The exterior of what was once the El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, Spain founded in the 1300s. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On July 31, 1492, practicing Jews living in Spain had to make a decision: Convert to Christianity or leave.
If conversos – converted Jews – stayed and continued to keep their faith in secret, but were found out by members of the Inquisition or exposed by neighbors, they would be tortured brutally into admitting their “sin” and later be burned, all of which was ordered by the Church.
The Inquisition was first founded in 1478 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in a bid to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and was under the direct control of the Spanish monarchy.
In March 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella instituted the Alhambra Decree, otherwise known as the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from the country, ranging between 45,000 to 200,000.
However, almost 100 years before, in 1391, over half of Spain’s Jews had converted to Christianity as a result of religious persecution and pogroms.
The 1492 Edict of Expulsion was instituted mainly to eliminate the influence of practicing Jews on Spain’s large converso population and ensure they did not revert to Judaism.
The expulsion of the Jews brought an end to the largest and most distinguished Jewish community in Europe.
According Ashley Perry (Perez), president of Reconectar, a project that focuses on “facilitating the reconnection of descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the Jewish people,” there could be some 200 million people today that have Jewish DNA.
Genetic research released earlier this year found that 25% – or one in four – of Hispanics and Latinos have Jewish DNA.
Perry, who is also the director-general of the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Bnei Anousim, told The Jerusalem Post that he would argue that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and later Portugal “is the most significant Jewish date in history since the fall of the Second Temple. It was the game-changing moment.”
He explained that it was “one of the longest-[lasting] Jewish communities in the world, certainly one of the most powerful and the most influential Jewish community possibly in history outside of the Land of Israel.”
“When you think of all that we do in Judaism today – Halacha, Zionism – everything came from the Iberian Peninsula, from Spain,” Perry continued. “As a result of the expulsion, so many different trends were put in place in Zionism, Hassidism and even leading up to the Holocaust. So many events in Jewish history have their roots in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.”
He made it clear that something that needs to be remembered is that not everyone had the choice to leave or stay. “Those who had been forcibly converted, which is possibly up to half of the whole Jewish population, were not allowed to leave, they did not have that choice.”
Perry described the day of the expulsion as the moment in which half of the Jewish community was disconnected one from the other.
“We are only now, over 500 years later, beginning to see a trend to reverse that, with all these people who are reconnecting with the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s a very significant day; it set the wheels in motion for some of the most important events over the last 500 years. I would argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today with Zionism and the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral indigenous homeland without the influence of that day, and everything that came about because of that date.”
Perry stressed that the major influential Jewish communities today in the US, the UK and other Western countries are all formed out of Jews running away from the Inquisition and exiles.
ASKED ABOUT Reconectar and its role, Perry, who himself is a descendant of the Spanish Jewish community, told the Post that the idea of the organization is to allow any of these 200 million descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese communities to connect with the Jews of Israel in any way they see fit.
“There are two extremes that this stretches across: There is one extreme who are not interested in doing anything else apart from wanting to learn more about their [Jewish] ancestry, and then it goes all the way over to the other extreme to people who want to rejoin the Jewish people and even make aliyah,” he said.
He said that for descendants of these communities, the Inquisition is still very much a part of their culture and identity.
“On Yom Kippur, 150 years after the edict was abolished,” Jewish descendants from these communities “say a prayer before Kol Nidre for the welfare of our brethren who were imprisoned during the Inquisition, because for us it’s not just the fact that the Inquisition is physically ended, but the effects of it are still around us,” Perry said, adding that a lot of “our tradition is still bound by these events.”
He also highlighted that Portugal is the only country in the world that holds a day to commemorate the Inquisition, and he stressed that he believes Israel should institute such a day.
The Inquisition’s edict was officially abolished on July 15, 1834, by a royal decree signed by regent Maria Cristina de Borbon with the approval of the cabinet president Francisco Martínez de la Rosa.