The Mother of All Mistakes

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Pablo Edronkin

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During the last years of the XV century and the first of the XVI, Spain and Portugal expelled the Jews that wouldn't convert to Christianity, losing quite a fraction of the educated, wealthy people of their countries and precluding the advent of the industrial age two centuries later; it wasn't a coincidence that at the same time began the rule of the Inquisition, which lasted until the XIX century and massacred thousands of innocents, censored ideas and persecuted dissidents, people with different religious beliefs and free thinkers.

"There can be no faith without truth." - Zohar[250].

Why would anyone decide to expel an elite from a country? Because either he belongs to an elite that wants to rule without questions from equals, or because he is well below the elite and is sufficiently resented towards it in order to try to harm those belonging to that class.

What is the result of getting rid of an elite? Not only making enemies but also losing everything that the expelled elite stands for. In extreme cases, the organization, society or country attempting to destroy the elite doesn't survive for the lack of their own knowledge and capabilities to replace the elite with their own ranks.

In Spain and Portugal, Jews were present since before Roman times. By the end of the XV century they were not only settled, but also far more developed than both their Muslim and Christian neighbours simple because they had been living longer as an identifiable social and religious group, and had more time to evolve, create culture, social networks, commercial links and so on. By then, Sephardim had already became entangled by intermarriage with the Spanish and Portuguese nobility and royalty, they were the backbone of the finances of both the Christian and Muslim kingdoms of that part of Europe, and very relevant in the development of their cultural life, commerce, arts and sciences[63.5]. In other words, they were indispensable for both Spain and Portugal, yet, the Inquisition and its followers failed to acknowledge that. Life for Jews, even in places were the have been already well-established, like in Plasencia, wasn't easy due to the risks involved. These hazards began growing as the "reconquista" unfolded, up to the point that in some cases, Jewish people began living in fortified buildings, as Dr. Roger L. Martínez describes in one of his articles[236] related to the coexistence between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Spanish city of Plasencia during the middle ages:

"... several Placentino Jewish families could be found living in a fortified and gated collection of homes known as the Apartamiento de La Mota..."[236.1]

Furthermore, Prof. Martínez argues in his article that the value of the Jewish population was well-understood in the city of Plasencia and indeed, we may add, elsewhere:

"Thus, the Placentino Jewish community was a financially valuable asset that necessitated royal protection on economic grounds. This same economic argument appears to have been on the minds of Christian Placentinos as well."[236.2]

Nevertheless, resentment towards Jews in the Peninsula ran deep as well as greed for their riches and loath for their abilities, even despite the fact that Jews due to ancestry and permanency - longer than many Christian or Muslim families there - were more "Iberian" than their non-Jewish neighbours.

This suggests that while rationally prevailed among people who had an understanding for economic matters, it did not so among the broader, uneducated population. Another paragraph of Dr. Martinez's article appears as self-explanatory in this regard:

"Although there are no records that reveal why Jews and Muslims chose to rent properties from the church and nobility, it seems likely that both groups did so to avoid Christian harassment and violence."[236.3]

This pattern seems to be repeated over time in the case of persecution not only of Jews but just about anyone else in the world: Educate people in any dominant group tend to be more contemplative and less prone to violence. However, at some point even members of the educated elites participate and even promote actions such as the confiscation of property, expulsions and even genocide. Let's remember that the Nazi party in Germany was formed and promoted initially by thugs, generally of low social level, but eventually got the sponsorship of big families of German industrialists and businessmen.

For those persecuted, one thing becomes clear: They should not bet their safety and survival on rationality; that is, they should not expect others to intelligently understand that what they are doing is wrong, morally deplorable, unfair or even prosaically inconvenient. And in more modern terms, they should not even expect to receive approval of anybody in particular even if they act to preserve and defend their lives under legitimate laws and international conventions. The Middle East is an example of this: Hamas is an organization whose organizational or foundation charter states clearly that one of its goals is to "obliterate" Israel, but not even confronted with such evidence, much people is willing around the world to support Israeli actions against that terrorist group, despite that the own Hamas documents state as clearly as the "final solution" of the Nazis that their group is willing to exterminate Jews if they could have their way.

Thus, going back to medieval Spain and Portugal, once the expulsion finally was enforced, it became irrational and targeted even towards those Jews that were not in particularly good positions, as Henry Charles Lea describes:

"When the fate of the exiles was, for the most part, so unendurable, it was natural that many should seek to return to their native land and, as we have seen from Bernaldez, large numbers did so. At first this was tacitly permitted, on condition of conversion, provided they brought money with them, but the sovereigns finally grew fearful that the purity of the faith would be impaired and, in 1499, an explanatory edict was issued, decreeing death and confiscation for any Jew entering Spain, whether a foreigner or returning exile, even if he asked for baptism, unless beforehand he sent word that he wished to come for that purpose, when he was to be baptized at the port of entry and a notarial act was to be taken. That this savage edict was pitilessly enforced is manifested by several cases in 1500 and 1501. Moreover, all masters of Jewish slaves were ordered to send them out of the country within two months, unless they would submit to baptism. Spain was too holy a land to be polluted with the presence of a Jew, even in captivity."[235.3].

As Christians reconquered the peninsula, the notion of religious uniformity gained momentum and the prevalent hate toward Jews made it relatively simple for the new rulers of the whole land to simply expel the Jews, not taking into account systemic considerations that would affect their nations for centuries to come.

