The history of Spanish Jewry dates back at least two thousand years to when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and brought Jews with them back to Europe. Since that time, the Jews of Spain (also known as Sephardim) have experienced times of great oppression and hardship, as well as periods of unprecedented growth and renewal. Today the Jewish community in Spain is small - numbering approximately 12,900 - but growing, and the Jewish contributions to the nation and their influence on culture is still very much alive.
While the area of modern-day Spain (formerly a collection of kingdoms that included Castile, Aragon, and Catalonia) was still controlled by the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church convened at the Council of Elvira, where they issued 80 canonic decisions, many of which were intended to ostracize the Jews from the general Spanish community. Canon 49, for example, prohibited Jews from blessing their crops, and Canon 50 refused communion to any cleric or layperson that ate with a Jew.
During the early 5th century, the Visigoths captured the Iberian Peninsula from Roman rule. While initially anti-Christian, the Visigoths later converted to Christianity and adopted many of the previous laws that existed during Roman rule.
Under the reign of Toledo III, children of mixed marriages were forcibly baptized, and Jews were barred from holding public office. The situation got progressively worse, and, in 613 CE, the Jews were ordered to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Though many Jews chose to leave rather than convert, a large number of them still practiced Judaism in secret, a tradition that survived for centuries.
In 633, the Fourth Council of Toledo convened to address the problem of crypto-Judaism and Marranos (Jews who converted to Christianity to escape persecution, yet observed Jewish law in private). While opposing compulsory baptism, the Council decided that if a professed Christian was determined to be a practicing Jew, his or her children were to be taken away and raised in monasteries or trusted Christian households.
In the 8th century, the Berber Muslims (Moors) swiftly conquered nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula. Under Muslim rule, Spain flourished, and Jews and Christians were granted the protected status of dhimmi. Though this still did not afford them equal rights with Muslims, during this “Golden Age” of Spain, Jews rose to great prominence in society, business, and government.
The conditions in Spain improved so much under Muslim rule that Jews from all across Europe came to live in Spain during this Jewish renaissance. There they flourished in business and in the fields of astronomy, philosophy, math, science, medicine, and religious study. The same period also witnessed a resurgence of Hebrew poetry and literature from a traditional and liturgical language to a living language able to be used to describe everyday life. Among the early Hebraists of the time was Yehudah HaLevi, who became known as one of the first great Hebrew poets, and Menahem ben Saruq, who compiled the first-ever Hebrew dictionary.
The intellectual achievements of the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) enriched the lives of non-Jews as well. In addition to contributions of original work, the Sephardim translated Greek and Arabic texts, which proved instrumental in bringing the fields of science and philosophy, much of the basis of Renaissance learning, to the rest of Europe.
In the early 11th century, centralized authority based at Cordoba broke down following the Berber invasion and the ousting of the Umayyads. Rather than having a stifling effect, the disintegration of the caliphate expanded the opportunities to Jewish and other professionals. The services of Jewish scientists, doctors, traders, poets, and scholars were generally valued by the Christian as well as Muslim rulers of regional centers, especially as recently conquered towns were put back in order.
Yet, despite the Jews’ success and prosperity under Muslim rule, the Golden Age of Spain began to decline as the Muslims began to battle the Christians for control of the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish kingdoms in 722. The decline of Muslim authority was matched by a rise in anti-Semitic activity. In 1066, a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granada, crucified Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred most of the Jewish population of the city. Accounts of the Granada Massacre state that more than 1,500 Jewish families, numbering 4,000 persons, were murdered in just one day. The conditions of Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) steadily began to worsen again. As a result, many people started fleeing the Iberian Peninsula to neighboring nations. Among those who fled were the famed bible commentators Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch), as well as the families of Maimonides and philosopher Baruch Spinoza. (Christopher Columbus is also suspected by many to have been a Marrano, though there exists no conclusive evidence to substantiate this claim.)
The centuries-long battle between Christians and Muslims, (known as the Reconquista), divided neighboring regions in the Iberian Peninsula until the Christians finally took full control of the entire peninsula in 1492. Though initially as hostile to the Jewish population as the Muslim rulers had become, the Christians soon realized that the Jews could prove a strong ally and enlisted many of them in their war effort. The Christians relied on the Jews for assistance in fighting the Muslim rulers since the Jews were familiar with the local language and customs. Collaboration between the Jews and Christians brought the Jews increased persecution from Muslim rulers, but full autonomy in Christian-controlled regions.
