March 31 marks the anniversary of the date on which, in 1492, Spanish Jews were faced with the choice of converting to Catholicism or leaving. The edict was driven by the queen, “Isabella the Catholic,” and was issued despite widespread opposition throughout the kingdom, including Sicily, where most of the Italian Jews lived and which was ruled by a Spanish viceroy. Some converted, some pretended to convert and maintained Jewish practices in secrecy for centuries, but the bulk shipped out, many to the Ottoman Empire, some to Amsterdam (which became known as the “second Jerusalem”), a much smaller number to Palestine. Henceforth the Spanish Kingdom was firmly under the brutal hand of the Inquisition, whose chief was the infamous Torquemada.
It was a colossal blunder. Spain never recovered from the loss of one of the most productive and creative elements of its population. As for the Jews of the realm, 1492 started the saga of the wandering diaspora very shortly thereafter. The Spanish and Portuguese Jews spread all over the continent, and the new world as well. It initiated a melodrama that is one of history’s most fascinating tales.
Jews were important to the Spanish economy, and to Spanish culture. Spain steadily weakened without its Jews, who made major contributions to Ottoman lands and to Muslim countries across North Africa, especially Tunisia. Their commercial skills included trade in spices, at the time very important for the continent. Very few people nowadays know the history of the “wandering Jews” after the expulsion, but one of the most interesting is the story of the Jews of Livorno, or Leghorn as we call it.
Almost exactly a century after the 1492 Edict, the grand duke of Tuscany, Medici, invited Jews to come live and work in Livorno, with complete religious freedom and numerous financial benefits. This produced a considerable flow of immigrants formerly from Spain and Portugal, many with their own ships, and produced two notable results: Livorno was transformed from a sleepy backwater to a booming trade center, and its Jewish community became one of the most important on the peninsula. Numerous famous Italian rabbis hailed from Livorno, including Elio Toaff, who became chief rabbi of Rome after the war, and led the Roman Jews to great accomplishments.
This lineage continues. A few years ago we were guests for Rosh Hashanah Eve at the home of the current chief rabbi of Livorno, who is Tunisian, and we have Jewish friends in Bologna, whose ancestors came to Italy at the Medicis’ invitation, who do a thriving trade business in North Africa. I find that singularly appropriate, as the two religious groups expelled during the Inquisition—Jews and Muslims—flourished outside Iberia, and still do.
Queen Isabella’s brutal oppression of the Jews totally backfired. She purged her country of the descendants of the great Maimonides, only to have Spain sink into irrelevancy on the world stage. Meanwhile, her intended victims flourished, ultimately creating Israel, arguably the most dynamic and creative nation in the world.
That could have been Spain’s destiny, but the monarchs put their faith in the Inquisition instead. I think there’s a lesson for today’s anti-Semites, don’t you? Today’s anti-Semites are retracing the failed steps of the Spaniards. Modern Jew-haters come from two failed traditions, radical Islam and radical leftism. Like the Iberians of the 14th century, their tyrannical regimes have all failed, and they have driven out their Jews.
Meanwhile, the countries that built their futures on religious toleration, countries with substantial Jewish populations, countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, are, we can hope, the future of mankind.