Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Today is Expulsion of Jews from Spain Day

Posted by Oyster on October 9, 2006

Inquisition burning stake“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue Spain expelled every Jew” –Oyster

“In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.” — Christopher Columbus

I came up with that little ditty when I was studying Jewish history the other year. 1492 is not a positive reference for me. It is a horrific one: the Spanish Expulsion.

We Jews are a minority. “We’ve been travelling from state to state”, as Matisyahu sings in ‘Jerusalem’. We are a tribe of brothers and sisters that have been persecuted for our beliefs and “differentness” for centuries. This is really the tip of a huge philosophical discussion, but we have our own History. It’s separate from others’ histories. Remember that history started as a practice of writing down the chronicles of whomever was in power. It usually just reflected their greatness, and not their flaws or mistakes. To a lesser extent, modern history still is rife with bias. And I’m not talking about pure & pristine academic works, but the ‘history’ that our culture understands, and the cultural history that is all around us.

For example, in Western society, we generally view the Roman Empire with great reverence. The use of the word ‘romantic’ to describe something passionate and chivalrous is an example of this doting. As a Jew, I view the Roman Empire as a repressive regime that burned my people’s scholars alive while wrapped in a Torah scroll, tore their flesh off till they died, demolished our holy Temple in Jerusalem, and used enslaved Jews to kill Jews at Massada. A completely different view than that from the majority culture that I live in.
And in a similar way is how I now view the voyage of Columbus, and Columbus Day.

While the rest of Western Civilization is marvelling on Columbus’ daring voyage, that time period for me, as a Jew, recalls one thing. The Jewish expulsion from Spain, ending the Golden Age, and beginning the Inquisition. It was a huge turning-point in our history. So please excuse me if I don’t get terribly excited today for Christopher Columbus.

Yet there were some interesting developments from this. Some Jews went on Columbus’ expeditions (or financed them), and some groups of Jews later attempted to settle permanently in the Americas, leading to the first Jewish synagogue in what was to become the USA. And there’s the sad story of the Anusim: Jews forced to live as Christians, who stubbornly kept their Jewish spark alive across the centuries…

There’s a lot of topics that this brings up. I invite our readers to comment on other things this brings up for them.


10 Responses to “Today is Expulsion of Jews from Spain Day”

  1. I’ve heard conflicting theories about whether or not Columbus was Jewish. I’ve heard from a couple of people that he was Jewish but then a textbook I read for one of my classes said that one of Columbus’ desires was to spread the Christian faith. Care to clarify?

  2. Oyster said

    There’s no doubt that Christopher Columbus was outwardly a Christian. There are studies that show that he has Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t 100% conclusive. Also, his own diary entries seem to make heavy reference to the Torah (as opposed to the so-called ‘New’ Testament). It’s a fertile area of research and controversy.

    No one believes that he was a hidden Jew escaping the Inquisition, though some of the people on his voyages were.

  3. Thanks! As usual, u rock my world.

  4. mishgolden said

    Among the “studies that show that he has Jewish ancestry” is “Sails of Hope: The Secret Mission of Christopher Columbus,” by Simon Wiesenthal. I read it when I was in high school and remember a very interesting account. One of the points Weisenthal made that seemed most plausible to me was the tight linkage between the expulsion and the timing of Columbus’s mission; Weisenthal marshalled quite a bit of evidence there. One less plausible, but interesting and possibly entertaining moment form the book — Columbus’s interpreter, a Jew named Luis de Torres, is said to have tried Hebrew as the first langage in which to speak to the West Indian natives. Weisenthal uses this, together with other data, to argue that Spanish Jews were willing to finance (they were the main funders, directly and indirectly) the voyage in part because they hoped that Columbus would find the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Wouldn’t it be odd, if it were true — the first words that American Indians heard from a Eurpean were in Hebrew?
    I definitely agree with Oyster, though, that such theories are not conclusive.

  5. Oyster said

    Wow, that’s an amazing anecdote about them trying Hebrew on the natives first. Western history is replete with examples of explorers thinking that every previously-unknown population that they find is one of the ‘lost tribes’. And then there’s replacement theology, where they concoct stories of how they are the true descendents of one of the tribes, etc. But I transgress digress…

  6. Oyster said

    In case you didn’t know, Christians often had Jews wear conical hats to ridicule them throughout the Middle Ages. That is what is going on in that picture of a Jew being burned at the stake during the Inquisition. It also made them easier to identify (and therefore persecute). Other forms of ID include the infamous yellow star, badges, arm-bands, etc.

  7. Oyster said

    Oh yeah, and some of those Jews fleeing Spain became pirates.

  8. Tony said


    I am not Jewish nor am I anti-semitic. I think some of the information on this post is itself biased. As far as text books in Spain cite, Jews and Muslims in Spain were not expelled just like that. I am not about to say that what they did was right, or condone their actions, but there is more to it than what you say. First of all, in 1492, Spain did not exist. The separate kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, Granada, Portugal and Castile did. So, Spain as such, did not expel anyone in 1492. The Queen of Castile, and her husband, the king of Aragon expelled the Jews. But not quite as you cite it. First of all, Jews and Muslims had been asked (or forced, or forced and asked) to convert. Those that did (according to Spanish and European texts, most did in fact, convert) were called “conversos” and were allowed to stay.

    Second of all, The Romans persecuted the Jews, yes, and everyone else. I am not about to enter a “we suffered more” contest, but as far as the Romans are concerned, they pretty much persecuted everyone they thought should be persecuted. Even Christians. In fact, if you read Christian texts (also extremely biased), it would appear the Romans persecuted Christians most of all. Like I said before, it is not a contest.

    I completely agree that being Jewish is not easy. Never has been. And for the life of me, I don’t understand the West’s dislike of Judaism over the centuries. But that is another question. If you should ever visit Spain, you can see how much of Sephardic culture is still there. And if you visit Israel, I’m sure you’ll see a litte bit of Spain there too.

    But thirdly, and lastly, and most importantly, you simply cannot judge history. It makes no sense that you should view the past with today’s eyes. I guess in 1492 it made perfect sense to expel all non-believers from your land. I was not alive in the 15th century so I don’t know how this came about. But I do know that to condemn those actions, is a bit silly. In any case, expulsion seems like a better fate than death. Also very much in vogue in the 15th century. But of course, me defending this posture is as ludicrous as someone advocating the opposite. We should learn from history, not judge it. How else are we to learn?

  9. […]  This is also kinda weird, because they used to make Jews in Europe wear cone hats like that, as I pointed out before. […]

  10. Gabriel said

    Hi, do you happen to know some information about the illustration you posted here (name of painter, name of work, etc.). Thanks!

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