The early years of Christian rule over parts of Spain seemed quite promising for the Spanish Jews. Alfonso VI, the conqueror of Toledo (1085), was tolerant and benevolent in his attitude toward them, for which he won the praise of Pope Alexander II. Soon after coming to power, Alfonso VI offered the Jews full equality with Christians and even the rights offered to the nobility to estrange the wealthy and industrious Jews from the Moors. Jews prospered under Alfonso, and by 1098, nearly 15,000 Jews were living in Toledo, a city of 50,000.
To show their gratitude to the king for the rights granted them, the Jews willingly placed themselves at his and the country’s service. At one point, Alfonso’s army contained 40,000 Jews, who were distinguished from the other combatants by their black-and-yellow turbans. (So honored and important were the Jews to the Spanish army that the Spanish chose not to initiate the battle of Zallaka until after the Sabbath had passed). The king’s favoritism toward the Jews became so pronounced that Pope Gregory VII warned him not to permit Jews to rule over Christians and roused the hatred and envy of the latter.
After the Christian loss at the Battle of Ucles (1108), an anti-Semitic riot broke out in Toledo; many Jews were slain, and their houses and synagogues burned. Alfonso intended to punish the murderers and incendiaries but died before he could carry out his intention (1109). After his death, the inhabitants of Carrion slaughtered the local Jews, others were imprisoned, and their houses pillaged.
In the beginning of his reign, Alfonso VII (1111) curtailed the rights and liberties that his father granted the Jews. He ordered that neither a Jew nor a convert may exercise legal authority over Christians, and he held the Jews responsible for the collection of royal taxes. Soon, however, he became friendlier, confirming the Jews in all their former privileges and even granting them additional ones, by which they were placed in parity with Christians. Judah ben Joseph ibn Ezra had considerable influence on the king, and after the conquest of Calatrava (1147), the king placed Judah in command of one of his fortresses, later making him his court chamberlain.
Under the reign of Alfonso VIII, the Jews gained still greater influence, aided, doubtless, by the king’s love of the beautiful Jewess Rachel Fermosa of Toledo. When the king was defeated at the battle of Alarcos, many attributed the defeat to the king’s love affair with Fermosa, and the nobility retaliated by murdering her and her relatives in Toledo.
Despite the reclaimed status of the Jews in Spain, their condition soon began to worsen once again as the Crusaders unleashed another round of anti-Semitic riots in Toledo (1212), robbing and butchering Jews across the nation. During the 13th century, Spanish Jews of both sexes, like the Jews of France, were required to distinguish themselves from Christians by wearing a yellow badge on their clothing; this order was issued to keep them from associating with Christians, although the reason given was that it was ordered for their own safety.
During this time, the clergy’s endeavors directed against the Jews became increasingly pronounced as well. A papal bull issued by Pope Innocent IV in April 1250 further worsened the situation of the Jews in Spain by prohibiting Jews from building new synagogues without special permission, outlawing proselytizing by pain of death, and forbidding most forms of contact between Jews and Christians. According to the decree, Jews were also forbidden to appear in public on Good Friday. The Jews of Spain were also forced to live as a separate political body in the Juderias (Jewish ghettos).
Although the Spanish Jews engaged in many branches of human endeavor—agriculture, viticulture, industry, commerce, and the various handicrafts—it was the money business that procured them their wealth and influence. Kings and prelates, noblemen and farmers, all needed money and could obtain it only from the Jews, who were forced to act as bailiffs, tax farmers, or tax collectors since Christians were forbidden from charging each other interest rates. Because of their acquired wealth, as well as government anti-Semitism, Jews were also forced to pay many additional and exorbitant taxes to the king.
Disputation of Barcelona
Though their holy texts were often burned by royal decree, and many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, during the rule of King James of Aragon (a Christian-ruled province of Spain), the Spanish monarchy started to take an interest in Jewish philosophy and religion, if only so that they could better understand Jews and convince them to convert. In 1263, King James convened a special council of Dominican (Christian) and Jewish clergymen to debate three key theological issues: whether the Messiah had already appeared, whether the Messiah was divine or human, and which religion was the true faith. Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi, Ramban), a Jewish theologian and philosopher, was called upon to represent the Jews; while Friar Pablo Christiani, a Jew who later converted to Christianity, represented the Church.
