Each year on the Ninth of Av, Jews fast and mourn in remembrance of the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Reciting the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Jews weep for the loss of the first and second temple, destroyed on the same day of the Hebrew calendar, the Ninth of Av, over six hundred years apart. Jews on this day lament the death and destruction suffered by the Diaspora in their years of separation from Jerusalem. Central to the horrors remembered is the forced expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492 on the Ninth of Av. The sustained memory of the Spanish Inquisition and the grief it has engendered through the centuries reflects the enormity of this event in all of Jewish history.
In Spain’s Golden Age, Sephardic Jewry, the world’s largest Jewish community, was a beacon of progress and prosperity. However, racism, religious bigotry, and a thirst for power paved the way for the genocidal course Spain eventually chose. But just as the Western Wall defiantly stands today as a last vestige of the Holy Temple, the survival of Sephardic Jewry, after centuries of persecution, bears testimony to the indestructibility of the Jewish people.
Early Jewish pioneers and settlers in Spain
971 BC: With the succession of King Solomon, the united kingdoms of Judah and Israel experience enormous growth in power and riches. King Solomon extends his business ventures across the Mediterranean Sea to Tarshish, the west coast of modern day Spain. According to the scriptures (I Kings 10:22 and II Chronicles 9:21), every three years King Solomon and Phoenician King Hiram bring ships in from Tarshish “carrying gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.” Due to this expanded trade relationship, many historians assume Jewish merchants began arriving to Tarshish on King Solomon’s boats or with Phoenician merchants from Sidon and Tyre. This being the case, Jews are likely the first pioneers and settlers in Spain during the area’s earliest period of civilization.
722 BC: Shortly after Assyria conquers the ten northern tribes of the kingdom of Israel and takes them away into captivity, records tell of a large influx of people who move to the Iberian Peninsula. According to legends, these people have Hebrew-like names and are of Hebrew descent.
586– 549 BC: Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar sacks Jerusalem and forces the remaining two southern tribes into exile in Babylon. Many Jews flee to Tarshish during the time of the Babylonian exile but historians debate the exact point the escape to Tarshish took place. The Hebrew exiles could have escaped during the deportation from Jerusalem to Babylon, during the oppressive Babylonian exile, or once the Babylonian exile was over. Most likely, the largest Jewish migration across the Mediteranean happens at the end of Babylonian exile in 549 BC, after the united Media and Persian empires conquer Babylon. The new King Cyrus gives permission for Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. At the time of the mass return to Jerusalem, it is expected some Jewish exiles opted for Tarshish instead of Jerusalem to join the Jewish community and traders already believed to be living there.
135- 409 AD: After the Romans suppress the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem, many Jews flee across the Mediterranean to Spain. For three hundred years the Jewish community in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain) enjoys a period of prosperity in trade and prominence in the sciences and arts.
325 AD: Roman Emperor Constantine presides over the Council of Nicea, convened to address theological issues dividing the Christian Church on the nature of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity. After much heated debate, the truth revealed in the scriptures of Jesus’s eternal nature and true divinity is confirmed, Arianism is declared heresy, and the Nicene Creed is formulated. While this is a positive product of the Council, the Council also passes several civil legislations that are at their core anti-Jewish and aimed at completely separating the Christian Church from Judaism.
Differentiating Christian and Jewish holidays and observances is priority. While Christians at this time are still celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus on the Jewish Passover, the Council changes the date of the Gentile Passover to the first day of spring to ensure it will never coincide with the Jewish Passover. Christians have, until this point, observed the Sabbath on the seventh day, Saturday. The Council changes the Christian Sabbath to Sunday. These measures are an intentional blow to Judaism and they are stepping stones for future anti-Jewish legislation and theological conclusions in subsequent councils. Replacement theology and anti-Semitism are created from the birth of the institutional church and persecution of Jews will forever be justified on these evil premises.
Arian Visigoths rule Spain, 409 – 711 AD
409 AD: After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths—Arian Christians from what is now Western Germany—take over the Iberian Peninsula. In the first two-hundred years of their three-hundred year rule, the Visigoth nobility is tolerant of Jews, primarily because the Jewish population significantly outnumbers the Arian population.
