Jews, Expulsion of (Spain; Portugal)

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JEWS, EXPULSION OF (SPAIN; PORTUGAL). The Iberian kingdoms were neither the first nor the last to expel their Jewish populations: England expelled its Jews in 1290, France expelled its Jews in 1306, and periodic expulsions of the Jews took place across Europe throughout the early modern period. But the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497, and from Navarre in 1498 has long been seen as a critical turning point in the history of Iberia and in the history of Sephardic or Spanish Jewry.


Historians continue to debate the causes of the expulsions in Iberia. Ferdinand and Isabella's actions in Spain regarding the Jews served as the catalyst for expulsions in the rest of Iberia, and so all the Iberian expulsions must be seen in the broader context of the reforms of their reign. Isabella fought a civil war with her niece to gain the crown of Castile after her half-brother, Henry (Enrique) IV, died in 1474. Isabella's husband, Ferdinand, inherited the crown of Aragon in 1479. Through their marriage they united their two kingdoms in what became known as Spain, but civil unrest continued for years. Only in the 1480s did Isabella and Ferdinand begin to exert authority over their dominions and to institute new methods of legal, bureaucratic, and institutional control. Furthermore, by 1482, Ferdinand and Isabella had begun a fierce war against the Muslims of Granada. In Castile, Isabella also engaged in an extensive propaganda war, justifying the legitimacy of her own reign at the expense of her half-brother's.

Jews and judeoconversos (Jews who converted to Christianity and their descendents; also known as New Christians) came to occupy an important place in Isabella and Ferdinand's program of reform. Not only were there many Jews and conversos in Ferdinand and Isabella's court, but anxiety about the place of Jews and conversos in society was growing in the second half of the fifteenth century. Isabella and Ferdinand received permission from the pope to found their own Inquisition in 1478 precisely to punish and reform those New Christians who were believed to observe Jewish rites in secret. Many so-called "Old Christians" fearedrightly or wronglythat conversos were not genuine Christians and could not be trusted in religious or political terms. Some Old Christians at the time laid the blame for this at the feet of the Jews who might encourage New Christians to Judaize as well as serve as a source of information on the details of Jewish observance. At the same time, Isabella in particular was convinced that the Apocalypse was nearing, an event that would involve mass conversion of the Jews. Most scholars, therefore, have explained the motivation for the expulsion in the context of anxiety about Jews and conversos. Many scholars affirm that the true motive was not expulsion per se, but rather to encourage conversion of the remaining Jews in Iberia. Others hypothesize that the expulsion was a measure designed to help New Christians avoid the temptation to revert to Judaism. Once there were no Jews to encourage conversos to practice Judaism, New Christians might assimilate more fully to Christianity. Still other scholars have posited that converso officials encouraged the expulsion of Jews to protect their own position in society, but this could not be the sole explanation of the expulsion.


The decree ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Spain was issued 31 March 1492, though it was not officially announced in many cities until several weeks later. Jews were given six months to leave. The decree met with immediate protest in some quarters by those who thought that the kingdoms should not have expelled such "industrious" people. Indeed, some of Ferdinand and Isabella's most important advisers, such as Don Isaac Abravanel, emigrated. Others worried that the decree might provoke anti-Jewish violence, which was against the statutes of the church. Many Spaniards, though, applauded the decree of expulsion and leapt at the opportunity to take advantage of it. Jews were required to sell their property and could not even take jewels or coins with them; as a result, unscrupulous Old Christians bought the property of desperate Jews for a fraction of its true value. Once on the road toward the border towns and ports that would be their last stopping place in Spain, the Jews' troubles continued. One contemporary chronicler, Andrés Bernáldez, described the sad families walking in slow procession to the border, lamenting their fate.

