Don Isaac Abarbanel’s response to the Spanish Inquisition edict of Expulsion 1942
Your Majesties, Abraham Senior [chief rabbi of Castile] and I thank you for this opportunity to make our last statement on the behalf of the Jewish communities that we represent. Counts, dukes, and marquees of the court, cavaliers and ladies…. it is no great honor when a Jew is asked to plead for the safety of his people. But it is a greater disgrace when the King and Queen of Castile and Aragon, indeed of all Spain, have to seek their glory in the expulsion of a harmless people. I find it very difficult to understand how every Jewish man, woman, and child can be a threat to the Catholic faith. Very, very strong charges.
We destroy you?
It is indeed the opposite. Did you not admit in this edict to having confined all Jews to restricted quarters and to having limited our legal and social privileges, not to mention forcing us to wear shameful badges? Did you not tax us oppressively? Did you not terrorize us day and night with your diabolical Inquisition? Let me make this matter perfectly clear to all present: I will not allow the voice of Israel to be stilled on this day.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, King and Queen of Spain, for I, Isaac Abravanel, speak unto you. I and my family are descended directly from King David. True royal bold, the blood of the Messiah, runs in my veins. It is my inheritance, and I proclaim it now in the name of the God of Israel.
On behalf of my people, the people of Israel, the chosen of God, I declare them blameless and innocent of all crimes declared in this edict of abomination. The crime, the transgression, is for you, not us, to bear. The unrighteous decree you proclaim today will be your downfall. And this year, which you imagine to be the year of Spain’s greatest glory, will become of Spain’s greatest shame.
As honor is the reward of individual virtue, so too worldly renown of kings and queens is their proper due for noble deeds. So, too, when unseemly acts are committed by an individual, that person’s reputation suffers. And when kings and queens commit shameful deeds, they do themselves great harm. As it is said, the greater the person who errs, the greater the error. Errors, if recognized early, can be corrected. The loosened brick that supports the structure can be reinserted into position. So, too, a mistaken edict if caught in time can be undone. But religious zeal has undermined reason, and misguided counsel has perverted sound judgment. The error of the edict will soon become irreversible as the very deed which it proclaims. Yes, my king and queen, hear me well: error, your error, profound and uncorrectable, the likes of which Spain has never seen before. You and you alone are responsible.
As arms measure the might of a nation, so arts and letters measure its finer sensibilities. Yes, you have humbled the Moslem infidel with the force of your army, proving yourselves able in the art of war. But what of your inner state of mind? By what right do your Inquisitors go about the countryside burning books by the thousands in public bonfires? By what authority do churchmen now want to burn the immense Arabic library of this great Moorish palace and destroy its priceless manuscripts? By whose rights? By whose authority? Why, it is by your authority, my king and queen.
In your heart of hearts, you distrust the power of knowledge, and you respect only power. With us Jews it is different. We Jews cherish knowledge immensely. In our homes and in our prayer houses, learning is a lifelong pursuit. Learning is our lifelong passion; it is at the core of our being; it is the reason, according to our sages, for which we were created. Our fierce love of learning could have counterbalanced your excessive love of might. We could have benefited from the protection offered by your royal arms, and you could have profited the more from our community’s advancement and exchange of knowledge. I say to you we could have helped each other.
As we are reminded of our own powerlessness, so your nation will suffer from the forces of disequilibrium that you have set in motion. For centuries to come, your descendants will pay dearly for your mistake of the present. As it is might of arms you most admire, you shall verily become a nation of conquerors — lusting after gold and spoils, living by the sword and ruling with a fist of mail. Yet you shall become a nation of illiterates; your institutions of learning, fearing the heretical contamination of alien ideas from other lands, and other peoples, will no longer be respected. In the course of time, the once great name of Spain will become a whispered byword among the nations: Spain, the poor ignorant has-been; Spain, the nation which showed so much promise and yet accomplished so little.
And then one day Spain will ask itself: what has become of us? Why are we a laughing-stock among nations? And the Spaniards of that day will look into their past and ask themselves why this came to be. And those who are honest will point to this day and this age as the time when their fall as a nation began. And the cause of their downfall will be shown to be none other than their revered Catholic sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, conquerors of the Moors, expellers of the Jews, founders of the Inquisition, and destroyers of the inquiring Spanish mind.
This edict is a testimony to Christian weakness. It shown that we Jews are capable of winning the centuries-old argument between the two faiths. It explains why there are “false Christians,” that is, Christians whose faith has been shaken by the arguments by the Jew who knows better. It explains why the Christian nation would be as injured as it claims to be. Desiring to silence Jewish opposition, the Christian majority has decided not to argue any further, but rather to eliminate the source of dangerous counter-argument. The opportunity to the Jews is not to be granted after today.
This is the last opportunity on Spanish soil to state our case. In these last few moments of freedom granted to me by the King and Queen, I as the spokesman of Spanish Jewry, will dwell on one point of theological dispute. I will leave you with a parting message although you will not like it.
The message is simple. The historical people of Israel, as it has traditionally constituted itself, is the final judge of Jesus and his claims to be the Messiah. As the Messiah was destined to save Israel, so it must be for Israel to decide when it has been saved. Our answer, the only answer that matters, is that Jesus was a false Messiah. As long as the people of Israel lives, as long as Jesus’s own people continue to reject him, your religion can never be validated as true. You can convert all the peoples and savages of the World, but as long as you have not converted the Jew, you have proved nothing except that you can persuade the uninformed.
We leave you with this comforting knowledge. For although you can dispose our power, we have the higher truth. Although you can dispose of our persons, you cannot dispose of our sacred souls and the historical truth to which only we bear witness.
Listen, King and Queen of Spain, for on this day you have joined the list of evil-doers against the remnant of the House of Israel. If you seek to destroy us, your wishes will come for naught, for greater and more powerful rulers have tried to finish with us, and all have failed. Indeed, we shall prosper in other lands far from here. For wherever we go, the God of Israel is with us. And as for you King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, God’s hand will reach out and punish the arrogance in your heart.
Woe unto you, authors of iniquity. For generations to come, it will be told and retold how unkind was your faith and how blind was your vision. But more that your acts of hatred and fanaticism, the courage of the people of Israel will be remembered for standing up to the might of imperial Spain, clinging to the religious inheritance of our fathers, resisting your enticements and your untruths.
Expel us, drive us from this land that we cherish no less than you do.
But we shall remember you, King and Queen of Spain, as our Holy Books remember those who sought our harm. We Jews shall haunt your accomplishments on the pages of history… and the memories of our sufferings will inflict greater damage upon your name that anything you can ever hope to do to us.
We shall remember you and your vile Edict of Expulsion forever."
Spanish Jews pleading before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, while Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada argues for their expulsion from Spain, 1492, in a painting by Solomon Hart, ca. 1870. (Agefotostock/Alamy Stock Photo.)
Edward Peters. "Jewish History and Gentile Memory: The Expulsion of 1492." Jewish History 9, no. 1 (1995): 24–28. www.jstor.org/stable/20101210.