZIs could demand that the authorities in occupied countries turn over their Jews and also did so in countries allied to them. And this usually occurred. There were, however, a few exceptions and Spain was one of them. (The others were Bulgaria, Denamrk, and Finland.) Hitler met with General Franco on the French border at Hendaye (October 23, 1940). Hitler had assumed that Franco would be a willing, if not enthusiatic ally given the assistance provided his Nationalist forces during the Civil War. Franco refused to enter the War or even allow German troops to transit Spain to attack the British at Gibraltar. Franco flatly refused. This was in part because of Admiral Canaris, the head of German Military Intelligence. Canaris had been apauled by the NAZI brutality he had witnessed in Poland. He had worked with Franco during the Civil War and had a close personal relationship with the Generalisimo. He told him privately that Hitler was now obsessed with Russia and would not risk any kind of diversion in Spain. Thus Franco refused to be cowed. Hitler went on to meet Musolini, who had also assissted Franco. He told Musolini that, "I would rathger have three or four teeth extracted than go through that again". Franco also refused to hand over Spanish or foreign Jews to the NAZIs. Franco in fact probably saved more saved more Jews than any other European country. He did close the Spanish border in an act of solidarity with the NAZIs, but allowed Jews and others with Portuguese visas to transit Spain. Historians debate the actual role of Franco and his ministers and their motivation. Because Franco himself is a highly controversial person, many authors have allowed their assessment of Franco himself affect their assessment of Spain'spolicie toward Jewish refugees. Thus available assessments need to be treated with caution. The consenus of historians suggest that Spain helped save 20,000-35,000 Jews by letting refugees pass through the country. Another 5,000 Jews were saved by Spanish diplomats.


Gorsky, Jeffrey. Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millenium in Spain (The Jewish Publication Society).

Graetz, Heinrich.

Marks, Scott Alfassa. "The Jews in Islamic Spain." Sephardic House.

Stillman, Norman A. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991).

Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spamish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (Random House: New York, 2005), 696p. Thomas does not discuss the role of conversos in the Indies as a eparate topic. On page after oahe, however, he does specify the converso family roots of the individuals involved in building the Spamish Empire.

Ward, Seth. Sephardim and Crypto-Judaism: Definition of Terms and Brief History.


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Created: 3:55 AM 7/16/2007
Last updated: 6:23 PM 8/1/2018