The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492: an exaggerated accusation to hide those made by others

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492: an exaggerated accusation to hide those made by others

Foto de Alberto Gil Ibañez

Alberto Gil Ibañez

Some do all the work and others take the credit. The first thing to point out is that the Spanish expulsion was not exactly that, as only those who did not convert were expelled. It was therefore not directed against a different race or against individuals but was an instrument to force the conversion of these people to another religion, to strengthen the political unity of the country, for which neither sects, nor ghettos, nor groups with separate rules could be allowed. To the modern spectator this «offer» might seem ungenerous today, but we can ask ourselves whether in the 21st century, other similar phenomena occur without such possibility of assimilation in exchange for conversion (for example, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself).

Jews could not be considered a persecuted or subjugated people in Spain at that time. Before 1492 they were exempt from paying tithes, and those who lived voluntarily in ghettos (which was by no means all of them) did not pay municipal taxes either. They were landowners, a possibility (of owning land) that was denied to Jews in other European countries, even centuries later. They elected their own representatives, had their own legislation and, at least until 1476, also appointed their own judges to settle their commercial disputes. After this date, they continued to have a special jurisdiction protected by the Spanish Crown. The Inquisition could not touch them except in cases of bribery of Christians or blasphemy. In business, they had the advantage of being able to charge higher interest rates than those permitted by law for Christians. They held high positions in tax collection and in royal and manorial administrations (see F. Fernández-Armesto, 2010, p. 100).

By contrast, long before and long after the famous «Spanish» expulsion, restrictions on Jewish life were commonplace throughout Europe. In fact, expulsions began in England and Wales (1290) and in France (1182 and 1306) and then continued in Vienna (1421) and other areas of Central and Eastern Europe. As late as the 18th century, the city of Frankfurt still had a statute in force since the Middle Ages that limited the maximum number of Jewish families to 500, who had to live in a walled ghetto within the city: the Judengasse. Their freedom of movement was limited (they could not leave the ghetto at night or on Sundays), they lived in overcrowded conditions, they were also limited in certain economic activities, including working the land, and until 1726 they had to wear identification signs. None of this happened in Spain.

If it were possible to speak of anti-Semitism, this originated in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which warned of the dangers of economic and marital relations with the Jews. These provisions did not begin to be applied in Spain until a century later (Synod of Zamora, 1313), a fact that speaks to lengths about the resistance in Spain to perceive the Jew as an enemy (J. Pérez, 2014, pp. 96, 77). Perhaps this is why the Jewish community in Spain became the largest in Europe in the 13th century. In fact, the Catholic Monarchs never wanted to wipe out the Jews – many of whom were their friends – nor did they think that so many would rather leave the country than change their religion, even though more than half of them stayed. Their closest collaborators were Jews, and they did everything they could to convince them to stay with them. After all, the alternative, Christianity, was not alien or foreign to Judaism. On the contrary, it was born as a Jewish sect and shared as its main sacred text the Old Testament. In any case, it was not, as has been said, an exclusively Castilian strategy or that of Queen Isabel rather than Fernando’s. It should be remembered that as early as the 13th century Ramon Llull proposed to «free the Jews from the influence of the rabbis» and «expel the recalcitrant Jews» (quoted by H. Thomas, 2003, p. 98, see also p. 101).

Map of the expulsions of Jews in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The numbers of those affected have also been manipulated to enlarge… Spain’s bad reputation (Black Legend and Hispanophobia). What is certain is that at this point it is clear that the conversos far outnumbered the expellees and that the conversion started much earlier, at least since Visigoth king Sisebuto’s policies (612), the anti-Jewish revolt of 1391 or the dispute of Tortosa of 1412-1414. All this gives a total number of converts, according to Isaac Abravanel, of about 600,000 at the end of the 15th century, although other sources reduce this number to 400,000 (B. Nétanyahou 1995, p. 1102). In any case, the number of Jews was very large in Spain at the time (out of a population of some four million in the Kingdom of Castile and eight million in Spain as a whole), and those who decided to leave were a minority (between 50,000 and 160,000, depending on the authors), with the majority (at least 60%) remaining. This picture is supported by rigorous and recent collective studies of population genetics, which show that 19.8% of the current Spanish population has Jewish blood – while only 10.6% would be of Moorish heritage, from North Africa – which would be impossible if the majority of the Jews had gone. What is not discussed is the treatment given by orthodox Jews (some of whom never lived here) to those who chose to convert. In this instance, we can indeed speak of insulted and scorned people without qualification.

