The End of Tolerance
The uprooting of Spain's Jews and Muslims brought to an end a fertile civilization and a unique era of coexistence between adherents of the three great monotheistic religions. HISTORICAL TURNING POINT
`THEY say Ferdinand is a clever prince, but he empoverishes his kingdom and enriches mine."Skip to next paragraph
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Legend lends those words to Bayezid II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 15th century, as he took in Jews expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in their campaign to purify Roman Catholic Spain. The campaign culminated in 1492: first with the defeat of Granada, Islam's last kingdom in Christian Europe, then with the royal decree banning Judaism.
Five hundred years later, the wisdom of Bayezid's words is re-cognized in Spain, where the loss of a prosperous, often educated, and influential Jewish community is acknowledged as a factor in its fall as a European power.
King Juan Carlos marked the quincentennial of the expulsion March 31 with a reconciliation speech in the Madrid synagogue to representatives of both Spain's now-modest Jewish community and the Sephardic diaspora.
But the Jewish expulsion alone does not capture the full significance of what Spain lost, nor does the end of Islam's rule over its last piece of the Iberian Peninsula: The Jews had been expelled from other European countries, and the Muslims had known other defeats.
What gives these events particular importance is that they mark the end of a unique era that brought together in Spain the three great monotheistic religions born and developed in the crucible of the Mediterranean basin.
"The radical aspect of 1492 was to abolish a unique historical moment of coexistence and dialogue among the three religions of the book," writes Edgar Morin, a noted French sociologist, in the preface to "The Jews of Spain," an exhaustive work tracing the paths of Sephardic Jewry. It "destroy[ed] in Spain, where it could have and should have been born, the possibility of an open and tolerant Europe."
It is not as though the three religions and cultures lived in idyllic harmony in Spain until 1492. The Jews had experienced terrible massacres in 1391, faced forced conversions and laws limiting many top professions to "pureblood" Christians, and had been ordered in 1480 to inhabit separate neighborhoods. The final push to conquer Al-Andalus - today's Andalucia - and rid the Iberian Peninsula of its last Islamic state, had begun in 1482.
But the Jews had been in Spain for more than 1,000 years, the Muslims for nearly 800, so it was not itinerants or foreigners who were forced out, but people with deep roots in their communities.
"Politically, there was constant confrontation between the [Muslim and Christian] powers, often leading to battles, but at the same time there was significant interaction at the level of common populations," says Margarita Lopez Gomez, a specialist in medieval history and director of the Department of Art and History at Madrid's Western Institute for Islamic Culture. "In cities like Toledo, Cordoba, and many more, the communities lived next to and among one another, they intermarried and mixed."
The Muslims brought new levels of astronomy, medicine, and literary exposure to Spain and Europe, as well as a "green revolution" through irrigation methods that transformed arid parts of Andalucia. Their architectural influence gave Spain the country's unique style. Today much of Spanish food and 30 percent of the language is of Arabic origin.
The Jews provided some of Spain's greatest medieval thinkers, and excelled in commerce, banking, and artisanal trades. Equally important was their role as a go-between for Muslims and Christians, says Henry Mechoulan, a French specialist in Spanish literary history, editor of "The Jews in Spain," and himself a Sephardic Jew.
The Muslims had brought the Greek classics to Spain, but they were written in Arabic. The Spanish and Catholic hierarchies turned to Jewish intellectuals to translate, says Mr. Mechoulan.
What brought this "unique historical moment" to an end? The hardships and dynamics of an evolving society, he adds, began to cause people to react against others different from themselves.
Outside forces also played a role, says Mrs. Lopez: "Particularly the Church in Rome, and other European dynasties, pushed the Spanish kings to rid the peninsula of the infidels." And the Castillian royalty saw the war against the Moorish kingdom of Granada as a unifying factor for Spain's divided kingdoms.
Granada's fall quickly led to the Jewish expulsion. The Jews were required to convert to Christianity within three months, or leave. Some 150,000 are thought to have fled, with other thousands remaining and accepting conversion - many to fall later to the Inquisition.
The consequences were devastating. Stripped of its most experienced financial managers, Spain lacked "the talent to manage its wealth" when gold began pouring in from the Americas, says Mechoulan. "They had to turn to German and [Italian] bankers, and that's who profitted."