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Alhambra Decree: 521 Years Later

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Chistopher Columbus at the Royal Court of Spain, by Václav Brožik c.1884

This Easter Sunday, March 31, marks the 521st anniversary of the issuance of the Alhambra Decree.  To some, that name means nothing.  Perhaps it is better known by its other name: The Edict of Expulsion. It was in the city of Granada, in the spring of 1492 that the Catholic Monarchs, Isabelle of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, decided to banish the Jews from Spain.

According to the decree, Jews were to be banished from all the realms under the joint crowns of Isabelle and Ferdinand.  To get a better sense of Isabelle and Ferdinand’s dominion, the titles which they held in their own right as well as those they held as consorts to one another were, according to Edward Peters’s translation, the following:

King and Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Seville, Sardinia, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, of the Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar, and of the Canary Islands, count and countess of Barcelona and lords of Biscay and Molina [de Aragón], dukes of Athens and Neopatria, counts of Roussillon and Cerdanya, marquises of Oristano and of Goceano

The Spain they ruled was expansive, containing territory and laying claim to land well beyond the borders of the Spain of today.  Ferdinand and Isabelle’s realm included petty kingdoms located in modern-day Italy and Portugal and lesser claims to modern-day Greece and France. 

One might think that the Edict of Expulsion is only a dark chapter out of a distant past. However, as with many laws that record humanity’s past inhumanity to man, the decree was not revoked until much later.  How much later?  It was revoked 476 years later on Monday, December 16, 1968, when the Spanish government finally rendered the statute without effect.  

This formal act is often attributed to the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).  An instrument entitled Nostra Aetate, promulgated on October 28, 1965 during the papacy of Pope Paul VI, served as the vehicle for the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions.  One of the most compelling passages in the instrument relates to the crime of deicide, or the charge that all Jews, past and present, are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ:

what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

There are other admonishments against anti-Semitism and citations of scripture stating that the “Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.”  Even still, three years lapsed before Spain finally revoked the decree. 

At present, Spain has sought to make further amends with the Jews of Spanish (also known as Sephardic) ancestry for the transgression committed against them in 1492.  I am referring to a statute that was issued in 2012.  The instruction,” issued by the General Directorate for Registries and the College of Civil-Law Notaries of Spain, unlike previous Spanish citizenship laws, provides special provisions for people of Sephardic ancestry.  To see the requirements that must be met, see the section titled “Sefarditas.”

Initially, it seemed that the law was granting anyone of Sephardic ancestry instant citizenship; at least, that is how some newspapers interpreted it.  However, the statute is very clear about the particulars that shall be met in order to obtain citizenship by this means. 

One of the provisions calls for documented proof of a connection between the surname of a contemporary claimant and the recorded use of that surname among the Jews of Spain before 1492. Alternatively, it demands proof of a family’s use of a spoken language that substantiates a historical connection to fifteenth century Spain.  As far as names go, many people may be familiar with the Germanic and Slavic surnames of Ashkenazic Jews; however, you may also have come across many Hispanic surnames without realizing that these too may be Jewish surnames–the Sephardic sort.  As far as language is concerned, the name for the Spanish spoken by descendents of the Jews of Spain is Ladino; it is also known as Djudeo-Espanyol to name its principal appellations. 

For those who are curious to see a sample of Ladino as transcribed in the Roman script, you may read this essay titled El Sefardizmo by Dr. Albert de Vidas.  Those who speak Spanish will find it very easy to read and understand as it is phonetic; and it is Spanish.  People from remote places in Texas, the Southwest, and Mexico may even find some forms very familiar; but in modern Spanish, these have become archaisms.  (For film aficionados:  a foreign film, Every Time We Say Goodbye, features a Sephardic family in Jerusalem during the Second World War.)

The Spanish Inquisition and the subsequent Mexican Inquisition, which remained in force between the 15th and 19th centuries, were particularly harsh. (There were earlier periods of inquisition, of course; but these are not germane to our post.) The case of Don Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a sixteenth century Mexican whose family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism to escape expulsion or death,  is a striking one. The inquisition got word that his family may be practicing crypto-Judaism.  His daughter was tortured until she implicated the whole family.  Don Luis died in prison, while his family was tortured and killed; at least one of them committed suicide to end the torture. 

Fear of a similar fate might explain why many families, particularly in Mexico, deliberately chose to suppress and in effect to forget their ancestry.  But culture has an interesting way of preserving the past and thrusting it into the future.  Whether as unconscious syncretism or as an especially enduring form of crypto-Judaism, cultural practices have served as the perfect vessel, accidental or intentional, for transmitting ancestral tradition.

Don Luis was one of the forefathers and the governor of the modern-day Mexican state of Nuevo León.  I find Luis de Carvajal’s story particularly interesting because it includes fascinating vignettes of some of the regions where I grew up and visited, namely, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas (which included the modern-day state of Aguascalientes), Padre Island, Nuevo León, and Coahuila (de Zaragoza), among others.  According to this article on Carabajal (Carvajal), “It is safe to assume that a number of these early colonists were Spanish Jews, who, under the guise of Maranos, had hoped to escape persecution and find prosperity in the New World.”

