Queen Isabel and the Jews
Excerpted from “Queen Isabel and the Jews” by Very Rev. Fr. Alphonsus Maria Duran, MJ

There is no doubt that this issue is a very sensitive and emotional one, but an investigation of the facts will reveal several very important truths.

It is interesting that there is so much said, exclusively, of the Spanish “expulsion” of the Jews in 1492, and nothing is mentioned or even remembered of the English expulsion in 1290 and the French expulsion in 1306. In fact, Spain was one of the few Christian countries where the fugitive Jews were allowed to live, by virtue of a special royal indult, a quasi-contract, by which they, as “foreigners,” were permitted to remain in the kingdom, as long as they abided by their statutes, the grave violation of which would mean the suppression of their permission to stay. (This is, in fact, what happened. It really was not an “expulsion,” in the true sense of the word, but the suppression of this permission). In fact, the Jews were considered “foreigners” in all the kingdoms of Europe at that time.

The Jews prospered economically in this environment of toleration, and rose to positions of influence in the government. However, in the century prior to Isabel’s accession to the throne, the harmony which had existed at times between Jews and Christians had disappeared. For the most part, this was because… [of] the practice of usury. In Aragon they charged twenty percent, in Castile thirty-three percent, and in the famine of 1326, in Cuehca they refused to lend money for sowing except at forty percent interest. Added to this was their practice of insulting the Christian religion. Even today the epithet, “Christian dog” (perro cristiano), comes from those times. Consequently, there began to arise manifestations of hatred and, at times, of violence.

Queen Isabel vigorously denounced such violence, and protected the Jews with a long series of decrees and letters. She took very seriously this quasi-contract with the Jews while they, in their turn, made a commitment to be her vassals, promising to fulfill their proper statutes. Thus in 1477, Queen Isabel decreed that, “all Jews in my kingdoms are ... under my protection and defense and it pertains to me to defend and shelter them, and extend to them due justice.”

For many years Queen Isabel had hoped against hope that the “expulsion” (which had been repeatedly urged by other monarchs of Europe who had already done so, such as England and France), could be avoided. In 1483 the Queen rescinded the permission for the Jews to stay in Andalucia where they were causing the greatest harm, hoping that it would remedy the situation and at the same time send a strong message to the Jews throughout Spain, but to no avail.

That Queen Isabel did not act out of any anti-semitic, racial or religious hatred or bigotry can be firmly substantiated by her unequivocal condemnations of, and personal interventions to stop riots and acts of violence against Jews even before her formal accession to the throne, and sometimes at the loss of support of wealthy and influential partisans. Isabel consistently showed favoritism toward the Jews. For example, the Jews, Abrahan Seneor, Samuel Abolfia, and Yuce Abrabanel were all members of her court and she received treatment from the Jewish physician, Lorenzo Badoz. Her confessor, Talavera, her personal secretary, Pulgar, her physician, and almost all her privy counselors had Jewish ancestors on one side or both.

However, another very important factor in the expulsion was the menace of the Muslims. Spain was a Christian country invaded by the Muslims in 711 with the help of the Jews. This defeat was looked upon by the Spanish as a temporary situation… The reconquest was the permanent historical project of Spain, which was Christian and European.

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