On Iberian Jews, Conversos and the Inquisition

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From the Editor

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On Iberian Jews, Conversos and the Inquisition

This edition of PortVitoria is about the Iberian Jews, a theme which has been in the media since 2014, when Portugal passed a law granting nationality to descendants of its Jewish populations expelled in 1497 and whose regulation was approved at the end of January 2015. This historical milestone is taken up by Norman Berdichevsky, whose article revisits Portugal’s past attempts to make reparations to the Jews in the 20th century.

‘Jews first settled in the Iberian Peninsula before the arrival of the Phoenicians in around 900 BCE. Jewish merchants settled along the coast of Spain during the time of King Solomon when this region was called Tarsus, or Tarshish’. This is taken from Ivone Garcia’s brief history of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula and is republished here from the internet site of the Association of Crypto Jews of the Americas.

As a result of new discoveries in archaeology, linguistics, and improvements in analytical methods, Jewish history is being rewritten in order to integrate into the world system history. Warwick Ball’s 2009 book ‘Out of Arabia. Phoenicians, Arabs and the Discovery of Europe’, reviewed in this edition, also mentions that the biblical place ‘Tarshish’ is now thought to be ‘Tartessus’ or ‘Tartessia’, in Iberia.

The cultural legacy of the Iberian Jews survives to this day in all places where Portuguese and Spanish are spoken. One example is the Jewish legacy in the Portuguese language, a theme explored by Jane Bichmacher de Glasman in her amusing article.

The designation ‘crypto-Jews’, which simply means ‘secret Jews’, applies to the converted Jews who continued to practice Judaism secretly and for that reason a target of the Inquisition. The latter is treated in the article by Joseph Pérez, a distinguished Spanish historian. In Pérez’s view, the Spanish Inquisition was an ideological mask used by the Catholic kings to appease the mobs and the aristocracy who felt threatened by the incipient bourgeoisie of the Spanish crypto-Jews.

A large number of Iberian Jews became exiles in other parts of Europe and in the Americas. One of the most notorious was Michael de Espinosa van Vidiger, father of the philosopher Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677), a Portuguese Jew who had settled in the Netherlands. The article by Antonio Bento is about the original spelling of the name of Spinoza as well as the location in Portugal from where Spinoza’s family originated. Also on the subject of Spanish exiles we offer a review of Henry Kamen’s 2007 book ‘The Disinherited: Exile and the Making of Spanish Culture, 1492-1975’ by Mark Falcoff, an emeritus scholar of the American Enerprise Institute.

Undoubtdely the expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal led to a prolonged period of intellectual and economical impoverishment in these countries. If we have learned anything from this lesson of history there are some relevant questions we should never stop asking. If the Inquisition was an ideological mask, what other types of masks could be serving other vested interests? What is the cost to society of yielding to mobs and failing to exercise tolerance and inclusiveness?

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien – July 2015

Pires-O`Brien, J. On Iberian Jews, Conversos and the Inquisition. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v.11, Jul-Dec, 2015. ISSN 2044-8236.

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