586- 589 AD: Visigoth King Reccared converts from Arianism to Trinitarian Catholicism and declares Christianity as the legalized religion of the state. Reccared tries to fuse the religious doctrines of the Visigoth nobility and Catholic population to produce a more unified Spanish Christian nation. As the Church gains power behind the throne, Reccared is the first Visigoth king to take up an operational anti-Jewish policy.
The Visigoths are known for their obsessive use of legal codes to govern economic, political, and religious life. This affinity for legislation is especially evident in the dozens of detailed anti-Semitic cannons passed at various important councils during Visigoth rule. The laws relating to Jews and Jewish-Christian relations are often overlapping and inconsistent, which suggests the Visigoths were not as effective enforcing the laws as they were creating them.
The first of the cannons against the Jews are a product of the Third Council of Toledo. In an attempt to conserve religious orthodoxy, Jews are forbidden to marry Christian women, hold public office, and own Christian slaves.
612 AD: King Sesbut outlaws Judaism after many of his edicts against the Jews are not enforced. All Jews in the Visigoth kingdom must be baptized within the year or be forcefully exiled. All Jewish children over seven are to be taken from their parents. The majority of Jews refuse to convert and some escape to North Africa. Many who fled choose to return to Spain after King Chintila succeeds Sesbut.
633 AD: At the Fourth Council of Toledo, forced conversions are disapproved. However, Jews who already converted to Christianity—hereafter referred to as Anusim—but have backslidden are given very harsh punishments. Canons pass to take circumcised children from heretical Jewish families and put them in monasteries. If Anusim make contact with unconverted Jews, both parties are punished. Canons prohibit Jews and Anusim from holding public office or owning Christian slaves.
638 AD: At the Sixth Council of Toledo, Spain is declared a Catholic land and therefore only loyal Catholics are allowed to live in Spain. King Chintila ratifies a decision requiring all Anusim to swear an oath—a “Declaration of Faith”—that they will be loyal Christians, rid themselves of all Jewish practices and customs, marry Christians, abstain from kosher foods, and destroy all Jewish materials. All unconverted Jews are to be banished from Spain.
653– 656 AD: At the Eighth Council of Toledo, King Recceswinth issues a new code requiring all unconverted Jews to leave Spain or be baptized. All Anusim must practice standard Catholicism at the risk of severe public punishment. Violators are put on trial and if accused of any misdemeanor, they are to be stoned, burned, or beheaded. At the Ninth Council of Toledo, King Recceswinth elaborates on the ways in which Anusim are to be closely guarded to ensure their abandonment of Jewish customs. For example, all Anusim must be in the presence of a Catholic bishop when celebrating Christian festivals.
Thus far, all anti-Jewish decrees have been enforced with limited success so the aim of the Tenth Council of Toledo is to clamp down on Church leaders who have not been helpful in enforcing the restrictions and monitoring the practices of Anusim.
680– 687 AD: King Erwig abolishes the death penalty for disloyal Anusim but reinforces the laws against “judaizing”—practicing Judaism in secret—by making punishments more severe and frequent. All Jews who have not yet converted are given the option of baptism or exile, but those who choose exile are to be publicly flogged. Also during this time, further restrictions are placed on Anusim to supervise their Christianity. Restrictions are placed on the travel of Anusim and before they are allowed to make a business transaction with a Christian, they must say the Lord’s Prayer and eat pork to prove their sincerity. The Twelfth Council of Toledo decrees the burning of all Jewish books.
693– 694 AD: King Egica at the Sixteenth Council of Toledo passes heavy economic policies to punish Jews. Jewish wealth is confiscated and properties previously owned by Christians must be surrendered by their current Jewish owners. Anusim are required to pay high taxes while un-baptized Jews are prohibited from commerce all-together.
At the Seventeenth Council of Toledo, Egica charges Jews with planning to “exterminate the Christian people and their homeland.” Jews are believed to be plotting with the Moors to undermine the Church and defeat the Visigoth Kingdom. Accordingly, the Jewish religion is completely outlawed. All Jews are reduced to the status of slaves. All Jewish property is confiscated and Jewish children are taken from their homes and given to Christian families or monasteries.