The disputation lasted four days and drew the attention of the entire Jewish community. Though the King granted Nachmanides the freedom to speak freely, the Jewish community feared that any statement that offended the King would lead to increased persecution. As the disputation turned in favor of Nachmanides, the Jews of Barcelona entreated him to discontinue; but the King, whom Nachmanides had acquainted with the apprehensions of the Jews, desired him to proceed. At the end of the disputation, King James awarded Nachmanides a prize and declared that never before had he heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended.” Despite the King’s declaration, the Dominicans still claimed victory, which led Nachmanides to publish a transcript of the debate to prove his case. From this publication, Christiani selected certain passages which he construed as blasphemies against Christianity and denounced to his general Raymond de Penyafort. A capital charge was then instituted, and a formal complaint against the work and its author was lodged with the King. King James mistrusted the Dominican court and called an extraordinary commission, ordering the proceedings to be conducted in his presence. Nachmanides admitted that he had stated many things against Christianity, but he had written nothing which he had not used in his disputation in the presence of the King, who had granted him freedom of speech.
The justice of his defense was recognized by the King and the commission, but to satisfy the Dominicans, Nachmanides was sentenced to exile for two years, and his pamphlet was condemned to be burned. The Dominicans, however, found this punishment too mild, and, through Pope Clement IV, they succeeded in turning the two years of exile into perpetual banishment. Nachmanides left Aragon never to return again, and, in 1267, he settled in the Land of Israel. There he founded the oldest active synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Ramban Synagogue.
The Reign of Pedro I
During the reign of Pedro I (1350-1369), the quality of Jewish life in Spain began to improve, and the King became a well-known friend to the Jews. From the commencement of his reign, Pedro so surrounded himself with Jews that his enemies spoke derisively of his royal court as “a Jewish court.” In 1357, Samuel Levi financed the construction of the Sinagoga del Transito, which served as the center of Todelo's Jewish life. It is also believed that during this time, kosher slaughterhouses and butcher shops sprang up along the main streets of Toledo.
Soon, however, a civil war erupted, and a rival army, led by Pedro I’s half-brother Henry II, attacked the Jews. During the war, part of the Juderia of Toledo was plundered, and about 12,000 Jews were murdered without distinction of age or sex. The mob did not, however, succeed in overrunning the Juderia proper, where the Jews, reinforced by a number of Toledan noblemen, defended themselves bravely.
The friendlier Pedro was to the Jews, and the more he protected them, the more antagonistic his half-brother became. Later, when Henry II invaded Castile in 1360, he robbed and butchered the Jews living in Miranda de Ebro and Najera.
Yet, everywhere the Jews still remained loyal to Pedro and fought bravely in his army. In return, Pedro I showed his goodwill toward them and called upon the King of Granada to also protect the Jews. Nevertheless, the Jews suffered greatly. Villadiego (whose Jewish community numbered many scholars), Aguilar, and many other towns were destroyed. The inhabitants of Valladolid, who paid homage to Henry, robbed the Jews, destroyed their houses and synagogues, and tore their Torah scrolls. Paredes, Palencia, and several other communities met with a similar fate, and 300 Jewish families from Jaen were taken prisoners to Granada. Pedro was eventually defeated and succeeded by Henry de Trastamara.
When Henry de Trastamara ascended the throne as Henry II (1369), the Jews of Spain witnessed the dawn of a new era of suffering and persecution. Prolonged warfare devastated the land, and the people became accustomed to lawlessness. The Jews were reduced to extreme poverty and later expelled.
In addition, Henry II decreed that Jews:
1) Be kept far from palaces;
2) Were forbidden to hold public office;
3) Must live separate from Christians;
4) Should not wear costly garments nor ride on mules;
5) Must wear distinct badges to indicate that they were Jewish;
6) Were barred from adapting Christian names;
7) Were forbidden to carry arms and sell weapons.
Despite his aversion to the Jews, Henry could not dispense with their services. He employed wealthy Jews—Samuel Abravanel and others—as financial councilors and tax collectors. He also did not prevent them from holding religious disputations or deny them the right to conduct their own court proceedings.
