The Conversos

These four grievances against the Jews—the betrayal of Spain to invasion; usury and financial exploitation of Spaniards; aloofness and the perception of a Jewish agenda inimical to Spain; and incidents and rumours of witchcraft—go a long way to explain why there was a general hostility toward the Jews in fifteenth century Spain. But it was the combination of these difficulties with the problem of false conversions that made it impossible for Jews and Christians to live peaceably, so much that Professor Benzion Netanyahu writes:

“In fact, in some places these relations became so tense that they could be disrupted by the slightest provocation, and mutual toleration would give way to civil war. When Isabel and Ferdinand came to power, they were well acquainted with this situation. They had seen the ravages it produced in Cordova, in Jaen, and other towns and in Andalusia, and they knew of the havoc it had caused in Toledo, Cuidad Real and elsewhere. They noticed the hatred growing and spreading, and they realized that its growth and spread must be arrested before it produced a new, powerful explosion that might rock the whole kingdom.”[i]

On 9th July 1477, soon after coming to the throne Isabel issued a decree to say:

“All Jews in my realms are mine and are under my care and protection and it belongs to me to defend and aid them, and extend them due justice.”[ii]

Isabel did what she could to defend the Jews but there was a dynamic unfolding which was more powerful than even this queen. It involved the wars between Christians and Muslims; the Jewish drive for their own homeland; and insincere conversions to Christianity. These last, which occurred on a huge scale, led to social disintegration in a way which is difficult for a secular society to understand, then to murderous and widespread riots, and finally to well-founded fears for national security. Those eager to apportion blame can balance violent Christian mobs which frightened Jews into converting against deceitful Jews who sought to make Spain their own. But it is unhistorical to blame Queen Isabel who was not even born when the crisis erupted. Isabel inherited a state of affairs which had no painless solution.

Historical background from 1212
When King Alfonso VIII won a decisive victory (at Las Navas de Tolosa) against the Muslims in 1212, he did not expel their Jewish collaborators. Instead King Alfonso offered the Jews leave to remain but dependent on two conditions: that they refrain from reviling Christianity and they refrain from proselytizing among Christians. When the Jews agreed the King turned over four mosques to be converted into synagogues and gave the large Jewish population one of the most delightful parts of the city for their homes.[iii] Walsh writes:

“By 1385 [the Jews] had regained their old prosperity and influence in all parts of Spain. There had always been some converts to Christianity among them, but the number was relatively small until Saint Vincent [Ferrer], by his preaching and his miracles, began to touch their hearts with pity for the sufferings of the Crucified Jew. In 1390 he…baptised the famous rabbi, Selemoh ha-Levi, who, as Señor Madariage observes, was ‘known in all Spanish Jewry for his scholarship and talent,’ was ‘equally respected for his science and for his virtue,’ and was ‘no doubt upright and honest.’…He became just as illustrious in the Catholic Church as he had been in the synagogue, and taking the name of Don Pablo de Santa Maria (he is said to have seen Our Lady in a vision), he became in time Bishop of Burgos.”[iv]

Jewish writer Norman Cantor refers to the same rabbi:

“…many Sephardic Jewish intellectuals who, after 1390, for whatever initial motive, proceeded to cross over into Christianity, found in Latin Christian culture a much more complex and vibrant culture that they eagerly embraced…By the second quarter of the fifteenth century more than half the Jewish elite and an unknown proportion of the Jewish masses – at least one hundred thousand people – had converted to Christianity. These included great merchants, government officials, and rabbinical scholars. Some of the scholars advanced to prominent roles in the clergy. A prominent fifteenth-century bishop of Burgos in Castile was a former rabbi, and his son became a bishop… [N]ot only were the great majority of Jewish converts sincere, but from among learned and aristocratic new Christian families came some of the greatest names in early sixteenth-century Spanish ecclesiastical and cultural history.”[v]

Cantor also notes St. Theresa of Avila was from a “New” Christian family (conversos). She became the reformer of the Carmelite order, the first woman Doctor of the Church and a spiritual guide of St. John of the Cross.