Moorish Rule of Spain, 711 – 1212 AD
711- 719 AD: Tariq Ibn Ziyad—commander of a 12,000 member Moorish Muslim army—invades Spain and defeats King Rodrigo and his Visigoth army of 60,000. Many North African Jews who had fled persecution from Visigoth rule return to Spain to fight under the command of Ziyad. While the Moors go from city to city in their military conquest of Spain, they utilize their Jewish allies to garrison conquered areas. After eight years of fighting, all the Iberian Peninsula—except for small areas in Northern Spain—falls under the rule of the Caliphate and Islamic Sharia. The harsh rule of the Visigoths is officially over and replaced by a more tolerant, although unpredictable, Moorish rule.
Despite their military power, the Muslims are a minority in this newly conquered land. It is critical for their survival to maintain and solicit Jewish support. Jews are allowed to practice their religion freely and govern themselves, but they are required to pay a special tax, wear identifying clothing, and live in separate communities.
711- 1066 AD: Under Moorish rule, particularly with the Umayyad dynasty, Spain experiences it’s “Golden Age” as a prominent social and cultural capital of the world. Under this new leadership and flourishing environment, many formerly exiled Jews return to Spain and Jews fleeing persecution in Europe come as refugees. Sephardim flourish intellectually, socially, and economically. In trade, Spanish Jews become major importers and exporters of precious goods. In the arts and sciences, Jewish intellectuals study and translate Greek philosophers’ original writings and develop new philosophies incorporating Jewish theology. Hebrew language and grammar are revived. Jewish scholars invent algebra and develop trigonometric theories. Jews also rise to the highest ranks in the public sector, serving and advising the Caliph and Spanish courts.
1066 AD: As Muslim leaders begin to feel threatened by the growing Christian kingdom in Northern Spain, instances of Jewish persecution become more frequent. In Granada, particularly, Muslims are suspicious and jealous of the prominence and power of the Jewish community. On 30 December, Joseph Ha-Nagid—the Jewish commander of the Army of Granada and son of the well-known vizier Samuel Ha-Nagid—is assassinated by Muslim fanatics. In the ensuing riots, the Jewish quarter of Granada is razed and 4,000 of Granada’s Jews are massacred. Many Jews manage to flee to Christian Spain in the North.
1098 AD: While the armies of the First Crusade are conquering Jerusalem, Christian armies in Spain launch their own crusade and reconquer Toledo. Jews in Toledo prosper under Christian rule, while Jews in Muslim Spain suffer from limited freedom and an increasingly volatile environment. By this time period, more Jews live in Spain than all the other European countries combined.
1146- 1156 AD: A fanatical Muslim political party from North Africa—known as the Almohads—conquers Morocco and many Southern cities in Spain. The Almohads impose the fullest restrictions on non-Muslims. Jewish properties are confiscated, wives and children are sold into slavery, and Yeshivas and synagogues are burned down. In Almohad Spain all Jews are forced to convert to Islam or sent into exile.
From the Christian Reconquest of Spain to the Spanish Inquisition, 1212 – 1492 AD
1212 AD: The Pope declares the reconquest of Spain a crusade. King Alfonso VIII of Castile recruits the help of all the Spanish kingdoms and leads a coalition of Christian armies in the great battle of Las Nevas de Tolosa. This decisive victory over the Almohad sultan shatters Almohad power in Spain. The Almohads, already weakened from years of internal discord, begin their retreat. Rapidly, the Christian armies reconquer the rest of central Spain. Granada is the only place on the Iberian Peninsula Muslims continue to rule until 1492.
Though taxes under Christian rule are heavy, the Jews are happy to see an end to the oppressive Almohad dynasty. Spanish Jewry prospers and lives in peace with its Christians neighbors. Jews enjoy a period of religious freedom and protection by the state.
In the 13th century, there are two major contributions to Jewish biblical study. First, Sephardic scholars translate the bible into Spanish. Then, Rabbi Moses de Leon writes and compiles the Zohar, the Book of Splendor. The sacred book of the Zohar is the basis of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and its teachings spread throughout Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, gaining significant popularity.
1233-1235 AD: The Papacy, now with restored power through the Catholic monarchies in Spain, is concerned about the centuries of fraternizing between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Pope Gregory IX believes the Spanish monarchs and clergy are not dealing harshly enough with the Jewish and Muslim populations. French troops are thus commissioned to Spain to assist the Spanish reconquest and more severely deal with what are seen as the heretical religious minorities. The Pope also commissions the Archbishop of Tarragona to appoint inquisitors. One of the first decrees to be enforced is the “Jew badge,” a yellow linen patch to be worn by all Jews to distinguish them from Christians.