At the time, for example, banks were inherently different from what we know today. Commercial banking was indeed a Jewish invention that started by accepting the money of local merchants and people that gained some wealth, and lending that money for a percentage. That was prohibited for Christians and Muslims, but not for Jews, so they found a niche during the middle ages and the renaissance. Naturally, they became wealthy and began lending money to the monarchs themselves.

That eventually led to intermarriage between the Spanish and Portuguese royalty, the nobility and the Jews. Marriage with wealthy Jewish families allowed nobles and royals to improve their finances and even eliminate debts. Of course, that was resented by the populace; common people saw how the Jews became increasingly wealthy, not understanding how it worked and how just the Jews, by being able to work with money could actually make money. That was culturally and religiously, an alien concept.

Money attracts more money, more success, provides for better marriages and eventually, provides people with an education. Hence, it shouldn't be surprising that the Sephardim were at the level of the Spanish and Portuguese royalty.

Nevertheless, political and religious considerations made it necessary to get rid of them, but at what cost?

Imagine if someone who hates the financial system of your country, its millionaires and if it is a monarchy, many of the king's relatives finds a way to get rid of them at once and for all. Probably, those persecuted will go away, losing some of their money, perhaps, but remaining able to regain their losses elsewhere simply because they evidently know how to make money, marry into local aristocracies and so on. And almost surely, those fanatics who won the game would celebrate, thinking that they got rid of their problem, but after a while, would they be able to replace those who left? Not necessarily.

In the case of Spain and Portugal, by getting rid of the Sephardim, those nations virtually destroyed any possibility they had to finance their progress within the framework of a system with checks and balances. That is, a financial system – however primitive – in which some people lending money would actually have some degree of control on how that money would be spent.

The Spanish and Portuguese monarchs found in their new colonies a way to supplant the cash flow that before was provided by the Sephardim and the Muslims, but they were unable to construct a self-checking system and while the amounts of gold coming in might have been great, there was no control on the spending side, since kings and queens were absolute monarchs and there was no resemblance of any parliamentary system in place. Getting an equal amount of money doesn't mean that the quality of the money-producing system is the same. You can supplant a honest job with a criminal career and earn the same or more, but in the end, you can end in prison or killed.

That led to overspending, and once the cash flow from the colonies was cut off some centuries later, it was as if no money ever entered the peninsula. People were poor, the former empires were poor, and no industrial revolution was visible there while competing nations such as France and Britain were busy taking over the position that once Spain and Portugal occupied.

The money that came from the colonies was not used in education, the development of roads, merchant navies or anything related to free trade or free thinking, which are fundamental elements of any society that has chances of improving.

Improvement cannot come from the state but from individual initiative. States cannot transform people; only people can transform people. So, if you take away the people who may serve as an example to others, and replace them with cruel inquisitors, you don't get archetypes, but individuals who might be worshiped out of fear for a while.

If the state becomes absolute, relatively few would attempt to invest out of fear of losing their assets by royal decree. So, in Spain and Portugal, no new investors or entrepreneurs would come.

Among those Sepahrdim that left the Peninsula were several families already inter married, like Abrabanel, counted among those that financed the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, and the Sampayo – Belmontes.

Success didn't abandon the Sephardim in exile[63.5]. In the case of the Sampayo – Belmonte and the Abrabanel families, both went to Amsterdam. The Belmontes became Schoenbergs, married again with the Abrabanel family in later years, as well as other expelled Sephardim, made new fortunes, served new countries and, like in the case of Francois de Schoenenberg who became British ambassador in Madrid and Lisbon, against the interest of their former homelands.

The Alhambra decree was issued in Spain in 1492; it gave the Jews three months to convert or get out of the country; they could take their belongings except valuable metals which was, indeed, what anyone going to exile needs more. You can do without your furniture, but you can't survive abroad without money. It was one of the "smart" kind of scams enacted against the Jews believing that in such a way, their money would be kept within the country. What happened is that the incompetent zealots who stole the Jewish money eventually lost everything and Spain was left in bankrupcy and with its empire crumbling less than two centuries afterwards, while the Jewish bankers of the peninsula continued being bankers in other countries and making even more money.

"Among these settlers were many who were the descendants, or heads, of wealthy families and who, as Maranos, had occupied prominent positions in the countries they had left. Some had been state officials, others had held positions of dignity within the Church; many had been the heads of large banking-houses and mercantile establishments, and some were physicians or scholars who had officiated as teachers in high schools. The many sufferings which they had endured for the sake of their faith had made them more than usually self-conscious; they considered themselves a superior class, the nobility of Jewry, and for a long time their coreligionists, on whom they looked down, regarded them as such."[63.4]

The Schoenbergs married then with other families, this time, from the Ashkenazi bankers, princes and industrialists, and eventually reached the XX century with fortunes intact, while the monarchies in Spain and Portugal were fading away.

Give those mistakes some time to mature, and you end up with a perfect disaster. So, in retrospect, expelling the Sephardim for Spain and Portugal was indeed, the mother of all mistakes.

The Alhambra decree, dictating the expulsion of Jews from Spain, 1492.
The Alhambra decree, dictating the expulsion of Jews from Spain, 1492.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[70][71].

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