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The entire Spanish Jewish community, some 200,000 souls, was thrown out of Spain on this date in 1492. At least 50,000 others would avoid expulsion by being baptized and joining the country’s large population of conversos, who would continue to face persecution by the Inquisition. The expulsion took place on Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of Jewish mourning for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and the murder of rabbinic sages by the Romans — and the Spanish Expulsion would be added to the history of martyrdom recalled on that fast day. “Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety,” reports Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in Jewish Literacy (1991). “In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds, and many Jews were knifed to death by brigands hoping to find treasures in their stomachs.” The most fortunate were those who journeyed to Turkey, where Muslim leaders welcomed them; Sephardic communities would soon be established or revitalized throughout North Africa and the Levant. The least fortunate were those who fled to Portugal, where they would face another expulsion order in 1496 and be subjected to forcible baptism, torture, and execution.
“The conquest of the New World was accomplished without their collaboration. Had they remained on the Iberian Peninsula, they most probably would have taken part in the [genocidal] enterprises of the conquistadores. . . . The desperate Jews of 1492 could not know what a favor had been done for them.” —Abraham Joshua Heschel