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.