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By Rob Harris | Updated: Saturday, May 10, 2014

Seal for the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Spain (source: wikipedia; image is released into the public domain)

The Spanish Inquisition was a time when considerable horror was visited upon the Jewish people of Spain, which subsequently spread to Portugal, one for which the authorities of both nations wish to make amends, even if in a belatedly and tokenistic fashion.

Commentators, such as Robert Fisk, have taken issue with this offer of citizenship. Rather than welcoming the development, and using it to recommend that this legislation be extended to Muslims, it is framed as a pretext to suggest the lack of inclusion for Muslims is in some respect Islamophobic.

Likewise, when word of the plan spread a decade ago, Islamic groups began to demand Spanish citizenship for millions of the Muslim descendants, of the 325,000 expelled by the Spanish authorities in the early 17th Century, despite the fact that expulsion played a central role in the rapid expansion of the Islamic world itself.

“Fisking” history

Notably, Fisk white-washes the Moorish “Golden Age”, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians supposedly lived in a tolerant environment. Fisk states:

“The year of darkness, of course, was 1492, when the Moorish kingdom of Granada surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella. Christian power was restored to the lands in which Muslims and Jews had lived together for hundreds of years and had rescued some of the great works of classical literature — by way of Baghdad — for us to study. Save for those who converted to Christianity or died at the stake — at least 1,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 10,000, among them — the entire Muslim and Jewish communities were thrown out of Spain and Portugal by the early 17th century. They scattered, to Morocco, Algeria, Bosnia, Greece and Turkey.”

Such an astoundingly simplistic account of the history of the region usefully presents religious persecution as being instigated purely by Christian elements, and conflates the divergent treatment of the Jewish and Muslim communities. Whilst Christians were responsible for the acts of religious intolerance leading up to 1492, what, for example, of the straight-forward murder of four thousand Jews, in the 1066 Granada massacre, by Islamic hordes?

There are two narratives on the treatment of Christians and Jews under Moorish Spain. The stronger, an more popular, narrative praises the Moorish era as an exemplar of religious tolerance, whilst damning the successive Christian leadership as barbaric. The opposing narrative other criticises this stance as a politically motivated whitewash, motivated by a propensity to apologise for Islamic extremism. In reality, there were some times of reasonable tolerance, by the relatively basic standards of the day, and some very bad times indeed.

Some of this tolerance continued well into the early Christian kingdoms, as Henry Kamen noted, when he forcefully argued that the Christian Spanish of the era were far from a group of uniformly fanatical Bible thumpers, but views rigidified latterly. Moreover, most Moorish territory was re-conquered over very long periods before the final defeat of the Moors in 1492.

Apologies and motivations

Fisk asserts that Spain has not made an apology for the Inquisition. Although far from sufficient, there was an apology by an official in 2011, and more recently Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón stated:

“In Spain, a clear majority realize we have committed a historical error and have an opportunity to repair it”

Fisk goes on to suggest that the Jewish citizenship law was passed for financial reasons, to inflate the weakened Spanish and Portuguese economies, even though he accepts few Jewish people are likely to take Spain and Portugal up on the offer. Does Fisk really believe that economies suffering from severe debt burdens, accrued over decades, could wheel in some Jewish folks, to generate the sort of cash that could reverse their immense fiscal problems? Perhaps Fisk believes the ‘Jews are good with money’ caricature is acceptable when he is speaking (from his perspective) in their favour. This is a startlingly absurd notion, even if he is only ascribing the belief to the Spanish and Portuguese authorities.

It is more likely that the announcement of the citizenship law, in 2012, was designed to deflect Israeli criticism, at a time when Spain had been upgrading its ties with the Palestinian Authority.

The Focus of the Spanish Inquisition

On the lack of a citizenship law for Muslims that equates with the provision for Jewish people, Jose Ribeiro e Castro, who drafted similar Portuguese legislation, notes

“Persecution of Jews was just that, while what happened with the Arabs was part of a conflict. There’s no basis for comparison.”

Some commentators ask why the treatment of Spanish Jews is highlighted more so than that of Spanish Muslims, since the Spanish Moriscos (Moorish Christian converts) were also tried by the Inquisition and expelled from Spain. The treatment of the Moriscos is indeed problematic but there would appear to be less interest in this issue for several reasons. The animus directed at the Moriscos evolved out of the savagery of several hundred years of barbaric warring, between the Moors and the Christians. Christians were persecuted to a notable extent, even by the poor standards of Medieval Europe.

Nonetheless, a historic oddity emerged. One would think the Moors would be the focus of hostility in emerging Spanish nationalism. Yet the violence and oppression visited by the Inquisition upon Jews was more substantive, and cruel in its torturous punishments. Jewish–Christian converts or “conversos” were the focal point of these “investigations” from 1481/2, this being a time when the Christian re-conquest of Spain, from the Moors, was nearing the end of a lengthy process.

