Tensions in Spain

There was in fifteenth century Spain a general and sometimes vicious hostility between Christians and Jews. The root of this problem lies in fallen human nature, something that Christians and Jews share alike. But for some Jews the simplest explanation has been to accuse Christians of anti-Semitism. Undoubtedly bigotry had a fatal part to play, but the more substantial reason many Christians in Spain felt enmity to the Jews was not due to a blind prejudice but rather because of actual events and real encounters whereby the Jews made themselves exceedingly unpopular. Below are four illustrative examples.

Lest any Jews reading this feel they are being attacked, and lest anyone today thinks the examples below give reason for enmity toward the Jewish people, we will make our position clear. It is never right to hate a whole people: if people are despised because of who they are then hearts must break because this is an insurmountable estrangement. But if people are despised for what they have done then there is hope for reconciliation, because they can either argue their innocence or accept their guilt. Our genuine hope is to get to the facts. Where we are correct we hope Jews will see that they were not hated simply because they were Jews, but that there were sincere grievances. Where we are wrong we are open to being corrected.

a) Betrayal of Spain to Invasion
The longest war in history began in 711 with the Muslim invasion of Spain. It took 24 generations of Christians 780 years to achieve the re-conquest of their country. The initial surge of Muslim victories across Spain was not due only to Muslim aggression and Christian un-preparedness, but—as Jewish writer Norman Cantor relates—because in city after city Jewish inhabitants opened the gates to the Muslim invaders:

“[W]ith help from the persecuted Jewish minority, an army of Arabs and Berbers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and easily eliminated the Visigoth monarchy, driving the surviving Christian nobility into the northern foothills of the Pyrenees…After opening the gates of Christian cities to the Arab armies, Jews served the newly established Muslim princes as government officials, bankers, and especially leaders in international commerce, stretching from Western Europe to India.”[i]

Many inhabitants felt the threatened loss of Christianity as the worst crisis their country could ever experience.[ii] So ever since the eighth century there was among Spaniards “the ineradicable historical memory that it was Jews who had contributed significantly to the success of the Moslem invasion” of Spain.[iii]

b) Usury
Jews grew enormously wealthy thanks to their industry, ingenuity and the bold capital risks they undertook. They also grew wealthy from the positions they had acquired as tax collectors and from the practice of usury. In Aragón Jewish money-lenders charged twenty percent, in Castile thirty-three percent, and in the famine of 1326, in Cuenca, they refused to lend money for sowing except at forty percent interest.[iv] Many families were ruined. Undoubtedly money-lenders who charged these rates understood they would be hated for it. Did they care? The fact they went ahead demonstrates their contempt for the borrowers and their dependants.

During the Middle Ages certain Jews also “profited hugely from the sale of human-beings as slaves”.[v] Norman Cantor writes of “…slaves brought [from across Europe] to the markets and Arab Mediterranean cities by Jewish merchants were much in demand, especially if they were young boys or adolescent, nubile women.”[vi] Slaves who escaped or who were redeemed were not all quick to forgive.

c) Nation Within a Nation
The Jews themselves had been in the peninsula at least since the third century.[vii] Most immigrant communities become assimilated in their destination country within just a few generations. Not so the Jews. They are a people chosen by God for His own purpose and under the law of Moses are covenanted to retain their identity as a people. This they do. In any given country where they live, they are as a people within a nation. This has always been so.

Of the Middle Ages Rabbi Michael Azose writes:

“In all of Europe the Jews were not faring well…Whereas, in the past, the Jews were the political pawns of the monarchs in their constant struggle against the nobility, now the new growing power was the commoner, the burgher, the city dweller. The city dweller had always considered the Jewish minority as foreigners who did not integrate into his social milieu.”[viii]

Rabbi Azose blames Europeans for counting Jews apart. But Professor Yitzhak Baer goes deeper:

“We went among the nations neither to exploit them nor to help them build their civilisations. All that we did on foreign soil was a betrayal of our own spirit…Our place in the world is not to be measured by the measure of this world. Our history follows its own laws, maintaining its innermost tendencies in the face of the outward dangers of dispersal, disintegration, secularization, and moral and religious petrifaction.”[ix]

This sense of separateness—vital to retaining their identity as Jews—pertained in Spain, as did another characteristic of the Jewish people, temporal success. This was true in both Christian Spain and Muslim Spain.

