Spanish Jewish Diaspora: The Sephardim

Figure 1.-

The Sephardic community which arose because of the earlier Jewish diaspora from the Middle East had a diaspora of its own. 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 convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that the Jewish religion should be banned in Spain. The two soverigns who issued a decree that all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity be expelled from Spain (1492). Ironically some of the Separdic Jes returned 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.

Expulsion from Spain (1492)

The ordered 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 of the numbers involved. There were about 0.6 million Jews in Spain. Scholars differ on the numbers of Jews who remained true to their religion and fleed fom Spain. We have seen widely varying estimates--0.1-0.4 million people. 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.

Places of Refuge

Ironically some of the Separdic Jes returned to the Middle East where th earlier diasporas had occured. 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.


Many Spanish Jews settled in nearby Portugal which had an afinity in culture and language. Portugal at the time still allowed Jews to practice their religion. This place of refuge, however, did not last long. Only a few years after Ferdinand and Isablla issued the expulsionorder, the King Manuel ordered the Jews of Portugal expelled (1497). King Manuel wanted to marry marry a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The condition for the marriage was the expulsion of Portugal’s Jews. The edict proved to be very different in Portugal. Very few Portuguese Jews weee given an actual option. Most were conveted to Chriustianity, often at he point of a sword. While few Jews were exiled as a result of the 1497 order, Portuguese Marranos subsequently did sek rfuge abroad in places where they could practice heir religion.

Islamic Lands

Many of the Jews exiled in 1492 settled in Islamic lands. Both North Africa and in the Ottoman lands of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Greece. Much of North Africa wa nder Ottoman rule, but Morocco ws independent. The treatment of the Sephardic Jews varied depending on where they settled. These exiles brought their unique culture, language (Ladino) and traditions. Most were more sophisicated and educated than the Jews already in the Islamic lands. Their skills and talents made an important contributions to the countries where they settled. Sephardic Jews lived, as dhimmis, often in relative peace with Muslim neighbors and rulers, although as in Medieval Europe there we periodic oybursts of violence, esoecially in North Africa and othr areas outside Ottoman control. Both Christians and Jews were considered second-class citizens, but they were allowed to practice their religion and engage in commerce under some contraints.

The Netherlands

A number of Portuguese Marranos sought refuge in the Netherlands. While they were at first ot permitted to openly practive their religion, thre was no Inquisition. And gradually Dutch officails allowed the Sephardic community to practice Judaism. The Sepohardic Jews played a role in the Netherlands successful coomercial oprations and shared in the benefits. Sephardic Jews looked askanse at Jews from Germany who entered the Netherlands. Reports from the 18th century indicate that Ashkenazi Jews desiring to pray at their synagogues were often forced to sit separately from the Sephardic congregation.

Latin America

Neither Spanish or Portuguese authorities permitted either Jews or Protestants within theie Empires. Marranos desguising their true Jew fatih did settle in both empires. Many of these Marranos practiced Judaism secretly. Spain introduced the Inquisition into its colonies causing Marranos desiring to retain their faith to find remote settlements.


A Sephardic community developed in Venice. This resulted from the trading contacts that Spanish Jews had developed and that some Marraos had maintained. Other such communities devloped in other important ports throughout Europe.




A Sephardic community developed at Bordeaux, an important Frence port.


Another Sephardic community arose in the German port of Hamburg.


The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. That proscription still stood at the time that Spain expelled its Jews as well as the time of the subsequent Marrano migrations. London developed into an important port and commercial center. Thus Sephardic Jews has contacts in London, especially the Jews in Amsterdam. Some Marranos this settled in London and secretly paracticed heir religion. This was possible in London because there was no Inquisition and after the Civil Wars a spirit of religion tolerance began to grow.

United States

Sephardic Jews also reached Nort America during the colonial period. The first Jewish congregation established in North America was Shearith Israel in New York (1654). It was the only Jewish congregation in New York until 1825. Then America's small Sephardic Jews were overwealmed by first Ashkenazi Jews from Germany. Than in the late 19th century and even larger wave of Jewish immigrants began from Estern Europe as a result of he Tsarist pogroms.


The Sephardic Jews not only took their religion with them. They also took the languages of Iberia--most notably Castillian Spanish. Many of the Sephardic communities, especially in the Meditarranean, clung to the Spans language. A Spanish based off shhot devloped--Landino.

European Sepahardic Communties

The European Sephardic immigrants spoke Portugese and Spanish their native tounges. They ldearned the local languagde an adopted mainstream Western European culture. Their commercial and other skills permitted them to prosper and the growng rule of law after the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries began to create an environment in which their lives and property were relatively secure. They founded many successful business operations and they developed important trade networks. Sephardic Jews because of their success develope as the European Jewish elite. Many persued secular educations and some amassed sizable fortunes.


The Sephardic communities in the Muslim world semed to have been more receptive to modernity than their Ashkenazi counterparts in Europe. The Zionist movement attracted adherents among Sephardic Jews in North Africa. Some Sephardic rabbis in the Ottoman Empire promoted Zionism. Considerable interest developed in both Egypt and Tunisia. Ottomoman authorities permitted the first Zionist settlements in Palestine.

Arab Anti-Semitism (1920-48)

With the conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, in part fomented by the Grand Mufti, and the rise of Fascism in Europe, anti-Semitism grew in the Arab world, although this varied from country to country. Some Arabs were opely pro-Axis while others supported the Allies or remained neutral. Support for the Axis commonly correlated with particularly virulent anti-Semitism. The major factor seems to have been who the colonial power was. Aftr the World War II and the creation of Israel, tensions grew and the local Jews were subjected to increasingly hostile treatment. Again this varied from country to contry. Most Jews thus emigrated. Many went to America or to a lesser degree Europe, but large numbers also came to Israel which placed no limits or restrctions on entry. Most were stripped of their possessions by Arab governments before being allowed to leave, although three were some exceptions such as Morocco. The North African Jews were predominantly Sephardic in origins.

The Holocaust (1939-45)

The Sephardim in Europe suffered the same fate as the other Jews in countries occupied by th NAZIs. Most of the Sephardic Jews and their communities perished. NAZI policy was to first target foreign Jews, which was generally more amenable to local authorities. But as the transports rolled on inexorably on, the local Jews were also transported to the death camps. Amsterdam Sephardic Jews were among the last to go, but along with most of the Dutch Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Israel (1948- )

Most of the European Jews who settled in Palestine and created the state of Israel were Ashkenazi Jews. They formed much of the Isreali establishment at the time the Sepahrdic Jews from North Africa began to arrive. Thousands of refugees arrived from the various Arab states. From Morocco alone there were over 100,000 but spaced out over much of the 1950s and 60s. Other Middle Eastern Jews came from the neighboring Arab counties (Lenanon, Syria, and Iraq) as well as Iran. Ireali authorities established transit camps. The immigrants were for some tme ependant on welfare. Conditions in the camp were very basic. Educational levels and language skills made it difficlt for many of these immigrants to fully participate in Isreali society. Many thus were forced to find menial and blue-collar jobs. Tensions thus developed between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israel. This has now largely disipated, but has not entirely disapeared. Here Israel's excllent educational system has played an important role. Sephardim are increasingly seen in professional capacities and occupying important positions. David Levy who was born in Morocco served as foreign minister. Moshe Katsav born in Iran was elected president (2000).


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Created: 8:34 AM 8/15/2007
Last updated: 8:34 AM 8/15/2007