In its heyday Spanish Jewry was one of the largest, most prosperous and cultivated Jewish communities in the world. Despite centuries of unrivaled Jewish success, this “Golden Age” came to an end in 1492 with the promulgation of the “Alhambra Decree,” which presented the Jews with the options of conversion to Catholicism, exile or death. The majority of Jews in Spain, between 200,000 and 250,000, were forced to apostatize while somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 were forced into exile. Today, an estimated 13,000 (affiliated) and 50,000 (resident) Jews live in Spain, concentrated in the provinces of Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga as well in the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla. A significant portion of these are Spanish-speaking Jews who returned to Spain after centuries of exile in northern Morocco. Ashkenazi Jews (primarily from Latin America, but also of European origin) have also arrived in Spain over the last several decades. The Federacion de Comunidades Judías de España (Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain) is the Spanish affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
The Jewish presence in the Iberian Peninsula, known in Hebrew as Sepharad, dates back to the Roman period. During the early 5th century, the Visigoths captured the Iberian Peninsula from Roman control. They later converted to Christianity and, in 613 CE, the Jews there were ordered to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Though many Jews chose to leave rather than convert, many of them still practiced Judaism in secret, a tradition that survived for centuries in Spain. In the 8th century, the Berber Muslims, called the Moors, conquered the peninsula. Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians were granted with the status of dhimmi, that is, protected non-Muslims accorded special status. Although the Jews did not enjoy full equality, this period, often called the “Golden Age of Spain,” saw Jews garner significant influence, especially in philosophy, medicine, business, and government. Figures of note included the physician, philosopher and Talmudist Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides) and Samuel ibn Naghrillah, who led Muslim armies in the field. In 1479, the union of the two principal Spanish dynasties through the marriage of Isabella de Castilla to Fernando de Aragon started the process by which Spain was not only unified but also “purified” through the religious “Reconquista.” Part of this effort was led by the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1481, which tortured and burned numerous converts who were accused of secretly practicing the faith of their fathers. After the Moors were finally driven out of Granada in 1492, the monarchs moved to complete their reconquest through the expulsion of Spanish Jewry. By the end of July 1492, with the “Alhambra Decree,” between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews were compelled to convert to Catholicism. Another 40,000-100,000 were forced into exile. Years of persecution had taught Jews that they could be baptized and still practice Judaism in secret. If discovered still practicing Judaism, these Conversos, or New Christians – popularly called marranos (pigs) by the non-Jewish population – were jailed and burned at the stake. Many Conversos escaped to Europe, the Ottoman Empire and even to Latin America, where many of them could again practice Judaism openly. The Abolition of the Inquisition was proclaimed in 1834.
In 1868, with the creation of a new constitutional monarchy that allowed for the practice of faiths other than Catholicism, Jews were finally permitted to return to Spain. From 1868 until 1968, Jews could live in Spain as individuals, but could not practice Judaism as a community. A relatively small number of Jews settled in Spain during the 19th century, and they opened synagogues in Barcelona and Madrid in the first decades of the 20th century. Under the Franco regime, Jewish communities in Madrid and Barcelona kept a low profile. The “Alhambra Decree” was formally rescinded in 1968, four hundred and seventy-six years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand ordered the Jews expelled from Spain.
In 1992, King Juan Carlos – in a symbolic gesture – also repealed the expulsion order and in 2015, the Spanish Parliament voted to offer citizenship to descendants of Sephardi Jews. In August 2017, the Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) announced plans to establish a new institute in Israel aimed at preserving and promoting Ladino, a Sephardic Jewish language derived from Old Spanish that is spoken today mainly in Israel and Turkey.
A law aiming to correct the “historical mistake” of the expulsion, murder and forced conversion of Jews to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition was passed by the Spanish parliament in 2015. The law allows descendants of the Sephardic Jewish community from Spain to apply for citizenship after being vetted by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities (FCJE) and meeting other criteria such as demonstrating a “special connection” to Spain and a knowledge of its language and culture. As of March 2018, 6,432 Jews obtained Spanish citizenship through this process. The law was originally due to expire in 2018, but was extended to October 2019.