Bernard Lewis, the pre-eminent Jewish historian of Princeton’s department of Near Eastern Studies in the 1970s, “rejected the overdrawn view of how good it was for the Jews under Muslim rule and how bad under Christian rule.”[x] Norman Cantour explains that before the 1200s:

“there had been a northward movement of the Jews into the expanding Christian kingdoms. The Muslims under Haghred rulers had become intolerant and their kingdoms unstable. The Christian rulers, despite contrary advice from the clergy, were highly tolerant of the Jews because they wanted their capital investment and commercial skills.”

After a decisive Christian victory over the Muslims in 1212:

"a new intransigence among Muslim ruling groups, coming over to Spain from North Africa, made it much more difficult for Jews to serve in Andalusian governments, Jews crossed the line northward into steadily expanding Christian Spain and served Christian rulers, who often valued their administrative experience and capabilities.”[xi]

Not only did Jews rise to high office and great wealth in Muslim Spain as well as in Christian Spain, but could even take advantage of conflict between Christians and Muslims. Often they did not care so much whether Spain was Muslim or Christian or split, but whatever would enable them to do best for their own people.

From the end of the fourteenth century, a whole new dimension was created in Spain by mass conversions of tens of thousands of Jews to Christianity. As Christians these conversos had many more opportunities open to them in business and government, and they grew even more in power. But they remained a group apart. Professor Netanyahu recognises the conversos own sense of a separate identity as undoubtedly contributing to the tension.[xii] Henry Kamen writes:

“Already a powerful minority by the mid-fifteenth century, conversos were secure of their social position and proud to be both Christian and of Jewish descent. They did not, as is sometimes thought, attempt to disguise their origins. They were, as many of their own writers affirmed clearly, a nation. They had their own identity, and took pride in it. Andrés Bernáldez reported that ‘they entertained the arrogant claim that there was no better people in the world than they’. Alonso de Palencia reported complaints by the Old Christians that the conversos acted ‘as a nation apart, and nowhere would they agree to act together with the Old Christians; indeed, as though they were a people of totally opposed ideas, they openly and brazenly favoured whatever was contrary to the Old Christians, as could be seen by the bitter fruit sown throughout the cities of he realm’. Implicit in the converso attitude was the claim that they were even better than the Old Christians, because together with Christian faith they combined direct descent in the lineage (linaje) of Christ. It was said that Alonso de Cartagena when he recited the Hail Mary used to end with the words, ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God and my blood relative, pray for us’.”[xiii]

The impressive presence of Jews and conversos in the royal court has been described above. With the conversions, they also had a strong presence in local politics. For example by the late fifteenth century, in Cuenca, converso families occupied 85 per cent of the posts on the city council.[xiv] In Segovia, according to the contemporary chronicler Alonso de Palencia, his fellow conversos: “shamelessly took over all the public posts and discharged them with extreme contempt of the nobility and with grave harm to the state.”[xv] Jews have no need to deny their extraordinary success in rising to the top of the hierarchies of power in particular countries.

“Jewish writers, such as Cecil Roth and the influential, deeply hispanophobic Heinrich Graetz, point with pride to the unique prosperity and power of their people in the Spain of [the fifteenth century].”[xvi]

But tensions grows when the administration is perceived as working not in the interests of the whole people but for a narrow section only, or worse still, for overseas interests. The first loyalty of the Jews, and then many conversos, was not to Spain but to those they counted as their own. From the Jewish perspective this may be defensible, but it is understandable that the people of Spain grew hostile to the Jewish presence, as other nations of Europe had before them. It was not that people refused share power with or even to be governed by ‘foreigners’ (they often were in Europe), but that they resented being governed, even exploited, by people who held them in contempt.

So the problem for Jews in Spain was not that they did not assimilate. People tolerate that. Nor was the problem that Jews increased in wealth and power. People may become jealous, but they tolerate that. But resentment intensifies when the strong show contempt for the weak.[xvii]

d) The Cabala.
“The Jews were not entirely just the victims of Christian fervour and prejudice. They contributed to their own demise,” admits Norman Cantor.

