By Jay Levinson
History of a Tragedy: The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, by Joseph Pérez. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2007).
Yes, the Spanish Inquisition is a horrific example of murder and torture ostensibly carried out in the name of religion. This book is by no means an apologia for the crimes that were committed. It is, rather, a serious academic attempt to debunk some of the classic myths about the causes and conduct of the Inquisition.
According to the author there was never a medieval Spanish Golden Age of peace and tranquility amongst Jews, Moslems, and Christians. Rather, there was a tense balance of economic and security interests reinforced by governmental weakness to alter the status quo.
Under Visigoth rule Jews suffered tremendously. Thus, when Moslem forces invaded the peninsula in 711, Jews welcomed the forces from North Africa. The relationship between the two groups was one of complementary interests, but not one of tolerance out of principle. Jews would not submit to the religious message of Islam, but they could be trusted not to side with their prior oppressors. They were, therefore, entrusted with security functions in captured areas, allowing Moslems to advance further without leaving behind military personnel. This was typical of Spain during much of the Middle Ages; a coalescence of interests dominated the political infrastructure.
There is no doubt that rule under the Moslems enabled Hebrew literary production unrivaled until modern times. The author contends that this was a product of the inter-mixing of Hebrew and Arabic cultures and the relative autonomy allotted to the Jewish community. A key question is whether this flourishing of literature was limited to a select educated elite, or did it penetrate deeper into Jewish society.
Pérez does provide partial answers, but although he shows profound knowledge of Spanish history and its archival sources, his lack of Jewish knowledge is blatant. He discusses, for example, the Ramban in a philosophical context and highlights the Guide for the Perplexed, but he never mentions the Rambam's Mishna Torah. The biography he suggests for the Rambam is also quite dubious to say the very least.
In any event, as the Christian Reconquest of Spain progressed, anti-Jewish incidents multiplied at an alarming rate. Jews were blamed for everything from bad crops to the Black Plague. There are also numerous documented cases of blood libel accusations and property destruction. If there is any comforting thought, it is that there were lulls in the cycle of hatred in the one hundred or so years leading up to the Inquisition. These periods, however, had a negative aspect. They duped most Jews into giving credence to the false hope that the future could only be better.
Ferdinand and Isabela are an enigma in Spanish history. For the first two decades of their rule they were victorious in the War of Succession, and for the most part protected Jews and Jewish property. Then, in 1492, they gave authorization to the Spanish Inquisition, an unforgivable attempt to force Jews to convert to Catholicism, root out false converts, and expel all those (the majority) who would not renounce the Jewish faith. Why this change of policy? As the author notes, the "Catholic Kings" would be remembered quite differently had their reign stopped in 1491.
The author discusses several explanations to the change in royal policy. Were Ferdinand and Isabela giving in to a popular hatred of Jews and Judaism? Pérez asserts that yes, there was such a general pervasive feeling. The common attitude was that only Catholicism held truth. Many also felt that ethnic cleansing of Jewish blood (motivated by insincere converts) was necessary, sometimes to the third or fourth generation. Pérez discounts this explanation. Ferdinand and Isabela were autocrats in every sense of the word. They felt no need to placate or even to react to public opinion.
A careful reading of the Inquisition proclamation in the three versions that history has handed down provides a very different interpretation of events.
Three months before the Inquisition was announced, the Moslems retreated from Granada, their last foothold in Spain. According to Pérez, the declaration of the Inquisition was a step in building a new unified Spain. The contemporary philosophy of Europe was that the ruler and his religion were the key factors in defining the kingdoms that replaced smaller medieval fiefdoms. Expulsion of the Jews was a process that had been going on for almost 200 years, and in 1492 united Spain followed suit. Expelling the Jews had the dual goals of ridding the kingdom of infidels and of hastening the assimilation of Jewish converts to Catholicism by severing their contact with openly practicing Jews.
May it never be forgotten that those who suffered most cruelly in Spain were the Jews who decided to remain and at least outwardly adopt the trappings of Christians. Their deeds were unscrupulously examined and even the slightest misconduct (real or insinuated) was deemed punishable heresy.
This book is certainly recommended to readers who are looking for a better understanding of a very dark chapter in the history of mutual respect.
from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine