On March 31, 1492, the joint monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, signed the Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, which gave the Jews who remained in their domain four months either to convert or to go into exile.
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The expulsion of the Jews was made possible by the “reconquest” of most of Iberia from the Muslim Moors by the Catholic monarchs. But it was really the culmination of a century of severe persecution of Jews, which included murderous riots across much of Iberia that resulted in massive conversions and also voluntary emigration of tens of thousands of Jews.
Spain was far from the first country in Europe to rid itself of its Jews: By 1492, Britain, France, parts of Germany, Naples, Lithuania, Hungary, Austria, among others, had already done the same.
For Ferdinand and Isabella, the expulsion was a response to reports that Jews who had nominally converted to Catholicism were secretly continuing to practice their original faith, and even attempting to lure other conversos to do the same. For this reason Ferdinand requested permission from the pope in 1478 to establish a commission of inquisition to investigate such charges.
Granada was the last outpost of Moorish rule in the Iberian peninsula. With its fall in January 1492, a large number of Muslims and Jews came under the domain of the king and queen. (A similar expulsion of Muslims took place a decade later, in 1502.)
Although a year earlier, Isabella had signed a treaty guaranteeing the Jews and Muslims of the Emirate of Granada religious freedom, by 1492, she had changed her mind.
The Alhambra Decree – named for the Moorish-era palace in Granada that was surrendered by Boabdil to Ferdinand and Isabella in January 1492 – was the legal expression of that reversal of policy.
Permission to take their possessions
The decree outlines the historical developments that required the monarchy to take such a drastic step as expulsion, whose purpose is to make it impossible for Jews to continue causing Christians to “Judaize.” Unfortunately, the monarchs wrote, it had become clear that ordering Jews to live in separate quarters from their Christian neighbors had been insufficient to stop the former from trying "to subvert their holy Catholic faith and trying to draw faithful Christians away from their beliefs."
Furthermore, although a dozen years of inquisition had turned up many cases of Jews who had “perverted and enticed” Christians to “hold and observe the laws of Moses,” it too had not succeeded in ending the practice. Hence the decision to “to order the said Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back.”
The monarchs explained in the decree how they would offer the Jews four months’ worth of protection to finish up their business and clear out. And it very generously explains how the departing Jews need not leave empty-handed, as they were to be permitted to “export their goods and estates out of these our said kingdoms and lordships by sea or land” – so long “as they do not export gold or silver or coined money.”
Jews not departed from the kingdom by July 31 - which worked out to be the day before Tisha B’Av - faced a death penalty, without trial, and any Christians who helped them avoid departure would be punished by confiscation of all their property and loss of hereditary privileges.
The estimate of the numbers of Jews who fled Spain in the wake of the decree ranges from 150,000 to 800,000. A good percentage are presumed to have gone to Portugal initially. The remainder went to Northern Africa and to other parts of the Ottoman Empire, principally Greece and Turkey.
Portugal appointed its own inquisition in 1536, so that Jews who had fled there or to that country’s possessions (including in the New World), were soon forced into exile again. Many of them then moved to Amsterdam.
It is estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 of Spain’s Jews chose the option of converting. One recent genetic study of Spanish men suggests that as many as 20 percent of them have direct patrilineal descent from Sephardic Jews.
Although the Spanish Constitution of 1869 established religious freedom in the country, it was only on December 16, 1968, that the Alhambra Decree was officially revoked. Today, there are estimated 50,000 Jews living in Spain.