Despite the number of Jews who fled before the edict of expulsion, it is not clear that Ferdinand and Isabella expected or wanted the Jews to leave. In fact, it appears that many, if not most, Jews converted to Christianity to stay in the country. Perhaps the most notable convert was the chief rabbi of Castile, Don Abraham Seneor, who was baptized at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Extremadura, with Isabella and Ferdinand standing as godparents. Exact numbers of those who stayed and those who left are difficult to ascertain, but Henry Kamen estimates that there were no more than 70,000 Jews in Castile (about 1.6 percent of the population) and no more than 10,000 Jews in Aragon (about 1.2 percent of the population). Of those, the best evidence suggests that most converted rather than emigrated. Over ten thousand Jews left via the Mediterranean coast in 14921493 (including Aragonese and Castilian Jews), and possibly as many as forty to fifty thousand left overall, traveling west to Portugal and north to Navarre, as well as south to Africa, east to Italy andover timeto Ottoman territory in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet even the figure of fifty thousand may well be high, since many of those who left in 1492 had returned and converted by 1499. Isabella and Ferdinand encouraged conversion and return, promising in a decree that houses, property, and goods would be returned to their former owners for the price for which they were sold. Enforcement of this decree was inconsistent, but, nonetheless, evidence from many sources suggests that many exiles returned, particularly after Portugal and Navarre expelled or converted their Jewish populations, too.


Portugal received the clear majority of Spain's exiled Jews. Its proximity, cultural similarity, and economic ties made it an ideal destination for the unwilling exiles. Yet Portugal would not prove to be a permanent haven. When King Manuel wished to marry the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs demanded that Portugal expel its Jews. Manuel agreed, and five days after the marriage agreement was signed, on 5 December 1496, he issued a decree giving Portugal's Jews eleven months to leave the country. Again, the long delay between publication of the edict and the date in which it took effect suggests a lack of enthusiasm for the project, and Manuel's actions emphasize that his primary concern was conversion. Initially, he instructed the Jews to leave from one of three ports, but soon he restricted them to leaving from Lisbon only. When October 1497 arrived, the thousands of Jews assembled there were forcibly converted. Portugal's mass forced baptisms precipitated another exodus, this time of Spanish Jews returning home.

Tiny Navarre, in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, also suffered dual pressure, first from trying to assimilate Spanish Jewish exiles, and later from the Spanish government to expel or convert its Jewish population. Benjamin Gampel estimated that in the mid-1490s Navarre had approximately 3,550 Jews (about 3.5 percent of the population). That relatively high percentage, compared to the percentages in Castile and Aragon, was certainly due to the presence of Spanish exiles in Navarre. Even more so than with Portugal, Ferdinand and Isabella exerted much pressure on the small neighboring kingdom, and the threat of Spanish annexation was constant. The decree, which has not survived, was public knowledge by the beginning of 1498 and required that Navarrese Jewry convert or leave by sometime in March 1498.


The economic costs to Spain of the expulsion, once thought to be significant, now seem to have been relatively minor. The number of exiles was less than previously imagined, and the Jewish communities of Spain, already reduced in size by a century of conversions, did not command the wealth of previous generations. The social costs, both in terms of the loss of individual talents and in terms of the loss of a more pluralistic society, were much greater. Contemporaries may not have acknowledged the latter; but critics of the decree lamented the expulsion of so many industrious, esteemed Spaniards. But most traumatic was the terrible cost to Jewish individuals and families, who were faced with the horrific choice of giving up their faith or their home and whose families were often painfully divided in the upheaval that followed.

See also Conversos ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Jews and Judaism ; Moriscos, Expulsion of (Spain) ; Portugal ; Spain .


Primary Source

"Charter of the Expulsion of the Jews." In Medieval Iberia.

Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, edited by Olivia Remie Constable, pp. 352356. Philadelphia, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Gampel, Benjamin R. The Last Jews on Iberian Soil: Navarrese Jewry, 1479/1498. Berkeley, 1989.

Kamen, Henry. "The Mediterranean and the Expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492." Past and Present 119 (1988): 355.

Meyerson, Mark. "Aragonese and Catalan Jewish Converts at the Time of the Expulsion." Jewish History 12 (1992): 131149.

Peters, Edward. "Jewish History and Gentile Memory: The Expulsion of 1492." Jewish History 9 (1995): 934.

Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau