Esor Ben-Sorek
Esor Ben-Sorek

Tragedy and Triumph

The Jewish people had been living in Spain since the Roman period. In Spain they created great scholars of Torah, literature, science and medicine. Many were appointed as personal physicians to the kings of Spain. The Jews were loyal to their Spanish homeland and their scholastic influences reached deeply into Spanish cultural life.

All this came to an end after many centuries of Jewish life as the result of the March 31, 1492 decree of expulsion of all Jews from Spain, known as the Alhambra Edict of Expulsion under the orders of the rulers Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, influenced by the Catholic Cardinal Tomas de Torquemada.

But the expulsion was the final act of Spanish cruelty preceded by many years of torture at the stake, being burned alive, forced to convert to Catholicism or die.

Some Jews chose conversion and visibly lived as Catholics while internally hiding their Jewish religious rites and practices where possible without being discovered and brought to the Spanish courts for trial.

Thousands who were discovered were ultimately tortured and burned alive together with Torah scrolls and Jewish books of prayer.

Those who survived discovery were known as marranos, often forced converts to Christianity but who practiced Jewish religion in secret. It is thought that in the fifteenth century there were more than 150,000 Jewish converts.

Those who accepted willingly the Catholic faith in order to survive persecution and death were called conversos. Their exact numbers are not known.

But they rose to high ranks in the hierarchy of Spain, intermarried with wealthy Spanish families and prospered.

It remains a tribute to Jewish fortitude that so great a number of Jewish religious scholars and commentators on the bible, Talmud and rabbinic texts were born in Catholic Spain and produced their greatest written commentaries and literature while living in Spain.

They triumphed under the tragedy of life in Spain.

Similarly, about two hundred years following the expulsion of the Jews the hammer fell upon the Muslims in Spain. They too, like the Jews, produced great scholars particularly in the fields of science and medicine.

They wrote enormous beautiful tomes of poetry heralding life in Andalusia … poetry which is read to this day.

But the tragedy of the Jewish marranos and conversos soon made its way into the Muslim lands in Catholic Spain. They were forced to convert to Christianity by the sword or face swift and terrifying death.

300,000 Muslims, known as Moriscos or Moors, were forcibly expelled from Spain by the edict of the Catalan king Philip III on August 9, 1609.

They were descendants of an earlier Spanish Muslim population which had converted to Christianity by order of the Spanish Catholic king.

An anti-Muslim rebellion occurred in Valencia in the 1520’s and Muslims were given the choice of conversion or expulsion from all Spanish territory.

Hundreds of thousands settled in North Africa as refugees and they created an Arab Andalusian civilization and culture between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries.

The majority of them settled in Morocco and lived in peace among the earlier arrived Spanish Jews.

Jews and Muslims had survived the tragedy of death, forced conversion, and expulsion and triumphed in creating a great culture which exists to this day among Sephardic Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

From tragedy to triumph is an example of fortitude and faith. Jews and Muslims did not fall under their common tragedy.

Instead, they continued to create, build and share a great culture respected and admired by the world.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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