Benzion Netanyahu excelled in detailing the history of the Jews of Spain, the conversos, and the Spanish Inquisition. His son Benjamin is the Prime Minister of Israel. Parallels between the historical time which interested Benzion, and the political current which concerns Benjamin, are very striking, if not obvious initially.
Netanyahu Snr was 102 years old when he died. Appropriately, his life spanned the same number of years, as the distance between the two most notorious events of Spanish antisemitism: the antisemitic riots of 1391, and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
You would be forgiven for thinking that within the interim period, there was a steady increase of antisemitic pressure against Jews, which naturally culminated in a mass exodus from Sepharad. Yet there was much sophistry involved in getting from A to B, with deception and self-deception afoot, each step of the way. Although the goalposts would change, those responsible for making the Jews unwelcome in Spain, would at each point view themselves as pious and desiring to serve God.
In 1391, an estimated 10,000 Jews were murdered across Spain – 4000 Jews were killed in Seville alone. They were torn apart by incensed crowds, whipped up by a Seville pastor, Ferrand Mártinez. Mártinez had been preaching since 1378, increasing incitement against Jews weekly. The king did nothing to hold Martinez in check, and the antisemitism grew. When the king died, Martinez seized his opportunity to advance his anti-Jewish rallies unopposed.
When so many Jews were massacred, it led to a sudden paradigm shift in Jewish thought. Having survived for centuries as a persecuted people, Jews had to learn to adapt quickly to new paths, new professions, new languages, and even new ideologies. But what happened following the 1391 pogroms was unprecedented – there was a mass conversion of Jews to Spanish Catholicism. Some Jews saw conversion as an escape from hatred, and a way to find emancipation. These Jews would no longer be subject to accusations of opposing God.
So there was now a Jewish expression of the common worldview that most Spaniards shared. There was a Jewish sub-section within the church, which stood out by its mere existence. The conversos became successful and integrated at all levels of the Church, but were always aware of their true identity. The kol nidrei prayer was likely designed for the existential dilemmas of conversos or anusim.
Of course, this did not matter to the outside world, which could not cope and became suspicious of Jews who were outwardly claiming to meet society’s religious expectations, but inwardly worked according to another logic.
Rabbi Sacks said of antisemitism:
I have argued for some years that an assault on Jewish life always needs justification by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given age. Throughout the Middle Ages the highest authority in Europe was the Church. Hence antisemitism took the form of Christian anti-Judaism.
[... But today] that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life – on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state – must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them – some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today.
Today’s anti-Zionism is suspicious of the Jewish nation, which is modern and largely secular like Europe is.
Anti-Zionists use the language of human rights to condemn the Jewish attempt to live like the rest of the world, whilst claiming they are not antisemitic. We are not against the Jews, we are against the Zionists only. The thing is, the Jews are the “Zionists”. Many Jews had to adjust to becoming Israelis, or becoming “Zionists” (Jews who believe their friends and family have a right to defend themselves), in order to simply survive.
Many Jews today develop a deep interest in politics, having been forced to explain to people who are shouting at them, why they think Israel has a moral and legal right to exist and defend herself. The conversos of Sepharad quickly became versed in Catholic ideology, and produced their orators and theologians to defend their right to exist as they were. So behind the carefully-crafted arguments and façades, Converso identity was also a survival mechanism.
Both the converso community and Zionism grew in response to persecution. The two are hardly the same – conversion to another religion is generally considered as a negation of Jewish identity, whereas Zionism is an affirmation of Jewish identity -but there are similarities in the way the two groups have been perceived and treated.
As the Church zealously turned its wrath towards the insincere marranos, its officials were both blissfully and wilfully ignorant that the Church’s own antisemitism was to blame for creating this situation in the first place!
If Martinez’s campaign against the Jews had not led to mass conversions, then there would have been less reason for Jews to convert falsely to Catholicism, as their survival instinct had kicked in. That was Spanish anti-Marrano ideology in the Middle Ages.
