BOSTON — THE expulsion of Jews from Spain reverberated throughout the Jewish world - and down Jewish history. "It was a tremendous thing ... a shock," says Shlomo Ben Ami, professor of Spanish history at Tel Aviv University.
The reason for the "deep impact on our collective memory," Professor Ben Ami adds, is not only that this was the largest Jewish community at the time. It was also "the most important, the most prosperous, the most culturally fertile Jewish community in Europe." And Spain had become, in a sense, a Jewish homeland.
Ben Ami, himself a Sephardic Jew (a descendant of Jews expelled from Spain), became the Israeli ambassador to Spain the year after relations were established between the two nations in 1986. His term culminated with the November 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
At that conference - involving another set of tensions between Arabs, Jews, and Christians - Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez recalled the unique historical moment when the three produced a brilliant civilization that helped spur Europe's renaissance.
Ben Ami attributes the flowering in Muslim-ruled Spain - producing such intellectual giants as philosophers Averroes and Maimonides - to interaction among the three groups and the "inherent tolerance of Islam toward the Jews." Islam accepted the Jews' difference as the "people of the book," he says. It conceived no policy of mass conversion, as practiced by Spain.
The consequence of that policy, he adds, was impoverishment - of Spain and the Jews. Spain lost out economically and culturally, and Sephardic Jews failed to equal those achievements elsewhere.
Sephardis found new homes, preserving traditions still practiced among Jews, but their descendants found a mixed reception in Muslim lands. One of Ben Ami's first recollections as a child in Tangier, Morocco, was of the Spanish foreign legion arriving to protect the Jewish community from Arab mobs.
In the long view, the expulsion, as did the Holocaust, fed the stream of Jewish history leading to creation of the State of Israel. As Ben Ami recalls, the greatest leader in that last generation of Jewish life in Spain, Isaac Abravanel, said after failing to win a reprieve for his people in 1492:
"The only conclusion I can draw from this situation is that we need to go back to the Holy Land, we need to go back to Palestine, to Israel."