Massacre of 1391
Under the rule of John I (1379-1390), things grew even worse for the Jewish community of Spain. Jewish courts were forbidden from calling for capital punishment, Jews were forced to change prayers deemed offensive to the Church, and people were forbidden to convert to Judaism on pain of becoming the property of the State. Anti-Semitic violence also increased during this period, and Jews were often beaten or even killed in the streets.
A revolt broke out in Seville after the death of King John I in 1390, leading to a period of disorder that greatly affected the Jewish community of Spain in the coming years. On Ash Wednesday, 1391, Ferrand Martinez, the Archdeacon of Ecija, urged Christians to kill or baptize the Jews of Spain. On June 6, the mob attacked the Juderia in Seville from all sides and murdered 4,000 Jews; the rest submitted to baptism as the only means of escaping death. The riots then spread across the countryside, destroying many synagogues and murdering thousands of Jews in the streets. During the months-long riots, the Cordova Juderia was burned down, and over 5,000 Jews were ruthlessly murdered regardless of age or sex. Again, more Jews converted as the only way to escape death.
Soon after, a series of laws were passed to reduce the Jews to poverty and further humiliate them. Under these laws, the Jews were ordered to:
1) Live by themselves in enclosed Juderias;
2) Banned from practicing medicine, surgery, or chemistry;
3) Banned from selling commodities such as bread, wine, flour, meat, etc.;
4) Banned from engaging in handicrafts or trades of any kind;
5) Forbidden to hire Christian servants, farm hands, lamplighters, or gravediggers;
6) Banned from eating drinking, bathing, holding intimate conversation with, visiting, or giving presents to Christians;
7) Banned from holding public offices or acting as money-brokers or agents;
8) Christian women, married or unmarried, were forbidden to enter the Juderia either by day or by night;
9) Allowed no self-jurisdiction whatever, nor might they, without royal permission, levy taxes for communal purposes;
10) Forbidden to assume the title of “Don”;
11) Forbidden to carry arms;
12) Forbidden to trim beard or hair;
13) Jewesses were required to wear plain, long garments of coarse material reaching to the feet, and Jews were forbidden to wear garments made of fine material;
14) On pain of loss of property and even of slavery, Jews were forbidden to leave the country, and any grandee or knight who protected or sheltered a fugitive Jew was punished with a fine of 150,000 maravedís for the first offense.
These laws were strictly enforced, and calculated to compel the Jews to embrace Christianity.
Though these laws were targeted against the Jews, the entire kingdom of Spain suffered. Commerce and industry were at a standstill, the soil was left uncultivated, and the finances disturbed. In Aragon, entire communities—as those of Barcelona, Lerida, and Valencia—were destroyed, and many had lost more than half of their members and were reduced to poverty.
After the persecutions of 1391, many Jews converted, and still, thousands more continued to practice Judaism in secret (these people were known as Marranos). On account of their talent and wealth, and through intermarriage with noble families, the converts and Marranos gained considerable influence and filled important government offices. To restore commerce and industry, Queen Maria, consort of Alfonso V and temporary regent, endeavored to draw Jews to the country by offering them rights and privileges while making emigration difficult by imposing higher taxes.
Sketch depicting one of the brutal torture methods used to interrogate Marranos into confessing that they were Jewish during the Spanish Inquisition
By the mid-15th century, hatred toward the Neo-Christians exceeded that toward the professed Jews. Later, in 1413, at the behest of Pope Benedict XIII, King Ferdinand I of Aragon called for another religious disputation similar to that held two centuries earlier. Yet, unlike the disputation in which Nachmanides successfully defended the Jews of Spain, the Disputation of Tortosa was structured in such a way that it always granted the final word to the Church. The King also was not as favorable to the Jews, and the representatives of the Jewish community were less eloquent and convincing than Nachmanides had been. Jews were subsequently forcibly converted, and rabbinic texts were confiscated and burned.
The nobles of Spain later found that they had only increased their difficulties by urging the conversion of the Jews, who remained as devout in their new faith as they had been in the old, and gradually began to monopolize many of the offices of state, especially those connected with tax-farming. In 1465, a “concordia” was imposed upon Henry IV of Castile, reviving all the former anti-Jewish regulations. (So threatening did the prospects of the Jews become that in 1473 they offered to buy Gibraltar from the king; the offer was refused.)
