The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 is remembered as one of the epoch-making events in Jewish history. Spain was the last Christian country where Jews survived in considerable numbers (perhaps 200 000 or more, not counting conversos) and with a certain measure of prosperity. The expulsion was decreed in the newly captured Alhambra of Granada on 30 March 1492, and by 31 July they had all either accepted baptism or gone into exile.
The largest numbers, estimated at over 100 000, took the easiest route and fled to Portugal. It was an unwise choice. Five years later, under Spanish pressure, all the Jews in Portugal were forcibly baptized, amid scenes of gruesome violence.
Italy received a number of Spanish exiles, but political conditions made it an unsatisfactory refuge. Parts of the country (including Sicily with its large and long-established Jewish population) were Spanish possessions and subject to the edict of expulsion. Other parts became Spanish not long afterwards. In the north the Counter-Reformation was soon to harden hostility.
The best hope for the refugees lay outside the Christian world. Some settled, temporarily or permanently, in Morocco and other parts of North Africa, where Jews fleeing from Christian persecution had already been settling for a century. Here their fate was not a happy one. The Muslim populace was unfriendly, and the rules of separation were harshly enforced. It was only in the Ottoman empire that the exiles were really welcomed. The Cretan rabbi Elia Capsali, whose family offered hospitality to some of the outcasts as they passed through Candia, was moved to compile a highly laudatory chronicle of the Ottomans, and he describes the Turks mocking the folly of the Spanish king who was enriching their kingdom while impoverishing his own. The Ottomans had none of the Christian (or indeed the Muslim) prejudices, and the Spaniards (known as "Sephar- dim" from the biblical name of Spain, Sepharad) were treated with particular favor, since they brought skills which were needed: medical and technical knowledge, commercial and political expertise. They settled in all the major cities and reconstructed the ruins of their shattered life and culture. Salonica soon became a mainly Jewish town, and its development into the most important commercial port of the eastern Mediterranean was largely due to Jewish enterprise. When Egypt and Palestine came under Ottoman rule in 1517 these regions too attracted Jewish immigration. Although the Sephardim, with their Spanish language and culture, dominated the Jewish communities of the empire, refugees also arrived from other countries. Some of the fugitives were able to repay their welcome by rendering extraordinary services to the Ottoman state. Joseph Nasi, duke of Naxos (c. 1515— 79), and Solomon Aben-Ayish, duke of Mytilene (c. 1520—1603), both from Portugal, and the Italian Solomon Ashkenazi (1520—1603) were among the foremost - diplomats of their day and exerted a considerable influence on international affairs.
The Portuguese emigres were Christian converts who renounced Christianity on arrival in a freer land. The general conversion of 1497 had trapped many thousands of Jews in a cloak of Christianity which they wore unwillingly and longed to discard. They watched anxiously for an opportunity to escape. Many of the most important Jewish centers of later times owe their origin to groups of Portuguese New Christians. The list includes London, Amsterdam, Hamburg and New York. By the beginning of the 17th century small settlements were to be found in every major commercial center, and they played a vital role in the development and expansion of European trade and finance. As (nominally) Christians they were in a position, through their wealth and skills, to win acceptance in the highest ranks of society, and gradually they acquired, in many places, freedom to worship as Jews. They were thus the pioneers of Jewish settlement and integration in the Western world. Their establishment laid the foundations for much larger-scale immigration of Jews from Germany and Poland. Although they were soon numerically far outnumbered, the Portuguese maintained their own distinct identity, together with their religious traditions, and many of their synagogues survive in use to this day.
Mizrahi Jews, Mizrahim (Hebrew: מזרחים) or Mashriqiyyun (Arabic: المشرقيون), also referred to as Edot HaMizrach (עֲדוֹת-הַמִּזְרָח; Communities of the East; Mizrahi Hebrew: ʿEdot(h) Ha(m)Mizraḥ, Ben ha-Mizraḥ; Bene ha-Mizraḥ ("Sons of the East") or Oriental Jews, are Jews descended from local Jewish communities of the Middle East from biblical times into modern era. This includes descendants of Babylonian Jews and Mountain Jews from modern Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Caucasus, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Yemeni Jews are sometimes also included in Mizrahi definition though their history is separate from Babylonian Jewry.
The use of the term Mizrahi can be somewhat controversial. The term Mizrahim is sometimes applied for descendants of Maghrebi and Sephardic, who had lived in North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco), the Sephardi-proper communities of Turkey and mixed Levantine communities of Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Mizrahi Jews did not identify themselves as a separate Jewish subgroup. Instead, Mizrahi Jews generally characterized themselves as Sephardi, because they follow the traditions of Sephardic Judaism (although with some differences among the minhagim of the particular communities). This has resulted in a conflation of terms, particularly in Israel, and in religious usage, where "Sephardi" is used in a broad sense to include Mizrahi Jews and North African Jews as well as Sephardim proper. From the point of view of the official Israeli rabbinate, any rabbis of Mizrahi origin in Israel are under the jurisdiction of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel.
As of 2005, over 50% of Israeli Jews are of at least partial Mizrahi ancestry.
"Mizrahi" is literally translated as "Oriental", "Eastern", מזרח (Mizraḥ), Hebrew for "east." In the past the word "Mizrahim," corresponding to the Arabic word Mashriqiyyun (Easterners), referred to the natives of Syria, Iraq and other Asian countries, as distinct from those of North Africa (Maghribiyyun). In medieval and early modern times the corresponding Hebrew word ma'arav was used for North Africa. In Talmudic and Geonic times, however, this word "ma'arav" referred to the land of Israel as contrasted with Babylonia. For this reason many object to the use of "Mizrahi" to include Moroccan and other North African Jews.
