Isabel – Friend of the Jews

Before the process of Isabel’s canonisation began there were potential obstacles worthy of investigation: the exclusion from the throne of Juana ‘la Beltraneja’ and thus the legitimacy of Isabel’s succession; the legitimacy of Isabel’s marriage with Prince Don Ferdinand of Aragón, King of Sicily, her cousin; the establishment of the Inquisition; tensions with Rome over ecclesial reforms; the expulsion of the Jews; the conquest and subjection of other peoples. Documentation collected for the process dissipated all these doubts to the satisfaction of those involved in the research. However for other people questions still remained [see appendix C]. The most contentious concerned the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Our purpose here is to show that although there were Christians, Jews and others, who were to blame for injustices suffered by Jews in fifteenth century Spain, Queen Isabel herself should be cleared of all such charges. Isabel was a friend, patron and protector of Jews on the personal level as well as being a just sovereign. She was well aware of the Jews’ long history on the Iberian Peninsula and of their outstanding contribution to national life, particularly in areas of administration, trade and medicine.

Queen Isabel’s trust and warmth toward Jews is demonstrated by her frequently giving them preferment. Samuel Abolfia, Yuce Abrabanel and Don Abrahan Seneor were all Jewish members of her court, the latter being treasurer of the Santa Hermandad and her extremely close confidant.[i] Isabel’s personal physician Lorenzo Badoz, her personal secretary Fernando de Pulgar, the chief royal secretary Alvarez de Toledo and almost all Isabel’s privy counsellors were either Jewish or of Jewish descent. The conversos Luis de Alcalá played a prominent treasury role for 20 years of Isabel’s reign. Jewish blood was no impediment to high appointment, for example Fray Diego de Deza, Archbishop of Toledo and a great Dominican theologian, became Inquisitor General. He was also a patron of Christopher Columbus, another friend of Isabel’s who some say had Jewish ancestry.[ii]

Isabel chose for her confessor (a uniquely trusted position) Hernando de Talavera, whose grandparents were Jews. He later became the first Bishop of Granada.[iii] A second of Isabel’s confessors, Fray Tomás de Torquemada, was of Jewish descent at least on one side. Beatriz de Bobodilla, Isabel’s most intimate girlhood friend, married Andres de Cabrera, who was Jewish, and who became the powerful governor of Segovia and Secretary to the Queen.

In Aragón in the 1480s the five most important appointments were held by conversos, including the King’s treasurer, Luis de Santangel, and Gabriel Sánchez, Sancho de Paternoy, Felipe Climent and Alfonso de la Caballería. King Ferdinand himself, Isabel’s husband, had a Jewish grandmother. There are some who believe Isabel had Jewish blood on the side of her maternal grandmother.

When troubles erupted and re-erupted between Christians and Jews, Isabel was a model sovereign, defending the Jewish minority by law and by deed. However, Isabel’s warmth toward the Jews and toward Jewish converts to Christianity (conversos) was not shared by all. To see what lay behind the expulsion of the Jews it is important to understand the background as to why huge numbers of Christians and Jews were literally at war with each other in fifteenth century Spain, and what narrow options the reigning monarch had to deal with the situation. Blame can be shared by Christians and Jews for the injustices of the times: but it is a scandalous misreading of history to blame Queen Isabel.[iv]

[i] “Don Yitzhak [of Portugal] had sought an audience with their majesties, the King and Queen of Spain. These two autocratic monarchs, who were among the most active in Europe, would not grant an audience with just anyone. There must have been two factors which prompted Ferdinand and Isabella to accede to Don Yitzhak’s request. One assumption is that Don Yitzhak had friends in the Spanish court among whom was the Rab de Corte, Rabbi Avraham Senior [sic], the influential matchmaker of the royal couple. Another assumption is that Don Yitzhak’s acumen and genius for achieving economic ‘miracles’ was well known to the financial advisers of the king and queen.” Rabbi Michael Azose, “A Brief History of the Jews in Spain”, (Sephardic Congregation, Evanston, Illinois, USA) p.77

[ii] There is a myth that says that Queen Isabel sent Christopher Columbus to the New World because she knew him to be a Jew and she wanted him to sail off the edge of the world. Of course this is completely false since Isabel was instructed as a child, as were most people of her time, that the earth was round. Yet some Jewish people in the USA have mentioned that they were taught this tale as children. These tales help foster animosity against Queen Isabel.

[iii] The Bishop of Segovia when Isabel came to the throne was Don Juan Arias Davila, of a famous Jewish-Catholic family.

[iv] Drawing on research from distinguished Jewish scholars, Henry Kamen repeats that Isabel and Ferdinand “were never personally anti-Semitic...” See Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition (Yale, 1997) p.16

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