As soon as the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ascended their thrones (1479 and 1474, respectively), steps were taken to segregate the Jews both from the “conversos” and from their fellow countrymen. Though both monarchs were surrounded by Neo-Christians, such as Pedro de Caballeria and Luis de Santangel, and though Ferdinand was the grandson of a Jew, he showed the greatest intolerance to Jews, whether converted or otherwise.
Anti-Semitism in Spain peaked during the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella as they instituted the Spanish Inquisition, a Church-sponsored investigation of anyone suspected of being a crypto-Jew (Marrano). On November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV published the bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, through which the Inquisition was established in the Kingdom of Castile. During this period, thousands of Marranos (Jews who had converted to Christianity but still practiced Judaism in secret) were interrogated and executed. At first, the activity of the Inquisition was limited to the dioceses of Seville and Cordoba, where Alonso de Hojeda had detected the center of Marrano activity. From there, the Inquisition grew rapidly in the Kingdom of Castile. By 1492, tribunals existed in eight Castilian cities: Ávila, Córdoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo, and Valladolid. The first auto de fe (reading of a decree against someone found to be a heretic, followed by a prayer session and public procession) was celebrated in Seville on February 6, 1481 — six people were burned alive.
Despite the horrors of the Inquisition, the cities of Aragón continued resisting and even saw periods of revolt, such as in Teruel from 1484 to 1485. However, the murder of inquisidor Pedro Arbués in Zaragoza on September 15, 1485, caused public opinion to turn against the Marranos in favor of the Inquisition.
The Inquisition was extremely active between 1480 and 1530, during which time about 2,000 Jews were executed. Many Spanish Jews immigrated to Portugal (from where they were expelled in 1497) and to Morocco. Much later, the Sephardim, descendants of Spanish Jews, established flourishing communities in many cities of Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire.
The Al Hambra Decree signed in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordering the expulsion of the Jews from all land under their control.
Approximately 40,000 Jews converted to Christianity to escape death and expulsion. These conversos were the principal concern of the Inquisition; continuing to practice Judaism put them at risk of denunciation and trial. (During the 18th century, the number of conversos accused by the Inquisition decreased significantly. Manuel Santiago Vivar, who was tried in Cordoba in 1818, was the last person tried for being a crypto-Jew.)
Expulsion of 1492
Finally, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree in 1492, which officially called for all Jews, regardless of age, to leave the kingdom by the last day of July (one day before Tisha B’Av). It is estimated that more than 235,000 Jews lived in Spain before the inquisition. Of these, approximately 165,000 immigrated to neighboring countries (mostly to Italy, England, Holland, Morroco, Egypt, France, and the Americas), 50,000 converted to Christianity, and 20,000 died en route to a new location.
Some claim that Don Isaac Abravanel, who had previously ransomed 480 Jewish Moriscos of Malaga from the Catholic monarchs by a payment of 20,000 doubloons, offered Ferdinand and Isabella 600,000 crowns for the revocation of the edict of expulsion. As the story goes, Ferdinand hesitated, but was prevented from accepting the offer by Torquemada, the grand inquisitor, who dashed into the royal presence, threw a crucifix down before the king and queen, and asked whether, like Judas, they would betray their Lord for money.
Many Spanish Jews settled in Portugal, which allowed the practice of Judaism. In 1497, however, Portugal also expelled its Jews. King Manuel of Portugal agreed to marry the daughter of Spain’s monarchs. One of the conditions for the marriage was the expulsion of Portugal’s Jewish community. In actuality, only eight Jews were exiled from Portugal and the rest converted, under duress, to Christianity.
The Alhambra Decree was overturned in 1968.
After hundreds of years abroad, Jews were finally permitted to return to Spain after the abolition of the Inquisition in 1834 and the creation of a new constitutional monarchy that allowed for the practice of faiths other than Catholicism in 1868, though the edict of expulsion was not repealed until 1968. (From 1868 until 1968, Jews were allowed to live in Spain as individuals, but not to practice Judaism as a community.) The Spanish-Moroccan War of 1859-60 also brought many Jews to southern Spain who were fleeing Morocco. Small numbers of Jews started to arrive in Spain in the 19th century, and synagogues were eventually opened in Madrid and Barcelona. Slowly things began to improve, and Spanish historians even started to take an interest in the history of Spain’s Jewish population and in the Sephardic language of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). The government of Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-1930) even granted the right of Spanish citizenship to Sephardim who applied before December 31, 1931.