1265 AD: King Alfonso X of Castile compiles Las Siete Partidas, a code of law which is anti-Jewish in its nature but does establish certain protective measures for Jews, their religion, and property. The laws—which do not technically go into effect until 1348—provide that Jews maintain their religious freedom and are allowed to build synagogues as long as they are limited in size and number. However, the law also stipulates that Jews are not allowed to marry or live with Christians, own Christian slaves, or be in any position of authority over Christians. Christians who convert to Judaism are to be put to death.
1267 AD: Pope Clement IV establishes the Inquisition in Rome, giving permission to Franciscan and Dominican inquisitors to investigate the lives of Anusim and reaffirming the use of torture as part of the investigation.
1348- 1354 AD: The “Black Death” rages in Europe, killing nearly half of the total population. Rumors spread that conspiring Jews from Spain poisoned the wells of Christians to cause the plague. This myth prompts angry mobs all over Europe to massacre thousands of Jews. Spanish Jewry suffers less than Jews in Germany and France but in Toledo 12,000 Jews are killed by angry mobs.
1391 AD: While the peasantry in Spain is overtaxed and overburdened, Jews prove to be an easier scapegoat than the monarchy. Ferrant Martinez, Archdeacon of Ecija, capitalizes on these feelings by roaming the country, stirring up riots, and preaching fiery anti-Semitic sermons, claiming Jews represent the devil among them. Martinez commands clergy of various towns to tear down synagogues and confiscate Jewish property. Looting and terrorizing leads to massacres. In Seville alone, 4,000 Jews are killed. In June and August, a total of 50,000 Jews are killed from seventy communities. It is estimated that after a year of violence, over 100,000 Jews are killed and over 100,000 are baptized by the Church quickly enough to avoid execution. Jews who avoid execution and conversion flee from Spain and establish Sephardic communities throughout Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Smaller groups go to Western Europe and Holland.
1413-1415 AD: In an effort to compel the remaining Jews in Spain to convert to Christianity, there are forced religious debates to determine whether Jesus was the true Messiah. The debates—known as the Disputation of Tortosa—are held between Jews and a converted Jew and aid to the Pope Boniface XIII, Jeronimo de la Santa Fe. As a result of these debates and increased persecution, thousands of Jews convert to Christianity. Most Jews in the government, justice system, and financial administration are primarily secular and therefore quick to be baptized so they can maintain their appointed prestigious positions. In addition to the conversions, there are also many interfaith marriages during this period between wealthy Anusim and Christian nobility. The marriages are convenient since Anusim are in need of social status while the Christians lacked the wealth they need to match their social positions.
1449 AD: With thousands of new Jewish converts in Spain, tensions arise between old and new Christians. Part of this animosity towards Anusim derives from the fact that many are known to still be practicing Judaism in secret. There is also significant jealousy towards the Anusim because they are now able to use their status as Christians to move up the ranks in Spanish society. Discrimination of Anusim officially takes on racial tones when the City Council of Toledo passes the “purity of blood” statutes. These statues use family histories to try and distinguish Christians of “pure stock” from Christians with Jewish ancestry. The statutes prohibit impure Christians from holding any public or private office where they may “exercise power over old Christians.”
1479 AD: The marriage of Ferdinand V of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile unite the two Spanish kingdoms. As Queen Isabella establishes order and centralizes authority in a relatively short period of time, the united Spanish kingdom becomes one of the more powerful states in Europe. Maintaining royal political power and unity is a priority to the monarchy but the threat of a popular uprising looms large. Given the large scale animosity felt towards Anusim, establishing an inquisition is one option for satisfying the masses.
