Memorial Day for the Victims of the Spanish Inquisition?

 Doğan Akman

A draft legislation submitted by MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh proposes to establish a Day to commemorate the victims of the Spanish Inquisition in Israel. This sounds fine, as far as it goes, and it is long very long overdue, since 1953 when Yad Vachem was established.

I say, as far as it goes, because it is hard to figure out why the memorial is limited to the Spanish Inquisition since it was not the only one on the Iberian Peninsula or in the overseas colonies. Spain’s overseas Inquisitions,  albeit not exclusively of Jews) were held in Mexico, Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) The Mexican headquarters also administered the Inquisitions in Guatemala, Chiapas, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica while the Peruvian inquisition administered all the Spanish territories in Panama and South America.

On the other hand, unlike the Spaniards, Portugal did not give the Jews, including those that fled Spain to take refuge in Portugal, the option of converting or being expelled. Instead, the King forcibly converted its entire Jewish population in 1497. After giving the freshly converted Jewish community a period of respite of about 24 years, the Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1521 and at times turned out to be harsher than the Spanish one. In due course, the Portuguese Inquisition expanded its territorial scope into its overseas colonies with the one at Goa believed to be the most vicious one of all.

The commemoration of the day when the Inquisition was established further fails to contextualise properly the Spanish Inquisition in that it is by any means not a stand apart enterprise but one responsive to the turn of events in the treatment of the Jews of Spain and the successive diasporas which this treatment generated.

Hence, in order to fully understand what the Inquisition was about it is necessary to go back to the popular persecutions, the killings and forced conversions of Spanish Jews and the looting of their property in 1348 and 1391, all of which continued during the further period of violence between 1391 and 1492.

Catholic Monarchs who intended to make Spain a country inhabited exclusively by Catholics soon became convinced that the converted Jewish population living in close proximity to the Jewish community was at risk of returning to Judaism and that this would defeat their design.

It was that conviction that led them to the decision in 1492 to give the remaining Jewish population the option to convert or to be expelled practically with nothing but the clothes they were going to be wearing on the day of their expulsion.

Consequently, the Spanish Inquisition did not really get its wings until after the expulsion, to keep a close watch on the converts and to prevent them from returning to their true faith. Hence, the ensuing rapid increase in arrests effected on the slightest suspicion; torture- guilty or innocent, to obtain confessions, confiscation of the offenders’ entire property and burnings at the stake, auto-da- fé, while those who could, fled the country at practically and returned to Judaism.

Just as importantly, the proposed Commemoration misses the celebratory end of the history when about 500 years later, the descendants of the Jews who were expelled from or fled Spain, Sardinia, Sicily and Portugal and settled in North Africa and in other Arab countries were yet again dispossessed and expelled, returned to their ancestral home, instead of to just another country and trade their dhimmi status for the full citizenship of Israel. The fact that they continued to be discriminated against by their Ashkenazi brethren is another story for another time.

Likewise, after spending pretty horrendous 15 years from the rise of the Nazis, starting in 1948, the descendants of the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian Jews who took refuge in the Ottoman Empire that became Turkey, enjoyed what their forefathers did not have in the preceding 500 years, and cherished the option of returning to their ancestral home and lands.

Finally, the story would not be complete without reference for those expelled from Spain and Sicily and Sardinia who re-established themselves in the Kingdom of Naples only to be re-expelled again in and between 1510 and 1540, along with their forcibly or voluntarily converted brethren native to the region, by the very same Spanish King Ferdinand II of Aragon who in 1503 acquired the title of King of Naples. Those among them who took refuge in the Ottoman Empire joined their Sephardic brethren. And again, a number of their descendants joined the self-expulsion movement back to ancestral home.

It so happens that while my paternal forefathers who bore and passed on a surname that could be traced to 12th century Spain, and yet had to be abandoned in 1943 for some of the usual reasons were expelled from Spain; my maternal forefathers originated from the Puglia region of the Kingdom of Naples and bore as surname, name of the City of Taranto in keeping with an old Sephardic practice.

To me, to reduce this painful, poignant and rich history of multiple, inter-related inquisitions and the geographic trajectories of those who chose freedom of religion and were expelled; those who anticipated the inhumanity of the events between 1348 and 1492 and of the Inquisition and fled them and their descendants who in the end, self-expelled themselves back to their ancestral home, to the commemoration of one inquisition in one single country does not commensurate with and does not properly serve the noble intentions of the initiator and of the sponsors of the legislation.

About the Author
Doğan Akman immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice as a Crown prosecutor, and then moved over to the to civil litigation branch . Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled "This is My New Homeland" published in Istanbul.
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