Jews Are Expelled from Spain

The expulsion of Jews from Spain through the edict of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I was launched to achieve religious unity, but it deprived Spain of a most industrious, productive, and intellectual population and helped to account for Spain’s decline.

Summary of Event

A people of the Diaspora, Jews have lived through most of their history without a country of their own, a minority group among other peoples. Because the Jewish community in Spain, particularly during the tenth through the twelfth centuries, was especially productive and influential culturally, that period is often called the golden age of Jewish history. During this time, Jews not only produced great works of philosophy, poetry, liturgy, theology, and a general literature for themselves but also served as the vital intellectual link between the Muslim Middle East and Christian Europe. Jews;expulsion from Spain
Torquemada, Tomás de
Ferdinand II (1452-1516)
Isabella I
Abravanel, Isaac ben Judah
Abraham Senior
Torquemada, Tomás de
Isabella I (queen of Spain)
Ferdinand II (king of Spain)
Senior, Abraham
Sixtus IV
Abravanel, Isaac ben Judah

The Jewish community in Spain had a long history. While the tradition that has the Jews living there during the time of Solomon is somewhat optimistic, history confirms their residence in the peninsula by the year 300, before the arrival of the Vandals. Although they adjusted as both urban and rural dwellers, they also seemed to have aroused the suspicion of early Christians. The oldest record of Spanish Christianity, included in the canons of the Council of Elvira (early fourth century), already encouraged a separation of Jews and Christians.

The Jews of medieval Spain were the smallest in number and the most vulnerable of the three major religious groups (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). They were sporadically persecuted by Christians and Muslims but managed to coexist with both and even prosper, achieving distinction in wealth and learning. The Jewish community reached the zenith of its development during the Muslim domination that began when Ṭāriq ibn-Ziyād invaded Spain from Morocco in 711. Hoping to improve their lot religiously and politically, the Jews welcomed the Arabs. Economically, too, the Muslim conquest was especially attractive to Jews. It opened the markets of North Africa and the entire Muslim world as far away as India. Intellectually, the Arabs had much to offer. They heralded the advance of a dynamic culture in which the legacy of Greece and Rome was wedded to that of Persia and India. Arabic became the international language of a vast caliphate. Islam;Spain

Eventually, feuds and dynastic disputes arose among the Muslims; by the eleventh century, Christian states in the north of Spain, even though disunified, were emboldened to undertake a reconquest (Reconquista) of their country. Reconquista The surrender of Toledo in 1085 meant that the Jews once again had to face the prospect of dealing with a Christian environment. Yet they found Berber conquest even more disconcerting when a new group of Berber conquerors, the Almohads, came to Spain in 1150 and repressed the Jews by forcing them to convert to Islam. Many fled to other Muslim domains in Africa or to other Christian centers in Spain. As the Christian reconquest continued, dynastic disputes within Christian Spain and the general social unrest affected the Jews adversely. Christianity;Spain
Catholicism;and Jews[Jews]

The pent-up fury of the Crusades was often visited on the Jews, and edicts of various Church councils, such as those of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, overrode any positive feelings Christian rulers might have had for their Jewish subjects. The introduction of the Inquisition Inquisition;Spain into Spain by papal bull made matters still worse. Mobs killed thousands of alleged heretics. Violence against the Jews climaxed in 1391 when massacres occurred in the ghettos of Seville, Barcelona, Toledo, and other major cities. Thousands accepted or were forced into conversion to Christianity. Some, the so-called crypto-Jews, Marranos Marranos , or accursed ones, feigned conversion while maintaining their practice of Judaism in secret. Converted Jews became a large minority and were suspected of insincerity by Christians and distrusted by Jews. As New Christians, they were not subject to the disabilities of Jews and rose to the highest positions in government, the Church, and commerce, further increasing discontent with the Jews.

Conflict between New Christians and Old Christians became bitter. In some cities, New Christians were excluded by statute from holding office. Priests and monks, including Cardinal Mendoza, the archbishop of Seville, and Tomás de Torquemada, denounced the New Christians as Jews.

The marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, a union arranged in part by a Jew, Abraham Senior, gave new enthusiasm to the national cause in Spain. Religious fanaticism grew to a high pitch and was chiefly directed against the new Jewish “Christians.” The Crown requested the establishment of the Inquisition, and Pope Sixtus IV granted it in 1478. The Inquisition had no authority over unbaptized Christians and could not touch the Jews. It dealt with the orthodoxy of the converts and with Jewish culture within the Church. Civil authorities began to enforce anti-Jewish restrictions rigidly and to banish Jews from municipalities.

Converts, or conversos, Catholicism;and Jews[Jews] still practicing Judaism at first suffered confiscation of their property. When Torquemada was appointed inquisitor general of Spain, he was determined to rid Spain of pseudo-Christians entirely. On February 6, 1481, the first auto-da-fé, or act of faith, was held, and six men and six women were burned at the stake. Practicing Jews were segregated and forced to wear identifying badges. Auto-da-fé (burning at stake)[auto da fe (burning at stake)]

Segregated by law and popular prejudice, Jews usually lived in ghettos in the major cities and entered the professions or commerce. The greatest prejudice against the Jews came from their role as financiers and tax collectors for kings, nobles, and the Church. Both Ferdinand and Isabella relied almost exclusively on Jewish financiers. Taxation;Spain

Ordinary Spaniards resented Jewish merchants for their success in money lending and trade. They were charged with making profits at the expense of the people. The Spanish chronicler Andrés Bernáldez, a parish priest, denounced them for being “merchants, salesmen, tax gatherers, retailers, stewards of nobles, officials, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, grocers, peddlers, silk-mercers, smiths, jewelers, and other trades; none tilled the earth or became a farmer, carpenter, or builder: all sought after comfortable posts and ways of making profits without much labour.”

When Granada, Granada, fall of (1492) the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, surrendered in November, 1491, and admitted Ferdinand and Isabella on January 2, 1492, the goal of the religious and national forces in Spain was reached. All that remained for complete unification was the subjugation of non-Christians. On March 31, 1492, an edict of expulsion ordered all Jews to leave Spain by the end of July. All who remained had to be baptized under threat of death. Efforts by Abraham Senior, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel, and others to have the edict revoked were in vain. Jews were expelled and went chiefly to North Africa, Italy, and Turkey, harassed by disease and pirates. Perhaps 100,000 went to Portugal but were expelled because of a pending marriage alliance between the king and the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand. No reliable figures exist for the number of Jews expelled. Probably about 180,000 Jews fled from Castile and Aragon and 50,000 converted.


The 1492 edict of expulsion brought about the end of a Jewish community that had lived in Spain for more than a millennium. The expulsion of Jews and Muslims caused Spain to pay a heavy price for its attempts at religious and political unification. The loss of many of Spain’s best and most productive citizens brought about a decline in the economy, commerce, literature, arts, sciences, education, professions, and population.

Further Reading

  • Alpert, Michael. Crypto-Judaism and the Spanish Inquisition. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Survey of crypto-Judaism both during and after the Inquisition. Looks at the long-term legacy of the “false” conversos. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Baer, Yitzhak. A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. Translated by Louis Schoffman. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961-1966. This work covers the entire history of Jews in Spain. It is unbiased and complete, and it details the reaction of the Jews.
  • Kamen, Henry. Inquisition and Society in Spain in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Describes the beginnings and procedures of the Inquisition as well as the context in which it developed and operated.
  • Lindo, Elias Hiam. The History of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, from the Earliest Times to Their Final Expulsion from Those Kingdoms, and Their Subsequent Dispersion, with Complete Translations of All the Laws Made Respecting Them During Their Long Establishment in the Iberian Peninsula. 1848. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970. Includes the beginnings of Jewish migration to Spain and Portugal, their early treatment, and extensive coverage of the expulsion with documents.
  • Liss, Peggy K. Isabel the Queen: Life and Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Good biography of Isabella, with excellent explanation of the reasons for and influences upon the expulsion.
  • Netanyahu, Benzion. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. 2d ed. New York: New York Review of Books, 2001. Places the expulsion of the Jews within a history of monumental scope, beginning in 525 b.c.e. Argues that the novelty of fifteenth century Spain’s treatment of Jews lay in their focus on race rather than religion, such that even sincere converts (of which the author believes there were many) were not trusted by the inquisitors or the government. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Neuman, Abraham A. The Jews of Spain. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1942. Excellent social study with a discussion of the Jewish community and its relationship with the king and Christians.
  • Paris, Erna. The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995. This history of the Inquisition discusses Torquemada’s use of the Holy Child of La Guardia trial to motivate the expulsion of Jews. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Roth, Norman. Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. Study of the experience of Jews under the Inquisition, especially those who attempted to convert to Catholicism. Includes bibliographic references and index.

Oct. 19, 1469: Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella

Nov. 1, 1478: Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition

1492: Fall of Granada

Beginning c. 1495: Reform of the Spanish Church

Aug. 15, 1534: Founding of the Jesuit Order