Of Vines, Fig Trees and the Ashes of Bigotry
In 1790 the head of the Jewish Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, approached George Washington, the first president of the new United States, leading to an exchange of letters between Moses Seixas (1744–1809), warden of the Newport Community, and Washington. This essay begins with an analysis of the biblical context of the exchange between the two, which provided the background for Washington’s beautiful statement on the freedoms that an exilic minority people could hope for. In his reply to Seixas, Washington invoked the powerful biblical image of the vine and the fig tree in his words of assurance to the Jewish community. Reconstructing this context helps to clarify questions regarding the boundaries within which such a people can operate as a distinct group. I show that the original context within which the phrase about a vine and fig tree is expressed was in effect a contract between the sovereign and the ruled.
Later in this essay, I turn to an instance of a new sovereign breaking his promise right after assuming power. Having received assurances of religious tolerance from Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, King Boabdil, the last sultan of the kingdom of Granada, surrendered to the Reyes Católicos. This understanding, however, did not last.
Against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition that ensued, I discuss the theme of book burning through history. Such events, I argue, present the exact opposite of what Washington argued for in his letter: they highlight the connection between religious intolerance and violence. Reflecting on book burnings gives us an opportunity to explore the processes of the destruction of one culture and the creation of a new one on its ruins.
Creating Sepharad: Expulsion, Migration, and the Limits of Diaspora
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 represents one of the most significant diasporic moments in Jewish history. However, a shared diasporic consciousness among the exiles, what we might call the diasporic “stance” of the Sephardic world, was neither automatic nor universal. Rather, the interconnected challenges of migration, resettlement, and the re-formation of local and translocal communities was a process that endured for much of the sixteenth century, affecting the exiles and their descendants in different ways. This article traces the emergence of the Sephardic diaspora—both as a form of social organization and as a cultural concept—and explores the limits of Sephardic community and identity. My intention is to highlight the strengths and the limits of the diaspora model as a means of understanding the nature and development of Sephardic society in its formative phase.
The Jewish Precedent in the Spanish Politics of Conversion of Muslims and Moriscos
The figure and the problem of the converso are often addressed in Abravanel’s works, especially after the 1492 expulsion, as has already been noted and studied by earlier scholars. Yet the link between Abravanel’s theological-political conceptions and his disseminated remarks on converts has not been studied as such. In this article I will try to partially fill this lacuna by studying a few of Abravanel’s important texts on the converts and by highlighting their theological and political background and meaning. Modern historiography has attempted to separate the political dimension of the converso phenomenon apparent in Abravanel’s biblical and messianic commentaries from the theological hermeneutical framework in which it is expressed. The following study focuses on Abravanel’s apologetic use and explanation of the conversos’ fate as it comes to the fore in several passages of his messianic work Mashmia yeshua (Announcer of salvation) of 1498 and of his commentary on Ezekiel of 1504. Abravanel’s messianic apology of Judaism after 1492 developed a certain theological and political meaning of the conversos’s destiny, which pointed at the converso not as a political figure revealing the historicity of the religious community but as a necessary by-product of exile participating in the messianic history of Israel and even revealing the stage it had reached.
Conversos, Finance, and Military Campaigns in the Reign of Ferdinand the Catholic: A View from Sicily
The present paper examines the role played by high-placed converts in Sicily in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in order to identify patterns of converso involvement in royal finances and state economy while offering an opportunity for tracing the beginnings of the advantageous relationship between king, court, and conversos. The protagonists of this discussion are Aloysio Sánchez, who acted as banker and treasurer to King Ferdinand the Catholic in Sicily, and the physician Ferrando de Aragona, the leader of the Sicilian “converso community” (universitas neophitorum). Aloysio Sánchez and Ferrando de Aragona were both instrumental in financing the Spanish military campaigns in the Italian south in 1494 and in North Africa in 1510. A better understanding of the roles played by these Sicilian-based conversos can shed light on some of the political and military developments of the last decade of Ferdinand’s reign. Ultimately, this paper argues that the high positions held by certain converts and their close ties to the influential figures of their time helped ensure their survival and continuing prosperity despite accusations of heresy.
Moriscos in Sicily in the Years of the Expulsion (1609–1614)
Based primarily on documentary evidence gathered at the Archivo General de Simancas, this essay outlines the history of some of those Moriscos who settled in Sicily between 1609 and 1614, in the aftermath of their expulsion from Spain. The article addresses the question of their numbers, their origin, their socioeconomic profile, and their religious identity, and tries to reconstruct the position of the viceregal chancellery of Sicily when confronted with the phenomenon of Moriscos reaching the territories under its jurisdiction. It argues that the Morisco problem in Sicily was tackled in a way that differed substantially from the way it was approached in the mother country. However, the viceroy’s seemingly more lenient attitude and his ambiguous behavior toward Moriscos appear to have been linked to the benefits some of them could provide him rather than to any real sympathy with their plight, and this only insofar as Moriscos allowed to reside on the island were confined to small numbers and to at least outwardly practicing Christians and that their presence did not entail a direct confrontation with the local Inquisition.
Emancipating the Chuetas: From Enlightened Despotism to Radical Liberalism
The article analyzes two attempts to emancipate the Chuetas in Spain: the enlightened (1773–1789) and the liberal (1810–1840). The Chuetas, a pious Christian group reputed to be descendants of Jews, lived secluded and discriminated against in the city of Palma, Majorca, because of their Jewish origin. In February 1773 the Chuetas decided to appeal directly to the king for the rights enjoyed by the other inhabitants of Palma’s third estate. The appeal triggered a dispute between supporters and opponents that exposed the rift existing in Spanish society between enlightened reformers and conservatives interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost.
The result was unsatisfactory for the Chuetas, whose emancipation was only partial and conditioned by the economic interests of the absolutist state. Only the resurgence of Spanish liberalism would bring some hope to the Chuetas. The liberals, who aspired to completely demolish the hierarchal structure of the old regime, building on its ruins a classless society composed of Spanish citizens, were not in favor of any status, privileged or unprivileged, that would divide the citizens of the new liberal Spanish state. Only thus would all the Chuetas receive complete legal emancipation.
These two attempts, however, failed to achieve their goal because of the tenacious refusal of the Old Christian population of Palma to consider the Chuetas as their equals. The solution to the problem was to be reached only in the twentieth century.
Crypto-Judaism in Post-Pombaline Portugal: Legal and Social Remnants
One of the most difficult topics to study regarding the history of the Portuguese New Christians is the decline in the number of Judaism cases tried by the Inquisition. Related to that issue, the alleged end of crypto-Judaism in Portugal is also polemical, since both in and outside of the academic world, twentieth-century “Marranos” are said to have maintained not only a specific identity but also habits and ceremonies. The objective of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of how the descendants of Jews forcibly converted in 1497 were seen and treated in both daily life and during the exceptional experience of a trial for heresy after the Pombaline reforms. This study is based on two previously unnoticed cases of Judaism tried by the Portuguese Inquisition after the apparently in-depth institutional reforms took place between 1765 and 1774.
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