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Memoir of a Spanish Jew

In March 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Spanish Jews who had not converted. Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1509), a leader of Spanish Jewry and one of Ferdinand's most trusted officials, tried to persuade the king to change his mind. Ferdinand refused, but offered to exempt Abravanel from the decree. Abravanel, however, chose to leave together with the other Jews. In the following passage from his memoirs he describes the effect of the expulsion decree.


In 1492 the king of Spain seized the great city of Granada, together with the whole kingdom [of Granada]. His haughtiness brought change of character; his power led him to sin against his God. He thought to himself: "How can I better show my gratitude to my God, who gave victory to my army and put this city into my power, than by bringing under His wing the scattered flock of Israel that walks in darkness: How shall I better serve Him than to bring back to His faith the apostate daughter? Or, if they remain stiff-necked, to drive them to another land so that they will not dwell here nor be seen in my presence?" Consequently the king enacted a decree as fixed as the law of the Medes and the Persians. He commanded that the children of Israel could remain in the country only if they submitted to baptism; but if they were unwilling to embrace the Christian faith, they must leave the territories of Spain, Sicily, Majorca, and Sardinia. "Within three months," he decreed, "there must not remain in my kingdoms a single Jew."

I was at court when the decree was proclaimed. I was disconsolate with grief. Thrice I addressed the king, imploring his mercy: "O King, save your loyal subjects. Why do you act so cruelly toward us? We have prospered in this land, and we would gladly give all we possess for our country." I begged my noble friends at court to intercede for my people. The king's most trusted counselors pleaded desperately that he revoke the decree and turn from his design to destroy the Jews. But his ears were closed as though he were stone deaf. The queen, seated at his right, opposed revoking the decree; she pressed him to complete the task he had begun. Our exertions were therefore without effect. Despite the fact that I neither rested nor relaxed, the thunderbolt struck.

. . . When the dreadful news reached the people, they mourned their fate; and wherever the report of the decree spread, Jews wept bitterly. The terror and lamentation were greater than at any time since the expulsion of our forefathers from their own soil in Judah to foreign strands. However, they bravely encouraged each other: "Let us cling unflinchingly to our faith, holding our heads with pride before the voice of he that taunts and blasphemes. If they let us live, we will live; if they kill us, we will perish. But we will not break our Divine Covenant nor shall we turn back. We will go forth in the name of the Lord our God."