“Detailed study of the period readily reveals this aberrative Jewish behaviour, but it is normally ignored in general history of the Jews, presumably because it does not fit into the standard model of Jews as invariably passive victims…” Cantor continues. “…after 1250, Sephardic elite were intellectually attracted to the Cabala (which is usually defined as Jewish mysticism but which more accurately can be said to comprise Gnostic dualism, astrology, magic and demonology)…” He explains the rabbinate rejected the rationalism of Maimonide’s and “drugged itself into comfort with the narcotic of the Cabala, an otherworldly withdrawal into astrology and demonology.”[xviii]

Walsh gives details:

“Yet the Spanish Jews…were often found busying themselves for financial profit in what the people called hechicerias (literally, ‘doings’) – witchcraft, black magic, astrology, alchemy, the selling of love potions, the use of charms to bless the marriage bed, or (at the instance of a vengeful rival) to render the young husband impotent – for which purpose the genitalia of a rooster were sometimes insinuated under the nuptial couch, or cabalistic horrors scrawled under a window.”[xix]

Such activities were outrageous to the law of Moses as well as to the laws of Spain.[xx] Yet they were practiced widely enough for all Spain to be aware of the problem. Ordinary people hated this and it gave the Jews a grim reputation. Worse was to come.

“[O]n November 14, 1491,” writes Professor Benzion Netanyahu, “the Inquisition made public in Avila its sentence condemning five Jews and six conversos to the stake for desecrating the Host and crucifying a Christian child, whose heart was ripped out for the purpose of a conjuration aimed at neutralising the Inquisition and sending all Christians raving mad to their deaths…[I]n Avila, where the sentence was issued, one Jew was stoned to death by the populace, and preparations to attack the Jewish community were halted only by the timely intervention of the Kings [Isabel and Ferdinand].”[xxi]

Benzion Netanyahu gives good reasons not to believe the story of crucifixion and in fact argues it is impossible that it happened.[xxii] William Thomas Walsh gives reasons to believe the crucifixion did happen, isolated though it was.[xxiii] Whomever one finds most convincing, and while nothing can justify indiscriminate hatred, the fact of the story spreading across Spain readily explains the boiling tensions.

When Queen Isabel learned that an angry mob in Avila had reacted to news of the Santa Niño (the Holy Child) case by stoning a Jew to death, she and her husband immediately issued an edict of 16th December 1491 “forbidding any one to harm Jews or their property, under extreme penalties, ranging from a fine of 10,000 maravedis to possible death.”[xxiv] Queen Isabel consistently strove to protect the Jews and to have them treated with respect.

[i] Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain: a History of the Jews, (Fontana Press, 1996) p.123, p.162

[ii] The gospel had come to the Iberian peninsula [Spain] from St James the Apostle and was freely adopted. Jesus Christ chose Peter, James and John to witness his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and Jesus chose these three men to remain closest to Him in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before His Passion. He had exceptional missions for each of them, with St James being commissioned to evangelise Spain. The Spanish hold the Faith dear.

[iii] Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate, (Ross House Books, 1985) p. 53

[iv] Citing Henry Charles Lea, William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition, (Tan, 1940) p.142

[v] Ibid. p.142

[vi] Cantor, pp.163-164

[vii] Kamen, p.8

[viii] Azose, Brief History, pp.78-80

[ix] Yitshak Baer, Galut, (1947 version). As a professor in Jerusalem Baer wrote the standard work on Jews in medieval Christian Spain.

[x] Cantor pp.127

[xi] Ibid. p.136

[xii] Netanyahu, pp.995-6

[xiii] Kamen, p.42

[xiv] P.L. Lorenzo Cadarso, Oligarquías conversas de Cuenca y Guadalajara (siglos XV y XVI), Hispania, 186, 1994, 59.

[xv] F. Márquez Villanueva, Conversos y cargos concejiles en el siglo XV, Revista de Archivos, Bibliotecas y Museos, 63, ii, 1957

[xvi] Powell, p.52

[xvii] Many powers exploit the people under them, but often rebellion is forestalled if people have hope of rising to the dominant class themselves. But while Jews could rise in Gentile circles, Gentiles could not rise in Jewish ones.

[xviii] Cantor, p.178 et seq.

[xix] See Menedez y Pelayo, op. cit., III, p. 348 et seq. referenced by Walsh , Characters, p.142

[xx] See Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:26-31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12. All nations are tempted to and have fallen to witchcraft.

[xxi] Netanyahu, p. 1090

[xxii] Ibid. p. 1090 et seq.

[xxiii] Walsh, Isabella, Chapter XXV

[xxiv] Boletin de la real academia, Vol. XI, p.420

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