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.