1481- 1492 AD: The Queen becomes convinced by her confessor, Friar Thomas de Torquemada, that heretical Jews pose a threat to the kingdom’s unity. As a result, the Queen orders a papal inquisition in Seville and appoints Torquemada as the Inquisitor-General. As Torquemada displays a ruthless determination in rooting out the heretics, the Inquisition quickly spreads throughout Spain. The inquisitors seek out, investigate, torture, and often kill Anusim who are found guilty of practicing Judaism in secret. While the Inquisition initially investigates the piety of only those accused of heresy, it quickly becomes a racial exercise, targeting all Anusim just for being of Jewish descent. Even Jewish converts of nobility or social stature are not immune to the Inquisition. The Inquisition relies on informers and their suspicions. Once a heretic is identified, torture is used to procure confessions, even forced and false ones. Heretics are then given a public trial of humiliation, auto-da-fe, to determine their sentence. 13,000 are found guilty of judaizing—2,000 of whom are burned at the stake while the rest are whipped, imprisoned, or enslaved. The wealth and property of the Anusim is confiscated and divided between the Inquisition, the Church, and the Queen. After a long and expensive war to recapture Granada from the Muslims, the monarchy’s coffers are in bad need of this increase in their funds.
1492 AD: On 31 March, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sign a certificate of expulsion, the Alhambra Decree, which orders all Jews left in Spain to either convert to Christianity or leave the country within four months. While tens of thousands of Jews are quickly baptized, around 100,000 flee to Portugal, and another 100,000 flee to modern-day Italy, Holland, North Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, the Balkans and the new colonies. They are forced to leave behind all of their valuable possessions.
1492- 1497 AD: Around half of the Jews escaping Spain flee to Portugal. The Portuguese King John II allows the entry of these Jewish refugees on the condition that they will pay a heavy tax and if they do not leave within a year they will become slaves to the King. After the year deadline passes, very few Jews have the means to leave Portugal and are forced into slavery.
This arrangement does not last long before King Manuel comes to power and cancels the slavery status of Jews. Instead, Manuel decides to capitalize on the Jews’ skills and wealth as free people. While Jews must continue to abide by certain discriminatory legislations, they use their relative freedom to flourish economically and attain high positions as counselors and ministers.
However, Manuel soon bows to the pressure of the Catholic Kings and his future wife, Princess Isabel, to rid Portugal of Jews. He issues an edict for the forceful conversion of all Sephardim in Portugal and the placement of all Jewish children in the custody of the Church. In response, thousands of Sephardim try to leave Portugal, but Manuel outlaws emigration because he does not want to lose the assets Jews have afforded his kingdom. In one specific incident, he tricks thousands of Sephardim to go to the port of Lisbon with the promise that ships are arriving to take them to their chosen destinations. While they are waiting for embarkation, they are caught by surprise and 20,000 are carried off to churches to be forcibly baptized. After burning Hebrew books and destroying synagogues, the King decrees that for twenty years there are to be no inquiries or investigations of the practices of these new converts. With this understanding, clandestine Judaism thrives in Portugal for the next three decades.
Sephardim in the New World
1492- 1502 AD: Two days before the deadline for the Spanish expulsion, Columbus sails to the New World. Columbus’s four voyages are funded by three wealthy Anusim: Sanchez, Santangel, and Abranbanel. Many historians believe there is sufficient evidence Columbus was of Jewish descent and the sense of urgency in his voyages was because many of Columbus’s passengers were fleeing Jews. The total number of Anusim who sail to the New World in these voyages is unknown but estimates are high and continue to grow. Hoping to start a new life and live in freedom and autonomy, many Jews flee to the New World because an inquisition in the colonies has not yet been established and many parts of Europe are closed to Jews. Technically, several decrees barred the entry of Jews into the colonies but through bribery, secrecy, and forged documents, thousands manage to secure a place on the boats. Sephardim settle in colonies that are now modern day Cuba, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, and the Southwestern part of the U.S.
1506 AD: During Passover, anti-Semitic riots break out in Lisbon, Portugal. Over three thousand Anusim are massacred. At this time, Anusim are still protected by law in Portugal and their persecution or murder is illegal. Upon hearing the news of the Lisbon massacre, King Manual is furious and orders the execution of forty-five of the ringleaders, including two monks. For the next twenty years, Portuguese Anusim live free from routine persecutions or local hostilities but they are more careful in hiding their Jewish practices.
1531- 1540 AD: Pope Clement VII authorizes an inquisition tribunal in Portugal. The Anusim of Portugal knew for three years about the coming Inquisition but King John III prohibited their emigration. The first auto-da-fe in Portugal took place in Lisbon in 1540. Thereafter, thousands of Anusim convicted of heresy are robbed, imprisoned, tortured, or burned at the stake. Many Anusim manage to flee Portugal, escaping to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the New World—all places where there are existing Sephardic communities.