These Jewish conversos had been forced to convert to Christianity in the aftermath of numerous anti-Jewish massacres from the previous two centuries. In 1321, the Jews of Castile were forced to wear identifying yellow badges. In 1348 a large number of Jews were burned alive. Six years later thousands were slaughtered in Castille. More was to come in 1358, 1370, 1377 etc. ‘1391’, however, stands out in the historical record. 4,000 of Seville’s Jews were murdered and tens of thousands were sold as slaves. The rest of Spain rose up leading to estimates of between fifty and one hundred thousand Jews being killed, one to two hundred thousand being forced to covert, and similar figures to have fled Spain.

This violence was driven by a multitude of uniquely Spanish anti-Semitic blood libels, such as the Martyr Boy, supposedly murdered ritualistically by Jews, who drank his blood. Some Church leaders still appear to advance this libel today.

1411 brought highly oppressive legislation against Jews. In 1435 there was the massacre, and forced conversion of Jews in Majorca. In 1449, Jewish Conversos were executed for defending themselves from mobs, and leading up to the Inquisition, there were a succession of pogroms and massacres, also largely aimed at Jewish Conversos, in 1467, 1468, 1474 and especially 1473. These violent uprisings suggest not only a growing climate of anti-Semitism, but a connection with the Inquisition’s near-exclusive focus on Jewish Conversos, just a few years later.

The Inquisition would be at its most active between 1480 and 1530. Between 91.6% and 99.3% of its victims were Jewish in the Spanish regions, whilst the number of brutal executions in this period is thought to be at least 2,000, with some estimates suggesting up to 10,000. These figures attest that the greatest harm was not visited upon the Jews by a political elite leading the Inquisition, but an endemic religiously themed anti-Semitism so savage that massacre was welcomed, one of its most nototious proponents, the Archdeacon of Ecija, being commended for his piety, and subsequently sanctified by the Church.

Sometimes the Jewish populace was caught in the middle of the wars between Christians and Muslims. Many Christians would subsequently justify their oppression of the Jewish populace by suggesting the Jews played a treacherous role in the defeat of Christian forces. However, many Jewish people fought on the side of the Christians, for example in the 1086 battle of Zalaca, and in such situations the Jews of the defeated side paid dearly.

Fisk references the year of 1492. However, he neglects to mention that some 200,000 Jews were ordered to leave Spain within a few months. The Battle of Grenada brought the defeat of the last Islamic kingdom in Spain. The 1491 Treaty of Granada, guaranteed the religious freedoms of Muslims and Jews. However, the Edict of Alhambra would soon rescind this ruling for Jews, compelling them to convert or be expelled. There followed a second Inquisitional wave from 1530, which targeted later Jewish Conversos, those who had subsequently opted to convert to Christianity.

By contrast, the Spanish authorities in some regions put a more unofficial pressure on the Muslims of the defeated Moorish kingdoms to convert. It led to an Islamic revolt from 1499 to 1501, causing the authorities to issue a decree demanding their conversion or expulsion. This policy was not uniform however, as the Kingdom of Aragon showed a greater degree of tolerance toward its Muslim subjects.

When the genuine nature of these conversions was suspected, some decades later, the Spanish authorities typically did not contend with the Moriscos in a fashion akin to the violence visited upon the Jewish victims of the Inquisition. Initially, Moriscos suspected of not being Christian, in their stated beliefs, were to be evangelised in a non-violent fashion. However, several events led to a worsening of the political climate.

The Moriscos were suspected of aiding the frequent raids by North African Islamic Barbary pirates, which led to the enslavement of a very considerable number of Spanish Christians. These acts of piracy appear to have been assisted by Spain’s great foe of the era, the Ottoman Empire.

A variety of intrigues, suspected by the Spanish Authorities, including the notion of Morisco involvement in the Ottoman Siege of Malta, at a time when there were considerable fears that Islamic combatants would return to Spain, would lead to the claim by some historians that expulsion was motivated by a desire to decolonise the region.

From a more domestic perspective, the Moriscos were behind two major revolts, particularly the Arabist 1568-71 Rebellion, the “Alpujarras Uprising”, which was the source of widespread violence against the Christian populace. The rebellion was driven by the banning of the Arabic language, due to fears over the veracity of Morisco conversions. The revolt was severely suppressed, and would lead to increasing prosecution under the Inquisition, and the eventual expulsion of the Moriscos, in waves, from 1609 to 1614.

Morisco prosecutions became a predominant feature of the Inquisition from 1570. However, according to Henry Kamen, the most renowned historian on the Spanish Inquisition, relatively fewer were tried by the Inquisition, and they did not have an equivalent harshness of punishment visited upon them, compared to that of Jewish populace, and the few Protestants living in Spain at that time. Thus, the level of Islamic persecution, under the Inquisition, would seem to have been rather limited. The reluctance on the part of the authorities to prosecute the Moors lay with their value in the trades.

