BOOKS

The Jews of Spain

BRIAN BETHUNE December 25 1995
BOOKS

The Jews of Spain

BRIAN BETHUNE December 25 1995

The Jews of Spain

BOOKS

Harmony preceded their expulsion in 1492

THE END OF DAYS By Erna Paris (Lester, 327pages, $28.95)

For the inhabitants of the Americas, it is Columbus's historic voyage that defines 1492 as a significant date. But the discovery of the New World was only one of a series of momentous events that collectively mark that year as the turning point between medieval and modern Spain. Columbus’s sponsors, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, whose marriage in 1469 created Spain from their two realms, also issued an edict that forms the core of Erna Paris’s powerfully told cautionary tale: they expelled their Jewish subjects from Spain.

Paris, a Toronto author whose previous works include a study of the French trial of Gestapo commandant Klaus Barbie (Unhealed Wounds, 1985), turns here to the central tragedy of medieval Jewry. Although the expulsion was the culmination of a century of increasing intolerance, forcible conversions and pogroms, that bleak period had itself been preceded by centuries of peaceful co-existence with Muslims and Christians. Spain was at once the heartland of European Jewry, the place of its greatest cultural achievements and the home of the only multireligious society in Western Europe.

What resonates for contemporary readers is Paris’s painstaking rendition of the process, little changed from 15th-century Spain to 20th-century Yugoslavia, by which the majority society turned its minority neighbors into aliens in its midst. Hundreds of years of past co-existence mattered hardly at all as Jews came to be seen as poisons in the body politic.

All over Europe, the manifold disasters of the 14th century—worsening climate, plague and endemic warfare—virtually destroyed the social order for decades. In multicultural Spain, the continent’s usual scapegoats, the Jews, were greater in number and prominence than anywhere else. As Christian military success against the Muslim states of the south altered the balance of power among the three religious groups, Spanish Christians began to categorize Spanish Jews as outsiders whose very presence was an offence to God.

Movements arose whose mission was to convert the Jews to Christianity, forcibly if necessary. Harried by punitive laws and increasing violence, thousands of Jews (especially those of the higher social classes) were baptized, swelling the ranks of a new social group, the conversos. But newly Christianized Jews did not abandon their ancestral customs or homes in the Jewish quarter. And for the intolerant, the “otherness” that so troubled them continued.

Soon the conversos were under the same attack as Jews, viewed as no different from their ancestors. Medieval anti-Semitism was metamorphosing into its even more horrifying modern incarnation: the “taint” no longer stemmed from religious faith (which could be rectified by baptism) but lay incurable in the blood. By the mid-15th century the first “pure blood” statutes were enacted, excluding anyone of Jewish descent from holding office. In the end, in the fateful year of 1492, the king and queen proclaimed their own Final Solution, the Edict of Expulsion. Given three months to leave, Jews who refused to convert departed for the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and the low countries.

Paris presents the entire story with consummate skill and balance, managing the difficult feat of describing the demonization of the Jews without herself demonizing the Christians. And it is her frequent tributes to the courage and decency of those few Christians who defied the laws and stood by their Jewish neighbors that provides the only note of hope in a despairing story that has been repeated so many times since.

BRIAN BETHUNE