History offers not one example of Queen Isabel acting from malice. Consistently she desired, prayed and worked for justice, order and peace. She recognised the dignity of all human beings and throughout her life protected the weak at cost to herself. But despite her efforts she could not force people to live together. Ultimately her answer was, “If we cannot live together, then we must live apart.” This was far better than those others through history who unwilling to live together have opted to kill.

Throughout her reign Isabel demonstrated incisive judgement of people (for example Columbus) and of politics (from chaos she built an empire). She would not be misled by empty conspiracy stories. Nor at the time of the expulsion of following it were there from any quarter the allegations made against Isabel today of anti-Semitism or bigotry.[i] Henry Kamen is adamant that Isabel and Ferdinand:

“were neither personally nor in their politics anti-Jewish. They had always protected and favoured the Jews and conversos. They might be accused of many things, but not of anti-Semitism. Nor were they anti-Muslim”.[ii]

Kamen cites Domínguez Ortiz as making the same point in the 1970s, as has the Jewish scholar Norman Roth.[iii] Before her accession to the throne, Isabel worked to assist Jews, making a series of personal interventions to stop acts of violence against them, sometimes losing the support of wealthy and influential partisans. As queen Isabel legislated again and again to protect Jews and severely punished those who molested them, including during their final departure.

Having worked hard for just settlements between Jews and Christians so both could live peacefully in Spain, and finding this ultimately impossible, Isabel gave the Jews a protected exit. The expulsion was not an act she rejoiced in but the painful and reluctant decision of a saintly woman who had run out of options. It was less than perfect, but a last resort to a complex problem in an imperfect world. Whatever the wrongs involved, Isabel cannot be convicted of cruelty.

The expulsion caused incalculable distress to tens of thousands of Jews. This was not Isabel’s aim. The expulsion also saved countless lives: the rioting and blood-letting ceased; the Muslims lost key allies for a renewed invasion of Spain; and Catholic unity, protected from invidious heresy, meant Spain was saved from the sacrilegious wars which tore the rest of Europe apart over the following two hundred years. Isabel acted according to her power as sovereign, determined to serve and protect her people as best she could and knowing she would be judged before God for every decision she took.

Ultimately our purpose here is to calm Jewish fears over the possible canonisation of Queen Isabel. Isabel was not anti-Semitic. Moreover it is admissible to believe Isabel is a saint while disagreeing with her political decisions. We dearly hope that Jews hostile to Isabel will examine the historical record and thus become convinced that Isabel held no malice toward Jews. She could find no way less painful to deal with the brewing civil conflicts. As Norman Cantor writes:

“…this is not the voice of the Nazi Holocaust, we are required to remember, because the Nazis would give the Jews no escape from their doom, but the Catholic Church always left the door open to Jewish conversion and escape.”[iv]

[i] Isabel never deceived or coerced in order to evangelise. She never invaded conscience, never launched wars of aggression. She was ready herself to suffer and die for her faith.

[ii] Kamen, p.26

[iii] Norman Roth, Conversos, Inquisition and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, (Madison, 1995)

[iv] Cantor, p.171

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