1571 AD: After the Inquisitions, Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal move in large numbers to cities in Mexico such as Oaxaca, Vera Cruz, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. According to chronicles from the period, the combination of Jews and Anusim far outnumber true Catholics. Free from the Inquisition, many of these Anusim circumcise their children, eat kosher, and even build synagogues.
By 1531, Catholic Franciscans in Mexico are fed up and write to the Spanish Monarch complaining the Anusim are taking over the lands of the New World. Though local Franciscan inquisitors have already been conducting auto-da-fes in Mexico for forty years, in 1571, Pope Philip II orders the establishment of a formal inquisition tribunal in Mexico and Peru—the first tribunals in the New World.
During the entire colonial period of Mexico, approximately 1,500 Anusim are convicted of heresy. Punishments include confiscation of property, lashes or public beatings, a lifetime of wearing a “holy sac,” or execution. Inquisition records show that out of those Anusim found guilty of heresy, approximately 110 were executed. Although these numbers do not include those victims who died in prison or from torture, they are very small in comparison to the thousands massacred and burned at the stake by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.
1579- 1596 AD: Spain grants Luis de Carvajal, a Spanish Conquistador and son of Jewish converts, a very large land tract which covers a major portion of northern Mexico, South Texas, and New Mexico. This is the only land grant given by Spain where the recipient does not have to prove a pure Christian blood line. Carvajal and two hundred Sephardic families settle the land and establish villages in Northern Mexico, which are today the sites of Monterrey and Monclova. When the Inquisition indicts the Carvajal family and friends for practicing Judaism, Luis de Carvajal refuses to denounce them. Five of the Carvajal family members are tortured and burned at the stake in Mexico City’s main plaza. Luis de Carvajal is put in prison and dies within the year.
1580 AD: La Santa Catalina, a ship sailing from Portugal, drops off many Sephardim at the Island of Ocoa—today the Island of Santa Domingo.
1600s AD: In Amsterdam, a protestant country immune from the Inquisition, Sephardim thrive and grow in number and influence.
1602 AD: Don Juan de Onate leads a group, largely of Jewish descent, across the Rio Grande River and through El Paso, Texas. In order to escape detection from the Mexican Inquisition, these Anusim settle the interior of the New World, including present day Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Under Onate’s governorship, they become the founders of the modern state of New Mexico and the city of Santa Fe.
1625 AD: Over a hundred years since its establishment and after decades of inactivity, the Inquisition in the Canary Islands remobilizes. Denunciations by informants reveal a large and rich, although secretive, Jewish community dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. By and large, the Inquisition in the Canaries during the 17th and 18th centuries is unsuccessful in finding and convicting Anusim because the general public is not very supportive and ignored the Inquisition’s edicts.
1630 AD: For the last two hundred years, thousands of Anusim have settled in the Spanish-Portuguese colony of Brazil. In those first two centuries, Anusim suffered socially from the Inquisition but prospered economically from sugar plantations and exporting wood to Europe. In 1630, the Dutch defeat the Portuguese and take over northeastern Brazil. In Dutch Brazil, the Jewish community thrives, practicing Judaism openly and building synagogues. More Jews from Holland migrate to Brazil, making the Jewish population the largest group of European colonists.
After a nine year siege, in 1654, the Portuguese armies overtake all of Brazil. As a condition for surrender, the Dutch governor of Brazil insists that the Portuguese not slaughter the Jews. Instead, they are forced to leave along with their Dutch comrades. While some Anusim stay, most move to Holland, the Rio Grande, and the Caribbean Islands.
1642 AD: The discovery of a secret synagogue in Mexico City reignites the Mexican Inquisition. Thomas de Trevino de Sobremonte, a practicing Jew and highly respected leader of the Jewish community, refuses to convert and is burned at the stake.
1655 AD: With the Portuguese takeover of Brazil, two dozen Jews leave Recife, Brazil and migrate to New Amsterdam (New York). There, they establish the first organized Jewish congregation in the United States. While they were always free to practice their faith privately, it takes thirty years before they receive official permission to publicly and officially practice Judaism. This accomplishment is owed to their unrelenting struggle to establish religious freedom for themselves in their new land. In 1730, the congregation consecrates the first synagogue in the United States, Congregation Shearith Israel.