The Jews who decided to convert even became famous, attaining, once converted, dignities such as high state officials, and university professors or even went from being rabbis to bishops (Rabbi Ha-Levi became bishop of Burgos, a post inherited by his son Alfonso de Cartagena), as well as being able to continue in the trading business. In fact, many of the Castilianised Jewish surnames of the time (the Santángel, Coronel or De la Caballería) are still present in the social and economic elite of today’s Spain, some even with noble titles. From converso (converted) families we have renowned characters such as Francisco de Vitoria, Santa Teresa, San Juan de la Cruz, Miguel de Cervantes, Fray Luis de León, Fernando de Rojas, Diego de Velázquez, and even Francisco Franco himself. Nothing to do, therefore, with any holocaust (as B. Nétanyahou accuses) or with «racist» attitudes. In short, if Spain-Sepharad had treated the Jews so badly, how is it possible that centuries later, in the 21st century, the Sephardim have still preserved the Spanish language and part of their culture?

Today’s Spaniards look at the Sephardim with pride, and consider them brothers who share the same language; in fact, the Spanish government grants them Spanish nationality. Nobody took them here to concentration camps to exterminate them. And yet, a policy that was at best partial and nuanced more than 500 years ago still hangs over our heads, while other, much more modern and execrable events, clearly identified, go unnoticed (the expulsion of Protestants from France at the end of the 17th century) or are taken as an outburst that does not even remotely represent the feelings or image of the nation responsible (Germany in the 20th century). Why is Spain treated differently? We (Spaniards) would not be very anti-Semitic when many Jewish bankers did a lot of business with us from very early on. A clear example is the Rothschilds and their agent for Spain Daniel Weisweiller. Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) founded in 1760 the Rothschild Bank – a name that refers to the «red shield with a Roman eagle» that his father hung on the door of his first shop – in the city of Frankfurt. In 1820 they were commissioned by the Spanish government for their foreign payments. From that moment on, a fruitful relationship began that would allow the Rothschilds to benefit (together with their Spanish partners) from the financing of the Spanish public debt, the world monopoly of mercury and the Spanish overseas territories, among other businesses (A. de Otazu, 1987).

And yet, mistakes aside, is the State of Israel in a position to set an example? In the 1948 war to occupy the territory it considered its own, it caused the displacement of more than 750,000 Arabs, sometimes with a certainly intense violence that resulted in many deaths, especially in Lod, Deir Yassin, Abu Shusha and Dawaymeh (A. Wolfe, 2013, pp. 303, 304). It can be argued that Israel sought by these actions to consolidate a strong and cohesive state around a single religion, but this is exactly what Spain 500 years ago, emerging from 700 years of Arab rule, was trying to do. The Palestinians today, like the Jews then, were a people without a state.

Finally, it is worth asking, «Cui prodest?», «who benefited from the expulsion of the Jews?» Certainly not Spain, which lost a powerful industrial and financial sector and gained an important enemy (at least as a pressure group), nor the Sephardim. Those who benefited were the Dutch bankers who were left without internal competitors when it came to lending to the kings (it would have been different for Spain if it had had its own bank), and also the receiving European countries who benefited from a set of enterprising merchants, who also brought with them a very deep culture and philosophy that they had learned in Spain. Moreover, the Renaissance was able to take place thanks in part to the (Spanish) culture that the Sephardim expelled from Spain spread throughout the world, for they were the final spokesmen of a world that was disappearing: the world of the three cultures, the world that had translated the Greeks through the Arabs, the world of Judeo-Christian culture, the foundation, after all, of all Western culture. And this happened in spite of the anti-Jewish atmosphere in Rome…

From this point on, the exaltation of the legend of the Jewish expulsion from Spain can only be understood in terms of cultural geostrategy to favour the image of other powers, equally or more guilty, or of manipulation consented to by the Jewish people themselves for reasons that seem obscure or, at least, partially inexplicable.»

  1. Susan M. Adams et alt, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula” The American Journal of Human Genetics 83 (2008), pp. 725-736 (
  2. Sir Samuel Hoare, British ambassador to Spain during World War II (and Viscount Templewood) described Franco as «a young officer of Jewish origin» (1946, p. 49).


  • Felipe Fernández-Armesto,1492: El nacimiento de la modernidad, ed. Debate. Barcelona, 2010
  • Samuel Hoare, Ambassador on Special Mission, ed. Collins, Londres, 1946
  • Benzion Nétanyahou, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, ed. Random House, Nueva York, 1995
  • Alfonso de Otazu, Los Rothschild y sus socios en España [1820-1850], ed. O. Hs, Madrid, 1987
  • Joseph Pérez, Historia de España, ed. Crítica, Barcelona, 2014
  • Hugh Thomas, El imperio español. De Colón a Magallanes, ed. Planeta, Barcelona, 2003.
  • Alan Wolfe, La maldad política. Qué es y cómo combatirla, ed. Galaxia Gutenberg. Círculo de Lectores, Barcelona, 2013

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