Jewish Expulsion from Portugal

Pirates and plague loomed, and prized possessions sold for a pittance.

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Our discussion of expulsion thus far considers the concept of banishment, but what of the actual process? The following article makes the political personal by examining the effect of the 1492 edict of expulsion on the Spanish Jewish community. Reprinted with permission from The Jews of Spain (Free Press).

Selling Out in a Hurry

The decree of expulsion was greeted by the Jews with despair and disbelief. They were given four months to wind up their affairs, and were not permitted to take any gold, silver, or precious metal with them. Recognizing that they could not avoid a forced journey into the unknown, they sought frantically to divest themselves of their property, but the task was virtually hopeless in the time allotted.

The accumulated communal treasures of generations included exquisite synagogues and ancient cemeteries, ritual baths and halls. As for private buildings, how could they sell quickly so many villas and vineyards, orchards and grain fields? The market was flooded still more by workshops and ateliers, thousands of homes and unremitted debts.

The contemporary priest, Andres Bernaldez, describes how most possessions went for a pittance: a vineyard for the price of a handkerchief, a house for a donkey, a workshop for a piece of linen or a loaf of bread. Some people buried their valuables in the hope that they would return later. Agonized scholars dispersed family libraries that had been preserved for generations, even as they tried to commit some of this treasured wisdom to memory.

King Ferdinand Counts His Profits

The author of their distress, Ferdinand, coldly calculated how much he could reap from the decree. For one thing, he cynically ordered Jewish communities to pay the communal taxes due for the next several years so that he would not lose revenue by their departure. Debts outstanding to Jews were deferred or transferred to the crown.

Where Do You Go?

To ensure that their children would have extra protectors during the upcoming ordeal, many families hurriedly married them off. The major problem, however, was finding a country of asylum. England and France had banished their Jewish communities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. After the Black Death of 1348, which wiped out almost a fifth of Europe’s population, many German towns had expelled Jews or destroyed their communities, accusing them of causing the deaths by poisoning the wells.

Almost all of Italy had refused to admit the Spanish refugees, while the few existing Jewish communities there could not handle much immigration in the face of restrictions placed upon them. North Africa was a possibility, but he hapless Sephardim had to bribe ruthless ship captains and rely upon unsafe vessels; in the event, many refugees wound up adrift on the Mediterranean.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.