In 1917, the Jews of Madrid numbered around 1,000 people. Most were German, Austrian-Hungarian, and Turkish citizens who fled to Spain at the beginning of World War I. They inaugurated their first synagogue in a small apartment. The world economic crisis of 1929 brought additional Jews to the country.
During this period, Jews slowly began to return to Spain and take part in national affairs. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), many Jews from all over Europe and America volunteered to fight in support of the Spanish Second Republic. Despite the easing of tensions between the Spanish government and the Jews, synagogues in Spain remained closed.
During World War II , Franco-led Spain aided the Jews by permitting 25,600 Jews to use the country as an escape route from the European theater of war, provided they “passed through leaving no trace.” Paradoxically, though Spain later cultivated relations with Arab countries, it also assisted Moroccan and Egyptian Jews who survived pogroms.
Furthermore, Spanish diplomats such as Ángel Sanz Briz and Giorgio Perlasca protected some 4,000 Jews in France and the Balkans. In 1944, Spain accepted 2,750 Jewish refugees from Hungary. Later, as the Franco regime evolved, synagogues were opened and the communities were permitted to hold services discreetly.
Today, there are approximately 12,900 Jews living in Spain, mainly of North African-Sephardic descent. The Jewish community is led by the central governing body of the Federación de Comunidades Judías de España (FCJE). Like other religious communities in Spain, FCJE has established agreements with the Spanish government, regulating the status of Jewish clergy, places of worship, teaching, marriages, holidays, tax benefits and heritage conservation. Jewish day schools have also been established in Barcelona, Madrid, and Málaga. In the 1970s, there was also an influx of Argentinian Jews, mainly Ashkenazim, escaping from the military Junta. Spain also grows kosher olives which they export to Jews around the world.
The Spanish Jewish community is one of the few Jewish communities in Western Europe that is growing in both numbers and activities. The Spanish government has made an increased effort to increase the awareness of the role that the Jews once played in Spanish life and to combat anti-Semitism.
Despite interest in Jewish culture, Jews are still not completely safe from anti-Semitism. Many Spanish-Jewish leaders note that the presence of the “new anti-Semitism” is growing. This new form uses anti-Zionism as a disguise for anti-Semitism. A 2007 survey by the Anti-Defamation League revealed that Spain had the highest percentage of anti-Semitic views out of five European countries polled: Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. Spain also has an estimated 70 neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups with nearly 10,000 members, according to The Movement Against Intolerance. Additionally, in 2008, Spain’s constitutional court ruled that imprisonment for Holocaust denial is unconstitutional since it violates freedom of expression. Until this ruling, Spain’s criminal code had provided for one to two years in jail for anyone who disseminated theories or teachings that denied or justified genocide or other crimes against humanity. The new ruling makes only the justification of genocide punishable by prison. Jewish community leaders worry that the court’s decision will strengthen the activities of neo-Nazi groups.
The Jewish community is centered in Madrid, with around 12,000 Jews. Barcelona also has a sizeable Jewish community of 5,000 members. In addition, Jewish congregations, including a handful of Conservative and Reform communities, can be found in cities such as Valencia, Malaga, and Marbella, as well as the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In 2007, a modern Orthodox synagogue was established in the city of Alicante on the Costa Blanca, where about 1,000 Jews reside. There are also Jewish day schools in Madrid, Barcelona, and Melilla.
The Conservative congregation in Madrid, Beit El, conducts weekly Shabbat services in a small hall in an apartment building. Beit El is one of five Conservative synagogues in Spain. These congregations are popular because many of Spain’s more recent immigrants follow the Ashkenazi tradition and do not observe the Sephardi traditions of the main Orthodox community. There is also an independent Reform congregation in Madrid, but a large number of Jews remain unaffiliated.
In 1995, the Spanish government created the “Route of the Sephardim,” a network of historical tours aimed to help reclaim the country's Jewish history while also generating tourism. The route has grown to include 21 cities throughout the country.