1658 AD: Sephardim escaping the Inquisition in the Caribbean Islands move to Newport, Rhode Island. Over the next century, until the American Revolution, their population swells as they develop a practicing Jewish community of the Sephardic tradition. In 1763, they dedicate the Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States.
End of Inquisition in Europe and the Americas and the Rise of Anti-Semitism in Muslim Lands
1670 AD: Jews in Morocco suffer greatly under the tyranny of Moulay Rashid. Intent on terrorizing the Jews, Rashid publicly burns Jewish officials, expels others, imposes outrageous non-Muslim taxes, and destroys synagogues.
1773 AD: Portugal’s King Joseph I establishes a royal decree abolishing discrimination between old and new Christians based on “purity of blood.”
1790 AD: After the accession to the Moroccan throne of Jew-hater Moulay Yazid, a terrible pogrom breaks out in Tetouan and spreads to several other Moroccan cities. Jewish men, women, and children are stripped in public, dragged through the streets by horses, beaten, thrown in prison, and often killed. Those that survive the massacres either convert to Islam or pay enormous bribes to the monarchy.
1807 AD: Under the leadership of Napoleon, France invades Portugal. 20,000 Portuguese identify themselves to the French as Jews.
1821 AD: The Mexican Inquisition is abolished with the independence of Mexico. Fifty years later, an edict of religious tolerance is issued allowing Jews to become Mexican citizens.
1822 AD: Brazil gains independence from Portugal. Escaping persecution and economic hardship, many Moroccan Jews migrate to Brazil and settle along the Amazon River.
1834 AD: Inquisition tribunals of Spain finally disappear completely.
1839 AD: Mobs attack the Jewish community in Mashhad, Iran and burn down synagogues. The remaining Iranian Jewish community converts to save their lives but continues practicing Judaism in secret.
1870 AD: After forty years of French colonization in Algeria, Algeria’s Jews are granted French citizenship and largely adapt the French language and culture. A significant Jewish presence in Algeria dates back to the Roman period. Many Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition went to Algeria to join the already established Jewish community. In Ottoman Algiers, Jews lived with a relative degree of social autonomy, prospered economically, and were able to maintain their religious orthodoxy.
1917 AD: Samuel Schwartz, a Jewish engineer in Portugal on business, discovers a community of Anusim in Belmonte. Traveling throughout Northern Portugal, Schwartz identifies around 15,000 Anusim, in addition to those in Belmonte, who have maintained secret Jewish practices throughout the centuries. These Portuguese Jewish communities believe they are the only remaining Jews.
Sephardim in the Holocaust and the Birth of Israel
1939- 1945 AD: Sephardic Jewry in Europe suffers the same fate of their Ashkenazi counterparts. While Sephardim live in all parts of Europe, the largest Sephardic communities are in Greece, Holland, Yugoslavia, and Italy. More than 90% of the Jewish community in Greece is wiped out by the Holocaust. Hitler’s goal to eliminate world Jewry is not confined to central Europe. The spread of Nazi ideology has a devastating affect on the Jewish communities of Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia.
1941 AD: For two days in June, Iraqi Jews suffer their own Kristallnacht, known as the “Farhud,” meaning “violent dispossession.” Incited by pro-Nazi radio messages from the Zionist enemy Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, Iraqi mobs rampage several Baghdad districts killing any Jew in site, including women and children, and destroying all Jewish property. The army and Iraqi police do nothing to stop it and in many instances participate. The massacre continues for 48 hours until they are forcefully stopped by British forces reentering Baghdad. This is the beginning of the end for Iraq’s Jewish community.
1948 AD: With the establishment of the State of Israel, Sephardim living in Islamic countries are persecuted and threatened. Over the next twenty years, 600,000 Jews from Muslim states flee to Israel independently or are brought over on special Israeli military operations. Over 200,000 come from Morocco and 100,000 from Iraq. In most cases, Muslim authorities in all Arab states confiscate the Jews’ possessions and property and force them to relinquish their citizenship. Resultantly, the majority of Sephardim arrive to Israel poor and empty-handed. Overwhelmed by the enormous numbers and with no help from the United Nations, the Government of Israel places the Sephardic immigrants in transit camps in the less populated areas of Israel, primarily the Negev. The difficult conditions of these camps do not create an ideal beginning for these communities, putting them at a disadvantage compared to the wealthier and more educated Ashkenazi community. Today, Sephardim still make up a much larger percentage of the working and under class in Israel than Ashkenazim but with time this social and economic gap is closing.