For more information on anti-Semitism in Visigothic Spain and the Visigothic Code, see this article.

For those of you of crypto-Sephardic ancestry, enjoy the capirotada during these holidays.

Comments (15)

  1. And if you want to see and hear some traditional Sephardic music from the Library’s American Folklife Center, check out Flory Jagoda,

  2. Since jews have suffered so much because non jews are so evil, why do you suppose it never occurred to them to live in their own country and stay away from the bad people?

  3. Its always delightful to read about jews, especially on Good Friday. Without articles on jews we would get withdrawal. Thank you for this walk down memory lane.

  4. Comments posted on this blog do not reflect the views of the Library of Congress. Comments are not edited before they are posted. We have received some questions about our comment policy. We do not publish comments that are off-topic or otherwise inconsistent with the policy.

  5. The regulations enacted in 2012 are somewhat confused in this article: the “instructions” were published in October 2012 and refered to the hitherto valid legislation on how Sephardic Jews could obtain Spanish citizenship (2 years of residence, according to the change of the código civil in 1982, art. 22). The measure to grant Sephardic Jews unconditional citizenship (that is, without having had to reside in Spain before application) was announces only afterwards, in November 2012. It is enacted through the “carta de naturaleza”, a discretionary process that is describes in art. 21 of the código civil, and, thus, does not interfere with the aforementioned process that is still a viable option for Sephardic Jews seeking to naturaliza in Spain.

    • Thanks for your comment, Julian.

  6. It would be enlightening to place the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Sephardic Jews within the context of the religious struggles that beset European Christianity in the decades leading up to the Protestant Reformation of 1517. In simple terms, the Protestants were reacting to the restrictive measures that Rome was imposing on members who wished to reform the institution. These reformers were persecuted by the same Inquisition. (Weirdly, the Reformers were rabidly antisemitic, too – just read some of Martin Luther’s comments). I’d appreciate someone explaining what led to the Inquisition. Presumably, the Roman church did not always persecute Jews and reformers in a formal, official, global and systematic way – or did it?

  7. Barbara:Prior to 1948,there was no Jewish state to return to.The best we,Jews, could hope for was that some country would be nice to us and open its doors to us when in need (and then treat us decently).The events of 1938-45 showed that there weren’t too many such countries.

  8. Robert:I doubt the Edict of Expulsion had anything to do with the activities of Luther, Calvin,Knox,,Zwingli,and other reformers.The Reformation got under way (big time) in the 16th century AFTER the EDICT had already been issued-and there were plenty of expulsions before 1492.The main driving force behind the EDICT was a desire for religious and national uniformity by the Spanish crown.That coupled with greed-Jewish assets reverted to the Crown- and a powerful hatred of Jews triggered it.And the seeds of Christian hatred of Jews are found in the Gospels themselves.All branches of Christianity-Roman,Greek,and Reformed-have been guilty of this at times.Though to be fair there have always been decent Christians
    who opposed this tendency.

  9. This article does not mention that Muslims were expelled by the Spanish ten years later in 1502. The Reconquista against the Muslims, taking Granada, was accomplished in 1492.

  10. How can I get a copy of the Alhambra Decree certified?

  11. Why is there no mention at all of the Talmud and the horrible things it says about Jesus and the non Jews ? Jesus is boiling in excrement as a punishment for leading the “Israelites” astray. I put Israelites in quotes because modern Jews are not ancient Hebrews or Israelites, they follow the Talmud which is what Judaism is based on.

    Also there is no mention of toedot yeshu which was also freely destributed in medieval Europe. It is an unflattering parody of jesus’ Life.

    Instead of talking about “antisemitism” why don’t you reasearch the Talmud and “Jewish supremacy”

  12. Please note: The Law Library of Congress does not endorse the views espoused as comments.

  13. Given the Christchurch and Tree of Life religious massacres, both of which were motivated by immigration issues, it’s clear that the bigotry that led to the Alhambra Decree remains and may even be resurgent today, sometimes under color of law.

  14. Yo creo que este comportamiento de los Reyes Católicos. Fernando e Isabel, se suma a muchos otros que durante toda la historia compromete a aquellos que quieren ser más papistas que el Papa,como primera medida despúes de múltiples lecturas me ha quedado claro, que no fueron los judíos quienes mataron a Jesús, sino los romanos,el gobierno títere de Jerusalén,fue el instrumento usado por el Imperio romano para deshacerse de alguien que los cuestionaba,que le abría los ojos al pueblo para que no se dejaran llevar como ovejas al matadero y se sacudieran el yugo romano,y esto era inconcebible para Herodes,Pilatos y Caifas titeres de ROMA

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