The Alhambra Decree


Paula Kitching, published 10th February 2017

The Spanish Jewish expulsion

In March 1492, 525 years ago, the Spanish Catholic Monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon issued the Alhambra Decree. The decree issued an ultimatum that all of the Jews living in Spain had just four months to convert to Christianity or leave Spanish territory.

There are records of Jews in Spain from the Roman era, and the eighth to eleventh centuries are often referred to as the Golden Age for Spain’s Jews, where their culture and creativity was allowed to flourish – however, that was under Muslim rule. As the Christian forces in Spain fought with the Moorish Muslim presence, the Jewish community was often caught up as the victims of physical attacks. Anti-Jewish activities led by the Catholic Church in Spain intensified in the years before 1492, with key clerics lobbying Isabella and Ferdinand to remove the ‘Jewish influence’ from Spain. Once the unification of Spain was achieved under Christian leadership in January 1492 the joint monarchs were happy to issue their edict against the Jews.

200,000 Jews were expelled; many were killed on their journey as refugees by unscrupulous ship captains and others. The Jews were welcomed in the North African lands where for centuries they settled in peace and continued their Sephardic (Spanish-influenced) Jewish culture. In Spain those Jews who had converted to Christianity would continue to live under suspicion. Over a thousand years of settlement were undone in a matter of months.

We have just produced a new podcast that tracks the edict and the events around it. It explores the views and attitudes that were expressed and felt at the time as well as examining the life that the Spanish diaspora community would go on to create.

Dr Tyler Fischer of UCL provides an insightful analysis of that period and brings a now often forgotten period of history to life. However, essentially this is the story of a people who were part of a culture and society but were told by others that they no longer fit in.  The destruction and persecution of the ‘Other’ is a history that is repeated across time and countries. If we forget or overlook these persecutions it is easy to pretend that they are harmless one-offs rather than devastating events that do long lasting damage to people’s lives and society as a whole. The legacy of the 1492 expulsion is still felt in Spain, amongst World Jewry and underpins some prejudices and attitudes today.