In the small community that still exists in Toledo, a museum dedicated to the Sephardic Jewish community is now housed in the ancient Sinagoga del Transito. The synagogue itself has been restored to its original beauty, which consisted of richly decorated columns in Arabic style with an exquisitely coffered pinewood ceiling and a large women's balcony, was founded in 1357 with the help of Jewish financier Samuel Levi. Following the expulsion in 1492, the synagogue was used as a hospital, a priory, and even as a military barracks.
In March 2013, the Spanish town of Ribadavia will host a Passover seder - the town’s first since the expulsion of Jews in 1492 - in order to “breathe new life into its old Jewish quarter.” Ribadavia used to have a sizable Jewish population before the Inquisition, and in 1997, Judith Cohen, a scholar of Sephardic Jewry, wrote that Ribadavia had two Jewish households remaining, neither of them Sephardic. The seder was organized by the municipality’s tourism department in partnership with the Center for Medieval Studies, a Ribadavia-based association that researches the history of Iberian Jews prior to their expulsion during the Spanish Inquisition that began in 1492.
The Spanish Parliament approved a measure on June 11, 2015, aimed at restoring citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jewish individuals who were expelled during the Inquisition. The law allows relatives of individuals who were expelled to apply for dual citizenship within a three-year window. In order to prove citizenship, however, Sephardic Jewish applicants will be tested in basic Spanish speech, be questioned about the history of Spain, and will have to demonstrate a connection to modern Spain. This law is similar to the law passed previously in Portugal, allowing relatives of expelled Sephardic Jews the right of return. Three months later, in October 2015, Spain granted restored citizenship to 4,302 descendants of Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. These people are now fully naturalized citizens of Spain, and most of them currently reside in Morocco, Turkey, or Venezuela.
This plan to reconnect Sephardic Jews with their Spanish roots inspired Israel Foreign Ministry Advisor Ashley Perry to launch the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities in October 2015.
Spain’s Justice Ministry announced in October 2019 that the four-year period for the descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship ended. The ministry said 132,226 people who claim Sephardic origins have requested Spanish citizenship and that it would process all applications. The government subsequently extended the deadline for applying for citizenship until February 2022. By the end of 2021, Spain had received 153,000 applications, which after vetting by the Jewish community for authenticity, are passed on to the government. To date, 36,000 Jews have been granted citizenship.
On November 19, 2015, a Holocaust memorial in Oviedo, Spain, was vandalized by unknown criminals. A plaque on the memorial, reading “Never again will the barbaric acts of the Nazis be repeated,” was ripped from its place and stolen. The Jewish community appealed to their local government to restore the memorial to its original condition.
A Spanish court ruled in December 2017, that a pro-BDS resolution passed in 2015 by the local governing council on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria is illegal. In September 2022, the Supreme Court of Spain ruled that the movement to boycott Israel represents “discrimination” that “infringes on basic rights.” A few weeks later, the Spanish parliament passed legislation that bars public funding for organizations that “promote antisemitism.”
Even with the gradual ease of tensions between the Spanish government and the Jews of Spain, Francoist Spain chose not to establish diplomatic relations with the new state of Israel. Israel, in turn, opposed the admission of Spain into the United Nations as a friend of Nazi Germany. Despite not engaging in diplomatic relations with Israel, Spain maintained a consulate in Jerusalem and traded freely with Israel. After years of negotiations, the Spanish government of Felipe González established relations with Israel on January 17, 1986. Today, Spain tries to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arabs, as reflected by hosting the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.
Casa Sefarad-Israel (The Israel-Spain House) was established in Madrid by the Spanish Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Ministry in June 2007. The cultural and educational center hopes to foster a greater understanding of Jewish history and culture. It is completely financed by the Spanish government, and also promotes Sephardi culture as an integral and vibrant part of Spanish culture, and aims to strengthen bonds between Spanish and Israeli societies.
On November 19, 2014, members of Spain’s Parliament voted 319-2 in favor of a measure demanding that the government of Spain officially recognizes the Palestinian state. This vote follows votes in the British Parliament and the Irish Senate, as well as a pledge from the government of Sweden. Like all of these previous votes in other European countries in 2014, this vote is largely symbolic and, in reality, carries no weight or merit. The vote was simply taken as a symbolic measure to encourage the peace process and spur negotiations forward. The text of the bill clarifies that the only possibility for peace is the existence of two independent states coexisting next to each other.