Anti-Semitism remains an issue of concern to Spanish Jews, with a recent analysis by the Spanish Observatory on Anti-Semitism finding that 53% of Spaniards believe in traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Spanish neutrality in World War II allowed 25,600 Jews to use Spain as a getaway, with Franco allowing Jews to use the country as an escaping route. Spanish diplomats extended their protection to Eastern European Jews, especially in Hungary, because many Jews claimed Spanish ancestry. Spain also granted citizenship to Sephardic Jews in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. There is still open debate about Spain's wartime attitude towards refugees. Franco's regime, despite its aversion to Zionism and "Judeo-Freemasonry,” does not appear to have shared the extreme anti-Semitic ideology promoted by the Nazis. About 25,000 to 35,000 refugees, most of them Jews, went through Spain to Portugal. However, the clear majority of the Jews who took refuge in Spain later left for other countries because they were only offered transit rather than residency visas. Following the defeat of Germany in 1945, the Spanish government tried to destroy all evidence of cooperation with the Nazis. In 1945, Barcelona became a refugee center, aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated the Spanish Jewish community to number between 11,800 and 18,000 as of 2007. The major centers of Jewish life in Spain are Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga. Other communities can be found in Alicante, Cadiz, Marbella, Majorca, Torremolinos, Valencia, Canary Islands, Oviedo and Seville. In Spanish North Africa, Jews reside in Ceuta and Melilla. The Jewish community of modern Spain is composed of Jews who arrived from Morocco and the Balkans following the war. More recently, Jewish immigrants have moved from Latin America, especially Argentina and Venezuela.
Representatives of the Jewish Community of Spain were present at the 1936 inaugural WJC Plenary in Geneva. In 1964, the Federation of the Jewish Communities of Spain (Federación de la Comunidades Judías de España, or FCJE) affiliated with the WJC.
The division in autonomous regions and communities of Spain is also reflected in the life of the Jewish community. Even as the FCJE unites Orthodox communities from different parts of the country and represents Jewish interests to the government, many local communities have their own relationships with the local governments. Much of the Jewish population is concentrated in Barcelona, Madrid and Malaga, and is linked to FCJE, although there are also independent Conservative and Chabad communities.
The recent arrival of Jewish families from Latin America, where Reform and Progressive Judaism are popular, has contributed to changing religious traditions amongst Spanish Jews. Examples of these changes are the opening of the Baruch Spinoza Foundation in Barcelona and the establishment of the magazine Raices (Roots) in Madrid. In Barcelona, the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities pray in separate synagogues in the same building on the high holidays. Kosher food is available in Spain and groups such as WIZO and B'nai B'rith are also active.
The FCJE’s Consejo Rabínico Superior de España - Superior Rabbinical Council of Spain (CRSE) – oversees the supervision of Kashrut and the organization of the rabbinate. In July 2017, the Leo Baeck College, the main Rabbinical Seminar for Reform and Masorti Jews, ordained the first ever Spain-born Progressive Rabbi. The 'ZAKHOR' Center of Studies for the Protection and Transmission of Jewish Heritage is located in Barcelona.
In the absence of laws restricting hate propagation or Holocaust denial, Spain serves as a publishing and distribution center for neo-Nazis and other extreme rightists. Indeed, Spain serves as a refuge for a number of Nazi war criminals and neo-Nazis convicted elsewhere of promoting racial hatred or historical revisionism.
Jewish day schools exist in Barcelona, Madrid, and Malaga and several Spanish communities run Sunday schools and Talmud Torahs.
Spain boasts Sunday schools, summer camps and branches of the Maccabi sports movement and the Union of Jewish Students.
The FCJE runs Radio Sefarad and TV Shalom. The cultural magazine Raíces (Roots) is published in Madrid.
The primary sites of Jewish interest are those linked to the “Golden Age” in the region of Andalusia. Toledo features the Museo Sephardi (situated in the El Transito synagogue), the nearby Church of Santa Maria La Blanca (an ancient synagogue), and the former Jewish quarter. The synagogue of Maimonides can be visited in Cordoba. Most of these have long since been used as churches.
Former Jewish areas, the juderías, can be seen in, Avila, Barcelona, Besalu, Caceres, Calahorra, Córdoba, Estella, Gerona, Hervas, Jaén, León, Monforte de Lemos, Montblanc, Oviedo, Palma de Majorca, Plasencia, Rivadavia, Segovia, Tarazona, Tarragona Tortosa and Tudela.
Israel and Spain did not establish diplomatic ties until 1986, when Spain recognized the State of Israel. Prior the recognition, the Spanish Jewish community, through a number of socio-cultural friendship associations, served as an unofficial bridge between the two countries.
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