Those promoting Queen Isabella’s Cause can’t ignore the horrendous suffering she imposed on the Jewish people

In March 1974, when the idea gained credence that Queen Isabella of Spain (1451-1504) might be a candidate for canonisation, it was firmly opposed by both Jewish and Muslim communities in a similar way that many Jews today are opposed to the canonisation of Pope Pius Xll. For Jews and Muslims, 1492 was the year not only in which Columbus discovered America, after being commissioned by Isabella and her husband Ferdinand, but also that in which their ancestors had been expelled from Spain – the Jews by edict and the Muslims or Moors by war.

Today, when the Holocaust is still part of recent history, anti-Semitism is utterly sickening and nothing can ever justify it. But to understand Isabella’s treatment of the Jews and Muslims in Spain during her reign, one must first try to see the world of her time through her eyes and not those of someone today. The primitive world of Isabella was one in which Ptolemaic cosmography held sway.

According to this view, North and South America and their civilisations were unknown, the size and shape of Africa were problematic, and the earth was thought of as one large land mass reaching from China in the east to Britain in the west. Japan and Ireland at either end of this faced unchartered seas. Europe was conceived of as merely a small portion of this vast continent, eight times its size, and Spain was especially vulnerable to foreign invasions. The latest of these, and of the kind that Spaniards had come to know well in their efforts to expel the Moors from the 11th century to the time of Isabella, was that of Islam.

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Whereas the Jews had been present in Spain since the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the presence there of the Moors since the eighth century onwards had rendered it uncertain whether the Iberian Peninsula was actually the south western part of Europe or the northern most part of Africa. Then, in 1453, the Sultan Muhammad II, commanding an army of a quarter of a million, had terrified Europe by devastating Greece and capturing Constantinople, thus ending the 1,000-year-old Eastern Byzantine Empire. Whereas the threat from Islam in Spain was dealt with by force of arms, culminating in the capture of Granada in 1492, the conceived problem of the estimated between 40,000 and 200,000 Jews in Spain was another matter.

Anti-Semitism, a term which originated in the 19th century to cover such things as prejudice, hatred, and persecution of the Jews, was present in Spain long before Isabella’s time.

As early as 1371 the Cortes, or parliament, of Toro in Castile had demanded that there should be no Jewish government officials or tax collectors, that Jews should wear distinctive insignia, be prohibited from riding horseback and should not have Christian sounding names. But 1391 was the year in which persecution of both Jews and Moors, inflamed by the preaching of Franciscan and Dominican friars in Andalusia, reached a climax. It was a time when Jewish residences and synagogues were ransacked in more than 100 towns and the Jews of Barcelona, Castile, Valencia and Majorca were particularly affected.

The origins of such pogroms were complex and the reasons behind them ranged from envy of Jewish wealth and talent to racism and sheer ignorance. This latter frequently included the notion that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for the death of Jesus; a charge at long last irrevocably repudiated at the Second Vatican Council in its document Nostra Aetate. This latter also contains an explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism: “[The Church] Remembering…her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism levelled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Often, however, at the time of Isabella the harshest enemies of the Jews were the converses or devout New Christians – in other words, Jewish converts. An example of such a person, intent on keeping animosity between Jews and Christians alive, was Bishop Pedro de Santa Maria, formerly Rabbi Solomon Halevi, who inspired the anti-Semitic Laws of Valladolid, forbidding Jewish physicians from treating Christians and employing Christian servants. Even so, the question remains as to whether Isabella herself was anti-Semitic.

There is no disputing Isabella’s strong religious principles and deep piety. She also modernised the army, patronised the arts, raised the level of education of the Spanish clergy, and, like the Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, was concerned for the welfare of the Indians once America was discovered. But was she anti-Jewish? If she was, then it is extremely odd for, until the expulsion edict of 1492, Jews occupied influential and high-ranking positions, such as financiers, astrologers, lion keepers and physicians at both the courts of Castile and Aragon.

Incidentally, not only was Isabella’s husband Ferdinand descended from a Jewish great-grandmother, Paloma of Toledo, but Isabella herself was delivered at birth by the Jewish court physician Maestre Semaya. Jews such as Abiathar Crescas, a court astrologer and physician to Ferdinand’s father, John of Aragon, were crucial to the successful suit of Ferdinand for Isabella’s hand in marriage. Others such as Pedro de la Caballeria, a convert cleric who observed both Jewish and Christian customs and was commander of the city of Saragossa, were responsible for most of the funding of Ferdinand’s suit. Abraham Senior, a tax farmer to the monarchs of Castile and a professing Jew, was so valued at court as to be dubbed the Crown Rabbi and Judaism’s own Castilian archbishop.

For both the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors and the Columbus expedition, Isabella and her husband relied heavily on loans provided by their favourite conversos such as Luis de Santangel, comptroller of the royal household in Aragon, together with prominent Jews such as Don Isaac Abrabanel, a tax farmer, army contractor and chief spokesman for Spanish Jewry. The president of the commission set up to investigate Columbus’s ideas, before he was finally invited to proceed with his expedition, was the New Christian and Dominican confessor of the queen, Hernando de Talavera, later first Archbishop of Granada.

What is most likely is not that Isabella was anti-Jewish but that, alongside others of her time, she became deeply suspicious of those converses who were suspected of not having converted fully to Christianity. Incidentally, such people were often just as deeply distrusted by Orthodox Jews with whom they frequently lived cheek by jowl.

For Jews who wished to practise their Judaism, it is probable that Isabella felt no animosity, which is not to say that she did not wish to see them convert to Christianity. Abraham Senior, who converted in 1492 and for whom Isabella and Ferdinand stood as godparents. is a case in point. Indeed, some historians today argue that Isabella’s motive for issuing the edict of expulsion in 1492 was essentially for proselytising purposes, due to the influence of the Dominican Tomás de Torquemada. In this, the queen was a child of her times.

We must totally deplore Isabella’s edict and the appalling suffering and misery it resulted in for the Sephardic Jews. It is nevertheless anachronistic to describe her action as an example of ethnic cleansing. One should not forget that England, France, Hungary, Strasbourg, Austria, Cologne, Augsburg and Breslau all expelled Jews before Isabella.

It was ironic that, on the very same tide that Columbus set sail on his voyage of discovery, the last vessel carrying the Jews that Isabella and Ferdinand had expelled also left Spain. (August 2 1492 was their deadline and any Jew who remained after that was liable to be executed unless he or she embraced Christianity.) Thousands of pitiful refugees were aboard, bound either for the more tolerant lands of Islam or the only Christian country – the Netherlands – which would welcome them.

Considered within the limitations of her historical period, Isabella’s achievements as a monarch remain significant, albeit flawed, and it is mistaken to view her as a forerunner of present-day evils such as Islamophobia or anti-Semitism. Moreover, Isabella continues to deserve the title of La Católica, bestowed on her by the Pope at the time, who incidentally gave shelter in Rome to some of the Jewish people she expelled. That title, however, should be sufficient. The suffering she imposed on the Jewish people during her reign cannot be ignored, especially when she is ever considered a candidate for canonisation.

Fr David Forrester is a priest of the Diocese of Portsmouth

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald (2/5/14)

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