The term Mizrahim or Edot Hamizraḥ, Oriental communities, grew in Israel under the circumstances of the meeting of waves of Jewish immigrants from the Europe, North Africa, Middle East and Central Asia, followers of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Yemenite rites. In modern Israeli usage, it refers to all Jews from Central and West Asian countries, many of them Arabic-speaking Muslim-majority countries. The term came to be widely used more by Mizrahi activists in the early 1990s. Since then in Israel it has become an accepted semi-official and media designation.
Most of the "Mizrahi" activists actually originated from North African Jewish communities, traditionally called "Westerners" (Maghrebi), rather than "Easterners" (Mashreqi). Many Jews originated from Arab and Muslim countries today reject "Mizrahi" (or any) umbrella description and prefer to identify themselves by their particular country of origin, or that of their immediate ancestors, e.g. "Moroccan Jew", or prefer to use the old term "Sephardic" in its broader meaning.
For the past two days I have been attending the Conference “Mapping the Anousim Diaspora: Six centuries of pushing borders,” held at Netanya Academic College (NAC) by the Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies. For those who are not aware, Sefardi refers to the Jews who derive from Spain (Sefarad in Hebrew) and Portugal, and Anousim (meaning “forced” in Hebrew) refers to the Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism and were then subjected to the repression of the Inquisition, causing them to scatter to the periphery of the Spanish-Portuguese world.
The Conference was organized by Prof. Avraham Gross, Chair of the Institute at NAC and Ben Gurion University, Salomon Buzaglo, Manager of the Institute, and Esti Feinreich, Administrator of NAC. The Conference was sponsored by the NAC, the Sabah Foundation and the Embassy of Spain in Israel. The opening speakers were Prof. Zvi Arad, President of NAC, Miriam Fierberg-Ikar, Mayor of Netanya, Colette Avital, former Israeli Amb. to Portugal, and HE Fernando Carderera Soler, Spanish Ambassador to Israel. They each spoke briefly about their relationship to the current topic. Some points from their presentations, Prof. Arad delivered a moving eulogy for Elie Schalit, distinguished Israeli philanthropist, who died recently at the age of 94, who supported this program at NAC; the Spanish Amb. discussed the law coming before the Spanish Parliament regarding the return of Spanish citizenship to those who can prove their Sefardic/Anousim roots, that will be similar to a law already passed by the Portuguese Parliament.
The vast volume and scope of the presentations are too much for me to summarize here, so I will point out highlights that impressed me. There were Sessions devoted to the Anusim of Spain, Portugal, Italy (including Sicily), Latin America (including Cuba) and the Spanish Islands (the Balearic and Canary Islands) and N. America. There were also individual lectures on Anusim in Africa and Turkey (the Donme). Prof. Jose Sol from Complutense University of Madrid described his research in systematically collecting and classifying Crypto-Jewish engravings from villages along the Spanish-Portuguese border, and he showed many examples.
Although many of the lectures were historical surveys, nevertheless there are many examples of Bnei Anusim continuing to this day, after 500 years of being Secret Jews and living double lives. There is only one recorded case of people actually continuing to practise Judaism in Iberia throughout the centuries, although nominally in secret, and that was in Belmonte, Northern Portugal, that was beyond the reach of the Inquisition. Rabbi David Touitou spoke about this topic, and pointed out that he had converted (or returned) 70-80 people back to Judaism there in the 1980s. Now, of course they have an Orthodox Synagogue. Another location was in the mountainous interior of El Salvador, where Anousim communities practised Judaism from the 1850s.
The Session on Personal Trajectories was the most emotionally charged part of the Conference. The most compelling personal story described at the conference was that of a young woman, now named Chana Eyal, who came from Porto, Portugal, and who was given a golden magen David by her grandmother. This led her on a search to Casa Shalom and then to Genie Milgrom, who helped her establish her Jewish identity, and she is now recently married and lives in Israel.
Doreen Carvajal, NY Times reporter based in Paris, described her family trajectory from Spain to Costa Rica and then to California, and the finding of a menorah in an aunt’s cupboard that led her to research her roots. Genie Milgrom’s family went from Fermoselle, Spain, on the north-east Portuguese border, to Braganza, Portugal, to Havana to Miami. She has described her genealogy in her book “22 Grandmothers,” and she was able to find all of them, 1-15 in Fermoselle and 16-22 in Braganza. David del Coso Westerman’s family used to light candles on Fri night, and he realized the significance. He is descended from saddle-makers in Toledo, Spain, and a Dutch family of Anousim named Westerman. He now lives in Jerusalem.
Jay Sanchez, a Lawyer from NY, is descended from an Anusim family named Dorta who were early settlers in Puerto Rico and who were arrested by the Inquisition. He is considering a legal suit against the Inquisition for damages. He cited several important precedents, including those of reparations against the German Government for the Holocaust, as well as cases dating to 1363 in Goa, 1539 (a Papal Bull against torture) and a US law of 1790. I also befriended Joe Maldonado, an MD from up-State NY and the VP of the Medical Society of NY, who is from Puerto Rico and who in researching his family tree came to the inescapable conclusion that his ancestors fled from Spain to the wilds of Puerto Rico in the 16th century to escape the Inquisition. He was brought up as a Protestant that he sees as a way of his family escaping the grip of the Catholic Church, and he is now embracing his Anousim/Jewish origins. There were so many other examples of people from Brazil, Texas, Tennessee, Florida and so on, that the general feeling was that this subject of the Anousim is ripe for a great expansion.
Ending the Conference was a Workshop on genealogical research, run by Yael Cohen, Chief Genealogist of the Inst. for Sefardi and Anousim Studies, who for a fee is available to help people research their family tree. Altogether this Conference was a historic and highly rewarding experience.