From Golden to Grim: Jewish Life in Muslim Spain

The complex political situation in Muslim Spain impacted Jewish social and cultural life there.

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It was sustained, as well, by self-satisfaction. Iberia's affluent Jews envisaged themselves as the aristocrats of the Diaspora. In its condescension, the assessment evinced at once economic success, superior education ­and often a highly cultivated, characteristically Iberian elegance of personal demeanor. Appraising the Jews of Ashkenaz (the Hebrew term for Trans-Pyrenean Europe [that is, basically, Poland, France and the German lands]), a Sephardic intellectual could write:

[The Ashkenazim] eat boiled beef, dipped in vinegar and garlic . .. and as the fumes ... penetrate their minds, they then imagine that by these viands they have achieved an image of the Creator .... They have no fixed ideas except on rutting, eating, and drinking .... Stay clear of them and do not come within their embrace, and ... let not your pleasant companionship be with any other than our beloved Sephardic brethren ... for (the latter] have intellectual capacity, understanding, and clarity of mind.

Ironically, well‑born Andalusian Jews experienced few similar con­cerns about "staying clear" of their Muslim peers. Relations between the two elites generally were equable. Although each of Spain's religious communities lived within its own quarters, well into the twelfth century, mass violence that followed the assassination of Joseph ibn Nagrela, a Jewish vizier to the court of Granada, in l066 was uncharacteristic even of the restive Muslim lower classes. Among the affluent, business and professional contacts were extensive, and social visits between prosperous Muslim and Jewish families were by no means rare.

The Berber Almohade Tribesmen Smashed This Idyll, Driving Jews to the Christian North.

In the mid‑1100s, however, a force majeure decisively shattered these placid multicultural relations. Led by Abd al‑Mu'min al‑Mohade, scion of a fundamentalist North African Berber dynasty that has traditionally been called the Almohades, a new wave of Islamic warriors swept down from Algeria’s Atlas Mountains. Engulfing the North African littoral popula­tion, the invaders pressed across the Strait of Gibraltar to overrun central and southern Iberia.

Decades of brutal Almohade persecution followed—of forced conversions equally of Jews, Christians, and "backsliding" Muslims. Thousands of Andalusian Jews accordingly fled to the Spanish Christian kingdoms of the north. The grim interregnum continued for six decades, until 1212, when an alliance of Christian armies finally destroyed the Almohade minions at Las Navas de Tolosa, and with it Almohade rule in the Iberian Peninsula altogether.

In ensuing years, as local Muslim governments began reviving in Andalusia, large numbers of Jews returned to the south. But if they anticipated resuming the former tempo of their lives, they were shortly undeceived. Religious passions by then had been too widely stirred and diffused.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.