1956 AD: Tunisia gains its independence from France and a number of anti-Jewish policies are put into place while many Jews are targeted for attack and the Jewish ghettos are razed to the ground. Tunisia’s 100,000 Jews emigrate to France or Israel.
1968 AD: On 14 December, the Jewish community in Spain receives official recognition as a practicing religious body. On the same day and in the same document, the edict of expulsion of 31 March 1492 is abrogated.
1999 AD: In Israel, the Sephardic political party, Shas, wins 17 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. This marks a great achievement by the Israeli Sephardim in achieving political influence.
For centuries, thousands of Anusim and their descendants maintained their Jewish beliefs and practices in secret for fear of persecution or judgment. Over time, some Sephardim were able to pass the family secret down from generation to generation; many lost the knowledge of their Jewish ancestry but never lost their sense of otherness.
It is suspected that thousands—if not millions—of Bnai Anusim, descendants of forced converts from Spain, are residing today in Mexico, South America, Spain, Portugal, and southwestern United States. Only a fraction of these “lost Jews” are aware of their Jewish identity. Recently, however, there has been a revival occurring among Bnai Anusim who are either discovering their Jewishness for the first time or finally shedding the secrecy of their identity. Particularly, in the last twenty years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Bnai Anusim who have publicly identified themselves as Jews and begun to explore the roots of their Hebraic heritage.
According to testimonies, some Bnai Anusim families carefully preserved and protected Jewish practices and therefore were always very conscious of their Jewish identity. Others, after centuries of forced assimilation, miraculously awakened to their sense of connection to Judaism and independently acted on their desire to return to their ancestral faith. Restoring their Jewish identity is a powerful process in reclaiming what had been forcefully stolen from their ancestors.
Assimilation and complicated family histories have made the task of identifying sources of Jewish ancestry difficult, although not at all impossible. Part of the discovery process is recognizing the Jewish practices Bnai Anusim have kept over the centuries, often without even knowing their source or purpose. Keeping Kosher, observing the Sabbath, using Ladino (Spanish Hebrew) words and phrases, and celebrating Jewish holidays are just some of the traditions these Sephardim have maintained. The survival of less known rabbinic practices such as putting pebbles on graves and sweeping floors a certain way, which could not have been learned from just reading the Torah, is particularly convincing proof of their direct Jewish heritage. For many returning Jews, their given names and family names are historic links to their Jewish genealogy. Dell Sanchez, in his books The Last Exodus and Aliya!!!, gives an extensive list of Sephardic surnames, noting that many historians believe the letters “ez”—short for Erez Israel—were attached to names by Sephardic Jews as a way of saying “I am of my land, Israel.” In addition to genealogical and historical proof, there are growing numbers of Sephardim who have chosen DNA testing as a scientific tool for unlocking the truth of their ethnic origin.
As Sephardic Jews come to terms with their identity, whole communities are coming forth publicly and professing their desires to return to normative Judaism. Synagogues are being built and rabbis are sent to even the most remote communities of Bnai Anusim to offer them religious teaching in mainstream Judaism and reconnect them to World Jewry. Before these lost brethren fully return to orthodoxy, a conversion process is usually necessary. However, rabbis usually more sensitive to the context of the conversion, emphasizing it as a cautionary measure and ceremony of return, not meant to deny their Jewishness but to protect it.
In the wake of the return of the Bnai Anusim to Judaism, we can also expect to see a massive aliya to Israel. To be sure, many of these Bnai Anusim have expressed their feelings of not belonging in the land of their birth, preferring to return to the home of their ancestors. They feel an unexplainable love for Israel and a longing to be part of the Jewish state. As the Spirit of God moves in their hearts, they are encouraged by the prophecies and feel commanded to return to Israel. Some have even testified of angelic visits and divine appointments in which this message was revealed. In the coming days of the Lord we will witness the full fulfillment of the prophecies in the final exodus. The hearts of the lost Jews will be restored to their fathers (Malachi 4:5) and they will gather and reunite with their brethren to possess the land promised to them (Obadiah 19-21).