I’m reading the biography of Don Isaac Abravanel by the historian Benzion Netanyahu. Abravanel was a philosopher, biblical commentator and financier. In 1483, he escaped from Portugal, where he was being persecuted by the king, and settled in Castile. Ferdinand and Isabella were then the rulers in Spain. The country’s Jews would be expelled nine years later, but in the interim, Abravanel succeeded in getting close to the monarchy and served as minister of finance.
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Early in his book, originally published by Cornell University Press in 1953, Prof. Netanyahu embarks on an extensive discussion of the motives that prompted the royal couple to initiate the notorious expulsion. Why, in fact, did the king and queen decide to rid their country of its Jews? The author suggests that there is no simple answer to this question. Ferdinand realized that the Jews’ departure would be harmful to Spain economically. In addition, Netanyahu explains, Ferdinand did not display a negative attitude toward the Jews or toward the “new Christians” (also called conversos or marranos). Several of Isabella’s senior officials and advisers were Jews, and tax farmer Abraham Senior had helped her come to power. Ferdinand, too, was friendly toward the Jews. He bore them no hatred and didn’t have an iota of racism in him, according to Netanyahu. Abravanel was actually one of a number of Jews who held important positions in revenue collection for the monarchy. The king appreciated their economic contribution to the country and their loyalty to the crown.
If so, what induced Ferdinand and Isabella to decide on the expulsion order, even though it ran contrary to economic logic and their own inclinations? The pursuit of the topic leads Netanyahu to inquire into the king’s character. Ferdinand, who posed as a God-fearing individual, was, according to the late historian, a world-class political hypocrite. So it’s not surprising, suggests the author, that Machiavelli viewed him as a model for the main protagonist in “The Prince.” “Heartless and ruthless as he was, he had a passion for appearing considerate,” Netanyahu writes of the monarch.
When the Jews were expelled from Seville, in 1483, Ferdinand portrayed himself and Isabella as being compassionate toward the deportees, and tended to present the Inquisition as being responsible for the acts of cruelty. In practice, after watching an auto-da-fé, he wrote to an inquisitor of the “great pleasure” he had derived from the event.
With superb cunning, Ferdinand hid his toughness behind a mask of virtues and an ostensible disposition for compromise. One of his methods was to cast responsibility on his wife: When pressure was exerted on him, or criticism of his actions was voiced – Ferdinand would shift the blame for his vicious deeds onto the “haughty, fanatic” (per Netanyahu) Isabella.
Even though he presented his actions as deriving from a desire to preserve Spain’s religious purity, Ferdinand’s considerations were actually political, driven by his wish to placate supporters of the strong anti-Jewish movement that swept through Spain. From the moment Ferdinand grasped that the expulsion of the Jews was unavoidable, he decided to exploit the hostility toward them for the benefit of the crown. He “expected to reap a rich financial harvest from the expulsion of the Jews” – that is, from the money, valuables and houses they would leave behind.
At the same time, the royal couple naturally justified their moves with religious pieties. Isabella claimed that she had “never touched a [penny] of confiscated property” and that she had “employed the money in educating” children. Those were gross lies.
At this point I put the book aside. There are certain things I don’t understand. It appears that Ferdinand was “heartless,” but not “ruthless”; he didn’t hate the Jews, but took pleasure in watching them being burned at the stake. He acted under pressure of his supporters, but was also driven by a powerful independent will. It’s also not clear at what stage the decision was made to drive them from his country. Netanyahu notes that early on, the king and queen reached the conclusion that Christian Spain “would never absorb the Jewish element.” But at the same time, he observes that in 1483, Ferdinand was not prepared under any circumstances to drive the Jews from Spain.
Between fanaticism and corruption
How is it even possible to explain an act as cruel as the expulsion? How can we enter the minds of the planners and perpetrators? The exile of Spain’s Jews was not the first such calamity to befall Jews in Christendom, but it was notably brutal and it was a departure from the policy of previous Spanish monarchs. Accordingly, a different approach is needed to understand why it happened. There are cases in which the present helps us explain the past. Historian Netanyahu, too, does not balk at drawing comparisons between the Jews of Spain and the situation of Jews in the modern era.
Indeed, the expulsion order of 1492 in Spain mirrors in a shocking way the expulsion order that was drawn up in Israel in 2017. Not by Ferdinand II of Aragon, but by Benjamin Netanyahu. True, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain differs in many respects from the expulsion of the African refugees from Israel – and not only because it occurred at a completely different time and place. The Jews in 15th-century Spain played a different role than the Eritreans and Sudanese have in 21st-century Israel. The Eritreans and the Sudanese are not engaged in tax collection in Israel and do not hold senior posts in the state bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, the asylum seekers do have a necessary function in the Israeli economy. In the past two decades, in the wake of Israel’s disconnect with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the economy has been based on the work of laborers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are the only ones willing to do low-paying menial jobs. In fact, Netanyahu is expelling thousands of workers with one hand, and with the other aiming to import thousands of new ones. The deportation of the asylum seekers, an act that is liable to bring about their deaths, is not reasonable in terms of Israel’s economic interests.
When we examine the character of Benjamin Netanyahu, the character of Ferdinand suddenly becomes a lot more understandable. It’s much easier to understand the combination of rigidity and self-righteousness, and the connection between ideological fanaticism and corruption. It’s easier to grasp the tension between a seemingly pragmatic posture and a zealous determination to purge the national body of alien elements. It’s easy to recognize the arrogance that stems from political achievements that dovetail with the exploitation of overheated public passions.
The expulsion of the asylum seekers, like the expulsion from Spain, is a last stage in a series of measures aimed at cutting off this unwanted group: It follows establishment of separate areas of residence, economic abuse and the establishment of a special authority to embitter their lives. By the way, the Jews of Grenada were also given a month’s notice to depart on their own before steps were to be taken against them.
The fact is that, if the expulsion takes place, it will be rank hypocrisy for Israelis to continue denouncing the expulsion from Spain. And as for Netanyahu himself, the historical parallel will undoubtedly occur to him if he reads the book written by his late father. Unless he’s already done so and taken a few ideas from it.