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 conversos 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. (Read more.)Share