1391 Conflict Erupts
These converts were drawn to the Catholic Church by their own faith and reason. But other Jews were driven into the Church by violence. Walsh describes the actions of Fr. Ferrán Martínez in Seville:

“in 1391 this Jew-baiter, defying the orders of the Archbishop, the Chapter and the King, incited a mob to slaughter the Jews and plunder their rich houses. The pogroms spread from city to city. There were thousands of baptisms as the frightened Jews sought to keep their goods and their lives.”[vi]

Perhaps more Jews had converted than not. Understandably these conversos resented the Church. Their first loyalty was to each other, to Jews, not to Christian Spain. The Jewish writer Cecil Roth, in his History of the Marranos, makes the point powerfully:

“[The conversos] formed in the organism of the state a vast, incongruous body which it was impossible to assimilate, and not easy to neglect…It was, however, notorious that [the conversos] were Christian only in name; observing, in public, a minimum of the new faith while maintaining, in private, a maximum of the old one…There was a similarly large body [of conversos] inside the fold [of the Christian Church], insidiously working its way into every limb of the body politic and ecclesiastic, openly condemning in many cases the doctrines of the Church and contaminating by its influence the whole mass of the faithful. Baptism had done little more than to convert a considerable portion of the Jews from infidels outside the Church to heretics inside it…It was natural, and indeed pardonable, that all the pulpits resounded to impassioned sermons calling attention to the misconduct of the New Christians and urging that steps should be taken to check them.”[vii]

Certain historians exaggerate the scale of converso-Jewish collaboration, but there is substance behind their strong claims. Yitzhak Baer states, “the conversos and Jews were one people, united by destiny.”[viii] Haim Beinhart holds, “Every converso did his best to fulfil the Mosaic precepts, and one should regard as sincere the aim they all set themselves: to live as Jews.”[ix] If it is clear today that a large proportion of conversos had their own agenda, it was felt even more keenly at the time. After Rabbi ha-Levi converted to the Church, he gave a frightening warning:

“Christians had no doubt [the Spanish Jews] were planning to rule Spain, enslave the Christians, and establish a New Jerusalem in the West. The conviction, whether true or false, was a result of the widespread conversions that followed the sickening massacres of 1391. How could the Christians think otherwise, when they saw one of the most illustrious Jewish rabbis, Selemoh ha-Levi, long respected by Jews and Christians alike for his high character and profound learning, becoming a Christian, a Thomist philosopher, and a Bishop, finally publishing two dialogues in which he categorically declared that the Jews were bent upon ruling Spain?”[x]

Former-Rabbi Selemoh ah-Levi was speaking out of what he knew first hand. Several erudite former-Jews made a strong impact with their polemical warnings against the Jews and conversos: Joshua Halorqui and Pedro de la Caballería for example. Because of this fear of takeover measures were taken discriminating against Jews and converts from Judaism. In 1449 (before Isabel was born) a “ground-breaking statute of the Toledo council denied public office to all converts…”[xi] Nevertheless that statute was overturned.

While many Spaniards feared Jews were working for their own interests against those of Spain, there is something worse than treason: it is sacrilege. And while treachery of conversos was alarming, sacrilege was enraging. Henry Charles Lea (who is certainly not pro-Christian) reports of insincere conversos:

“Andres Gomalz, parish priest of San Martin de Talavera, who, according to his own confession, celebrated Mass from 1472 to 1486 without believing in it, or having the proper intention; and heard confessions without ever granting absolution. There was Fray Garcia de Tapate, prior of the great Jeronymite monastery of Toledo, who, as he elevated the Host at Mass, used to mutter, ‘get up little Peter, and let the people look at you,’ and would turn his back on the penitents in his confessional, instead of giving them absolution.”[xii]

Here contempt was hidden. Elsewhere it broke into violent storms. In 1467 Jews tired of being persecuted led a small army to attack Christians gathered in the Cathedral at Toledo. The fight that followed turned into a bloody massacre when Christian reinforcements from nearby towns came and, as Walsh writes, “butchered New Christians indiscriminately”. In 1470 there was a riot in Valladolid. And:

“in Cordoba, a famous statue of the Blessed Virgin carried in solemn procession, on the second Sunday of Lent, was showered with a bucketful of foul liquid from a window in the house of a rich Conversos. Lea tells us, on his own authority, that it was ‘an accident’. The Jewish historian Graetz is more honest; he says that it was ‘either accident or design,‘ and that a girl threw on the statue ‘what was unclean’. The Christians were not in a mood to make inquiries or distinctions. Swords were drawn, and a massacre followed…A veritable state of war ensued for four years. Massacres followed in Montoro, Adamur, La Rambla, Ubeda, Jaen and other places. At last there was a terrific pogrom in Segovia, on May 16, 1474.”[xiii]

Cardinal Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI) intervened to stop the massacre in Segovia turning into an annihilation. Across Spain the temperature was high. Enrique IV was almost at the end of his reign as king.

“During these bloody years [Isabel] came to the conclusion that no ordinary expedient could restore civil peace and tranquillity in Spain. For the sake of the conversos if for no other reason it was necessary to find a less savage resolution to the interminable conflict than the crude administration of mob ‘justice’.”[xiv]

Isabel succeeded to the Castilian throne in December 1474.

The New Jerusalem: Jews Search for a Homeland

Has any people survived so long as the Jews without a homeland? Was ever it known that a nation wandered the earth for nearly 2,000 years and yet retained their glorious heritage? This almost defies explanation. Time and again in history when people lose their land they lose their identity. Not so the Jews.

And the achievement is more than survival. Because despite all the enmities and persecutions levelled against the Jews, despite even diabolical attempts to wipe them from the face of the earth, the Jews have not only survived, not only prospered, not only flourished, but they have regained their homeland. Not just any land, but their ancestral land, Israel.

It is inconceivable for history to have unfolded this way except that the Jews have carried with them in every single generation a burning desire to be a people with a land once more. No one should underestimate the genius of the Jewish people, nor their industriousness, nor willingness to make personal sacrifices for this cause, nor the faithful observance by some of the Law. More than once in history, understandably, Jews hungering for a homeland have set their sights lower than Israel itself. Such was the case in Sephardic Spain, which many account as the Golden Age for Jews from the Diaspora. In mediaeval Spain they constituted the single largest Jewish community in the world. Here they reached the heights. Here many felt they were just a breath away from establishing a New Jerusalem. It was not only Jews who believed this but some Christians believed it too, and feared it, hence the enmity.

We could dismiss these dreams and fears as unrealistic if the Jews had not actually accomplished in our time, by regaining Israel, what appears otherwise almost beyond human capability. In any case, we are not positing that the Jews came close to taking control of Spain, only that they were so powerful they themselves believed it possible, and thus the actions of a significant group of Jews and insincere conversos—in conformity with their secret agenda—were absolutely inimical to Spanish interests.

From this distance of 500 years, and now that the Jews are in Israel once more, perhaps it is easier for Christians to admire the Jews, admire their fidelity to their patrimony, their sacrifice, their effort, their genius, their hoping beyond hope. In fact admiration is a weak word for what should properly be a source for giving praise to God.

[i] Netanyahu, p.1006

[ii] See Anastasio Gutierrez, Expulsion de los Judios de Espana, (1993)

[iii] Walsh, Characters, p. 141

[iv] Ibid. p. 120

[v] Cantor p.187, 193

[vi] Walsh, Characters, 120

[vii] Cecil Roth, History of the Marranos, pp.27, 30-31

[viii] Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christendom, 2 vols (Philadelphia, 1966) II, p.424

[ix] Haim Beinhart, Conversos on Trial. The Inquisition in Cuidad Real (Jerusalem, 1981), p.242

[x] Walsh, Characters, p.144. Jewish writers have noted the very presence of unbelieving Jews in various parts of Christendom made for a dissenting minority, intelligent and irreconcilable, a kind of nucleus around which dissident elements in the Christian ranks could be assembled. See Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages; Rabbi Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements; Browne, Stranger than Fiction p.222; Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews, III, ch.15

[xi] Liss, p.17

[xii] Walsh, Characters, p.145. These and other examples are given by Henry Charles Lea in Conversos: The Inquisition of Spain. See also Bernáldez, Historia, cap. 43

[xiii] Ibid. p.147 cites Graetz, History of the Jews, Vol IV, p. 304

[xiv] Walsh, Characters, 147

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