Howard Jacobson recently commented on the anti-Zionism of the postmodern world:
“Country after country kicks Jews out. ‘Out you go, out you go, go where the hell you like.’ The idea that such countries can say, ‘We kicked you out but we are absolutely appalled that you might now have decided to find a place where you might like to congregate and say that you would like to be be mainly for you.’ You can’t kick people out and then determine what they do when they go somewhere else. Given the history of them, it makes perfect sense. They would be mad not to do so.”
It is this mad attitude that defines much modern antisemitism.
Now as then, antisemitism led to a new Jewish phenomenon, which was then opposed by people believing themselves to be virtuous, who conveniently forgot the fact that their fathers had encouraged the phenomenon by being anti-Semitic, and forcing Jews to find radical solutions.
I am sure the irony of these pious arguments was not lost to the conversos, as their contemporary equivalents are not lost on us today.
Just as the conversos or New Christians were never really accepted as actual Christians, so too many of today’s Jewish Zionist political thinkers are dismissed as “neo-cons” – they are new or neo in a derogatory way, as the conversos were.
Contrary to popular myth, the Jews were beyond the reach of the Inquisition. The Inquisition was an internal body within the Holy Church, which served to separate the true believers from the false believers.
Although the principal agitator of the Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada – himself of converso stock – would have liked to have been able to antagonise the Jews, the Inquisition stuck to the line that it was merely seeking to maintain orthodoxy within the Church, just as today’s anti-Zionists are seeking to maintain peace and order within the international community.
And so conversos were scrutinised, their every movement held up to the light, and they were tried by church officials who were naturally hostile to their plight. Any evidence of guarding the law of Moses was used against a converso in order to condemn him. Conversos were almost automatically suspected of tending towards insincerity, and Jews – many of whom maintained good relationships with conversos – were nevertheless encouraged to inform on Conversos.
Today, Jews who decry Zionists are seen as invaluable to the machinations of the anti-Zionists.
The Inquisition positioned itself in a position of judgement over the conversos. The Inquisition felt that it had the moral standing to do so, and therefore felt that it had the moral duty to do so. Today, many feel comfortable judging “Zionists” in a similar way, assuming the worst of pro-Israel Jews, and portraying them as deceptive enemies of human rights, who thrive on the blood of Palestinian children – much as the Jews and conversos needed the blood of the Child of La Guardia in order to practise their ancient rites.
I cannot tell you of all the individual trials, of conversos – Jews at heart – sent to the flames with the Shema in their heads if not on their lips, who were told that they had committed a terrible sin by returning to their old ways: ways which they had never truly left.
Yet when conversos were condemned, the Inquisition did not simply send them to the flames. Rather, the Inquistion – as Yoval (2007) points out – would hypocritically “relax” the accused “to the secular arm”. The Inquisition was Love, and it was not responsible for executing judgement.
The Inquisition was happy to allow the condemned converso to fall under the curse of the law, the Spanish law, but would never dare to boast of its actively condemning conversos to death.
Today, there are those who would relax the Zionists to the secular arm. Anti-Zionists will condemn Zionists and call Israel a failed project, clamouring for a “one-state solution”, knowing full well this would lead to a bloodbath, and mass Jewish deaths.
In the Inquisition, the clerics of the Inquisition would call for the accused marranos to be relaxed to the secular arm; they would not condemn the accused directly, but they would surrender Jews to the authority that certainly would.
Once the conversos were suppressed in large number, society turned back to the Jews. 1492 finally saw the expulsion of Jews, as they began to be treated with suspicion too. The pious anti-converso theology soon reverted back to old style antisemitism, which really everyone knew it was all along.
From antisemitism to anti-the-Jewish-ideology-which-emerged-from-antisemitism – and when that is being defeated, naked antisemitism re-emerges energetically.
Time is linear, yet it can also be a wheel that turns.
But Benjamin knows his history.