In light of these recent votes to recognize a Palestinian state, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini expressed doubts as to whether the movement to unilaterally recognize Palestine is beneficial to the peace process. Mogherini explained, “The recognition of the state and even the negotiations are not a goal in itself, the goal in itself is having a Palestinian state in place and having Israel living next to it.” She encouraged European countries to become actively involved and push for a jump start to the peace process, instead of simply recognizing the state of Palestine. Mogherini said that the correct steps to finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might involve Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab countries forming a regional initiative and putting their differences aside at the negotiation table. She warned her counterparts in the European Union about getting "trapped in the false illusion of us needing to take one side” and stated that the European Union “could not make a worse mistake" than pledging to recognize Palestine without a solid peace process in place (Bloomberg, November 26, 2014).
The Spanish Armed Forces awarded Israeli firm Israel Military Industries (IMI) a contract worth $22.5 million Euro to supply the Spanish military with 5.56mm rifle cartridges. It was announced in October 2015 that Spain would be purchasing 5.56mm Razor Core rounds from Israel, which were developed in 2014. These 5.56mm Razor Core bullets are highly desirable because they can be used in both short and long-barrel weapons.
A Spanish judge issued arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as six other current and former Israeli officials in November 2015. The original case against Israel’s leaders, in which Spanish victims of the Gaza Flotilla Incident sued Israeli authorities, was dismissed in 2010 by a Spanish judge who ruled that Spain did not have the authority to file lawsuits regarding international incidents. In 2015, however, Spanish Judge Jose De La Mata exploited a legal loophole, allowing him to re-open the case if one of the defendants were to set foot in Spain.
On July 6, 2018, Israeli company Enlight Renewable Energy signed an agreement worth $409 million to build a 350-megawatt wind turbine farm in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha province.
In February 2022, the mayor of Barcelona announced: “At the request of more than 100 entities and thousands of Barcelona neighbors, I have just communicated to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu that we suspend institutional relations with the State of Israel due to the repeated violations of human rights of the Palestinian population and non-compliance with United Nations resolutions.”
Lior Haiat – spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs – called the decision “unfortunate” and “in complete contrast to the position of the majority of the residents of Barcelona and their representatives in the city council.”
Orthodox Beth El synagogue in Marbella:
Urbanizacion El Real, KM 184, Jazmines Str. 21
E-mail: [email protected]
The Beth Minzi synagogue in Torremolinos:
Calle Skal la Roca 13 29629
The e-mail of the local Rabbi, Rabbi Shaul Khalili, is: [email protected]
The Malaga Synagogue:
Alameda Principal, 47 20B 29001
Sources: DW, (November 19, 2014).
James Reston, Jr., Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors, (NY: Anchor, 2006).
Brenda Gazzar, “Taking Root, Again,” The Jerusalem Report, (September 29, 2008).
Hedy Weiss, “The Jewish Traveler: Sefardic Routes,” Hadassah Magazine, (June/July 2012).
“Spanish Town Preparing First Seder in 500 Years,” JTA (March 11, 2013).
James Neuger, “Palestine recognition ‘not goal in itself’ says EU’s Mogherini,” Bloomberg, (November 26, 2014).
Yaakov Lappin, “IMI to supply Spain with NATO-qualified ammunition,” Jerusalem Post, (September 30, 2015).
Amanda Borschel, “Knesset caucus aims to ‘reconnect’ with descendants of Sephardi Jews,” Times of Israel, (October 14, 2015).
“Spanish Court Nullifies Pro-BDS Resolution Passed by Local Council in Canary Islands,” Algemeiner, (December 29, 2017).
“Israeli company Enlight to build wind farm in Spain,” Xinhua, (July 6, 2018).
“Spain’s window for Sephardic Jews to seek nationality closes,” AP, (October 1, 2019).
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Spain and Portugal have naturalized more than 90,000 descendants of Sephardic Jews since 2015,” JTA, (January 3, 2022).
Cnaan Liphshiz, “In landmark ruling, Spanish top court says Israel boycotts are always discriminatory,” JTA, (October 6, 2022).
“Barcelona mayor accused of antisemitism after decision to boycott Israel,” Israel Hayom, (February 9, 2023).
Photo Credits:Nachmanides Potrait: Zohar-Hakabbalah
Inquisition Drawing: Australian Ejournal of Theology
Al Hambra Decree: Wikipedia