David Abulafia

  • The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain by Benzion Netanyahu
    Random House, 1384 pp, $50.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 679 41065 1

Marranos, Moriscos, Mudejars, Mozarabs, Muwallads; converted Jews, converted Muslims, Muslims under Christian rule, Christians under Muslim rule, Christian converts to Islam: the early history of Spain was to a large extent shaped by the relationship between the adherents of the three monotheistic religions, and in particular by the fierce debates aroused when one group fell under the dominion of another, and members of one or other faith converted to that of their rulers. From the 12th century onwards, rabbis denounced or on occasion sympathised with those who found themselves forced to accept first Islam and then Christianity, while Muslim lawyers expressed contempt for those who sought to continue to practise Islam under the unclean rule of Christian kings.

Such debates have not yet lost their force, as modern Jewish historians find themselves extolling the virtues of those Jews in medieval Europe (mainly in the Rhineland) who preferred death to baptism, while questioning the strength of faith of the many Sephardic, or Spanish, Jews who by contrast turned Christian during the pogroms of 1391. Particularly bitter is the debate about the converted Jews in Spain: whether they retained any allegiance to their old faith; whether they felt any sympathy for the fate of their Jewish relatives; whether the strident criticism they faced from ‘Old Christians’ resulted from genuine fears that they were Judaising heretics, or from a precocious form of racism that denied anyone of Jewish descent a right to take part in political and cultural life. These questions dominate Benzion Netanyahu’s long-awaited, and gigantic, book.

Netanyahu’s name at least will be familiar from the prominent public role of one of his sons and the heroism of another, killed leading the raid at Entebbe Airport (the book is dedicated to his memory). Born the son of Rabbi Nathan Mielkowsky in Warsaw in 1910, he was active from an early date in the Zionist Revisionist Party, serving on the Executive Committee, editing its newspaper and finally reaching America (where he pursued his academic career) with the Revisionist leader Jabotinsky in 1940. Consciously or otherwise, it is this background, the pedigree also of Begin and Shamir, that underlies many of the assumptions in his book, notably his powerful sense of the ‘national’ identity of Spain and of the dilemma faced by Jews even after they had converted, since (he argues) endemic anti-semitism prevented their true assimilation into the dominant culture. On the one hand, they wanted to be Christians, but on the other, they could never be accepted as Christians because the criteria defining Spanishness were racial and not religious, with no room for the Jews or those of Jewish blood, all of whom were seen as descendants of the original Christ-killers: ‘It was the antagonism to the Jewish-peoplehood that survived among the Marranos in the state of their conversion, and it is here that we find the point of affinity between the hatred of the Marranos by the Christian masses and the theoretical approaches of the racist movement.’

The analogy with Germany or Poland in the Thirties is clear, and though Netanyahu is well aware that historical events do not repeat themselves exactly, the book is pervaded by a sense that the Jewish nation will always find itself rejected when it resides on alien soil. Spain and the Jews are presented as fundamentally incompatible, and the whole country seen as having been a hotbed of hatred towards Jews since well before the great expulsion of 1492: ‘we may better understand the expansion of the Inquisition, and of the peculiar compound of feelings that impelled it, if we consider the case of Nazi Germany and the evolution of the movement that created it.’ Anti-semitism in both Spain and Germany is taken to be an essential element in the political programme of ruthless power-seekers: ‘persecution over-reached itself, so that from a means it became an end.’ ‘Torrents of hate’ were unleashed which moulded the later history of both Germany and Spain. In his earlier books on the Marranos Netanyahu insisted that the solution would have been massive migration to the Holy Land, but that even the great Jewish leader Isaac Abravanel failed to understand where the true destiny of Israel lay, leading his followers only as far as Naples.

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