Today there seems to be a consensus that Islamic conversions to Christianity were in name only, whilst in a supremely sad irony there appears to be little evidence that Jewish Conversos were typically insincere in their stated beliefs.

Both groups suffered significantly, during the phases of expulsion, but many Jews when fleeing were murdered in particularly barbaric circumstances, by Christians driven by bizarre belief that fleeing Jews swallowed their most valuable possessions. This feature paralleled the conduct toward Jewish people during the Holocaust, where bodies were disembowelled in search of swallowed jewellery.

Sephardic = Spanish

From whence the Jews were expelled, a great number were persecuted elsewhere, including Italy and especially Portugal. Some Jews went back to Spain, only to be subjected to further persecution. By contrast, the Muslim expulsions were sent to North Africa (sometimes by way of France) where they would settle with considerably less molestation by the surrounding populaces.

Spanish Jews, termed Sephardic, which translates as “Spanish”, are said to have emerged as a presence in Spain going back to the era of Christ, although other accounts argue that there was a Jewish presence in Spain going back some three thousand years. Sephardic culture emerged as a very distinctive cultural ethnicity, with its own language, a derivation of Old Spanish called Ladino.

Remarkably, the great majority of European Jewish people lived in Spain, estimated as being as high as 800,000, until the expulsions. For many of the less fortunate, this event would only herald a long history of further bloody persecution, and expulsion, in various parts of Europe and the Middle-East. Sephardic culture went into a long decline, a rehabilitation of which is only emerging. Yet, despite the bitterness of the past, Sephardic culture still possesses very distinctive Spanish aspects.

It is also worth noting that Spain has experienced a very substantive influx of Muslims of Moroccan origin, while its Jewish populace remains a shadow of its former scale. The Islamic population of Spain exceeds 1.3 million whilst the Jewish populace, continuing to be subject to anti-Semitism during more recent eras, remains very small. It is often described as being under 50,000 but it may be little as 12,000 according to a 2007 American Jewish Committee report.

Conclusion

Political commentators, such as Robert Fisk, appears unable to muster any genuine understanding for the plight of Jewish people in Medieval Spain, in which the widely divergent treatment of the Islamic and Jewish populaces are unduly conflated. In Fisk’s case, he also uses the occasion to attack his pet hates: any hostility toward Islam, the Jewish State etc. Many ordinary Christians also suffered under the Inquisition but are not deserving of mention, let alone query as to why they don’t deserve inclusion as well. Little wonder since Fisk has gone out of his way to demonise the much-persecuted Christians of the Middle East today.

The persecution of the Jewish populace, not only during the Inquisition, but especially during the events preceding it, stands out in European history, because these people were not belligerents against Spanish Christianity. In fact, they often suffered under the Moors as much as Christians. Yet, from a Christian perspective, this did not lead to a sense of solidarity. The treatment of Spanish Muslims was indeed punitive but the principle focus of the Inquisition was driven by a deep abiding hatred of the Jewish populace, which persisted long after all were killed or driven from Spain. Under Franco, Spain would continue to tolerate open anti-Semitism — a link which clearly informs Spanish elements hostile to Israel’s existence today.

There were many horrors visited on peoples during the European Dark Age and Medieval Era. Is this particular Spanish period remembered due to expulsions, or the behaviour of the Inquisition? Both are of course linked but infamy stems from the intolerance of the Inquisition, since expulsions were not uncommon in that era. This oppression was unprovoked, and manifestly harsher than equivalent treatment of Spanish Muslims, until they too were expelled, in part due to a level of subsequent belligerent activity, a not uncommon prospect in the Medieval Europe, when any groups took up arms against a given ruler.

Nonetheless, the treatment of the Moriscos should be regarded as one of the darkest episodes of predatory Christian proselytization, where the Spanish authorities soon reneged upon their promises.

On one hand there was a very aggressive intolerant intent to proselytize, which, when unsuccessful, led to expulsions, while on the other hand, there was a demented manifestly genocidal blood lust, where it is easy to envisage the entire Jewish populace being wiped out in a century, if it was not first expelled.

Thus, the Spanish Inquisition should ultimately be viewed as in essence an officious state-sanctioned expression of the very sentiments that motivated prior anti-Jewish pogroms, its stark depravity rightly constituting the very reason Spain’s treatment of her Jewish subjects stands out in the annals of infamy.

Note: Robert Fisk’s article is analysed in more depth, and reproduced in part, by AnneinPT.

Rob Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He blogs at eirael.blogspot.com. He lives in Ireland. For all the exclusive blog entries by Rob Harris, go here.


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