March 31st: Possibly the Darkest Date in Jewish History

Most Jews around the world are completely unaware of the significance of this date.

However, on the 31st March 1492 the Alhambra Decree, the Edict of Expulsion from Spain, was signed by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon and its territories and possessions by 31 July, of that year.

Thus with a stroke of the pen, the Catholic Monarchs, egged on by the rabidly anti-Jewish clergy, put an end to the largest and most distinguished Jewish community in the world.

Spanish Jewry as a community was unprecedented in the annals of time and Jewish history, and, it could be argued, framed Judaism, the Jewish People and their treatment by others for many centuries.

Many, like Rabbi Moses de Leon, redactor of The Zohar, and the famous Don Isaac Abrabanel, claimed that the Jews of Spain were descended from the noble families of Jerusalem from the time of the First Temple destruction. Abrabanel suggested that the name Ṭulayṭulah (Toledo) was given to the city by its first Jewish inhabitants and surmises that the name may have meant טלטול (wandering), on account of their wandering from Jerusalem.

Regardless of whether this is fact or fiction; we see the first definitive references to a Jewish presence in Spain during the Roman period.

Until the adoption of Christianity, relations between Jews and non-Jews on the Iberian Peninsula were good.

However, from the earliest part of the Fourth Century CE, the Synod of Elvira, an ecclesiastical synod held at Elvira in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica, now Granada in southern Spain, defined what would become a precedent across Europe by ostracizing the Jewish community from many areas of public life.

A few hundred years later, during 613 CE, in what was to be another precedent, the Visigoths, who had adopted Catholicism, forcibly converted 90,000 Jews. However, like their later descendants, most of them continued to adhere to Judaism in secret and were able to formally return to Judaism under a more tolerant reign.

With the conquest and occupation of Spain by the Moors led by Tariq ibn Ziyad in 711, the lives of the Sephardim changed dramatically. For the most part, the invasion of the Moors was welcomed by the Jews of Iberia. As a result of the relative tolerance the Arab invaders demonstrated towards the Jewish community, regulated under the restrictive dhimmi status, many from all over the Jewish world came to Spain, making it the largest community in the world and some maintaining that almost 90% of all Jews at one point lived on the Iberian Peninsular.

However, in the 12th Century once again the Jews of Spain were forcibly converted en masse, this time to Islam by the Almohads. There is dispute amongst scholars as to whether the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides converted to Islam in order to freely escape from Almohad territory, and then returned openly to Judaism in either the Levant or in Egypt.

Subsequently, Maimonides wrote a book on apostasy wherein he advocated accepting forced conversion rather than suffer martyrdom, which is still used as a guide for the treatment of Anousim today.

When the Catholic armies started to reclaim territories of Spain, Jews were stuck between a rock and a hard place, between two great religions and civilizations fighting for vital territory, both of whom had shown devastatingly ill will towards the Jewish minorities in towns and cities under their rule.

On March 15, 1391, anti-Jewish rioting broke out in Seville, Spain, initiating a cycle of violence and open hatred toward the Jews of Castile that culminated a century later in the Inquisition. The rioting in Seville spread to other parts of Spain – to Castile, Aragon and Catalonia, followed by the island of Majorca. Murderous rioting continued for many months.

The significance of the 1391 rioting went far beyond the massive toll in life and property. It began a wave of forced conversions of Jews, estimates of which range between tens of thousands and 200,000 individuals – up to half of the country’s Jews.

This split the community in two, a split in the Jewish world that is only now in the 21st Century beginning to be ameliorated somewhat with the return of Anousim (lit. ‘the forced ones’) and crypto-Jews (Jews who kept Judaism in secret out of fear of repercussions) to the Jewish fold.

The two communities, Jews and Anousim, lived side by side and on many occasions maintained communal and personal life and interrelations as before.

In fact, the purported reason for the decree signed on March 31st 1492 was to rid the Kingdom of the influence of the Jewish community on the Anousim who they had hoped, unsuccessfully, would become good Christians.

The Jews who managed to flee from Spain created, or at least bolstered, many of the great historic Jewish communities, whether in Israel, North Africa, Northern Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, most notably in today’s Turkey. Lesser known is the fact that many Sephardim fled into the European interior to places like Poland and Germany and after a relatively short integration became Ashkenazim.

However, the majority fled to Portugal where tens if not hundreds of thousands would be forcibly converted five years later and create an even larger amount of Anousim.

This seminal event left an indelible mark, perhaps like no other, on Jewish history. The Expulsion set off chains of events that helped shape Jewish history: Shabtai Zvi, Hassidism, Kabbala, the Haskala, Zionism and the first Jewish communities in the US and the UK, to name but a few.

Moreover, it also had an effect on world history as the date of the Expulsion was also the date that Christopher Columbus set sail to discover a western route to the Indies and subsequently discovered the ‘New World’. In fact, Columbus’ diary records the cataclysmic events of the Expulsion and we know that many of his fellow travelers were Anousim fleeing The Inquisition.

In 1992, at a ceremony marking the 500th anniversary of the Edict of Expulsion, Spain’s King Juan Carlos prayed alongside Israeli president Chaim Herzog and members of the Jewish community in the Beth Yaacov Synagogue in Madrid. The King said: ‘Sepharad (the Hebrew name for Spain) is no longer nostalgia, but a place where Jews should not be told to feel as if at home [a customary greeting to guests in Spain], because Hispano-Jews are at home in Spain.”

Thus, Spain finally and officially recognized the suffering of the Jews that occurred on that day 500 years prior. Last year, Spain went a step further and granted the right of citizenship to people, like this author, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain.

However, the Jewish People have never really come to terms with the significance of this date.

Although many commemorate the date of physical expulsion on Tisha B’Av, because it fell on that day in the Hebrew calendar, it is just one of many events we solemnly remember on our national day of mourning.

Nevertheless, March 31st should be properly remembered as a day of infamy, perhaps incomparable in its psychological effect on world Jewry like no other.

Moreover, we should use this date and as a people consider how to go beyond mere commemoration. This date was, before anything else, about dividing our people between those who were forcibly converted and those who were fortunately not.

The descendants of forcibly converted Jews of Spain and Portugal, numbering as many as 100 million around the world, are now seeking to reconnect with our people in numerous ways.

At Reconectar, we are creating a solution to a problem which began over 500 years ago by reconnecting our people in non-coercive, highly sophisticated and individualized way.

We call on the Jewish world to use this date as a springboard to help us correct an historic wrong and help Anousim who wish it, to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish world. Signing-up to our system will allow Jews to help both online and offline.

On March 31st 1492 it was decided that our people should be forcibly separated and disconnected, let this March 31st, 524 years later, be the beginning of the time when we reconnect our people and mitigate the effects of one of the darkest dates of Jewish history.

About the Author
Ashley Perry (Perez) is President of Reconectar and Director General of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities. He was adviser to Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 2009 to January 2015. He has also worked with several other government ministers, Members of Knesset and many of the leading international Jewish, Zionist and Hasbara organizations.