Thursday 31 July 2014


And the captivity of this host of the children of Israel, that are among the Canaanites, even unto Zarephath, and the captivity of Jerusalem, that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the South. Obadiah 1:20.

This is the only mention of the place Sepharad / Sefarad / Sfard in the Old Testament.  But like early American settlers named their towns after places in the Bible (Lebanon NH, Dothan AL, Salem everywhere), the Iberian Jews referred to their home-place as Sefarad and they themselves accordingly became Sephardim (  סְפָרַדִּי) which distinguishes them from the Ashkenazi Jews of Northern Europe. They landed up here because Islam was particularly tolerant of any monotheists "the people of the book". That's not to say that Muslims are notably anti-anti-semitic, they can't even extend tolerance to different sects (Sunni, Shi'a) of their own religion and nor can Christians (Cathars, Catholics, Protestants, Quakers). Al Andalus ( الأندلس‎,) was a Garden of Eden and pleasure to live in or see, and after the 70 AD expulsion of Jews from Palestine by the Romans in a Stalinist relocation, many of them finished up in the paradise that the Emirate of Cordoba [in about 1000 AD all the green bits L] was making out of the peninsula. The next 500 years was a long drawn out process which gradually whittled the Empire of the Arabs to a tiny enclave in Granada. This reconquista is marked by the many towns and villages across Spain with the suffix de la Frontera. Jerez de la Frontera is where they make Sherry, for example.

Los Reyes Católicos  Fernando II de Aragón e Isabel I de Castilla united the Christians for the final push South and gave the Muslims a good drubbing at the Battle of Granada in late 1491, which led Emir Muhammad XII, whom we know as Boabdil, to surrender the city and the complex of rich agricultural holdings in the surrounding countryside to Ferdinand and Isabella (everyone in this story gets their name mangled).  The treaty of surrender was pragmatically tolerant and allowed the Jews and Muslims to retain their holdings. Pragmatic because the Muslim peasants were the only people with generations of experience managing the irrigation system. But within 3 months the Catholic Kings got a bee in their bonnet about the Jews and on 31st March 1492 signed an edict of expulsion to take effect four months later on 31st July the same year. Which makes them a tiny bit more compassionate than Idi Amin expelling the Ugandan Asians with 90 days notice in 1972.  It took just over 100 years before the patience of the Catholic hierarchy for converting Muslims finally reached the end of its tether and the remaining followers of The Prophet were also expelled in 1609.  Those of both faiths who chose to remain had to convert and became Nuevo Cristianos or Conversos.  If you think that Anne Frank had a hard time hiding away for 4 years in Amsterdam, reflect on these people having to live a double life for generations. The Inquisition would be happy to take denunciations from the neighbours if they were seen to refuse a pork chop or behave a little strangely at Easter / Passover.  Those Sephardim who weren't knifed for the diamonds they were rumoured to have swallowed, took their faith with them and went to seek their fortunes elsewhere, notably in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire (Thessaloniki, Smyrna, and Sarajevo absorbed many). They also took their language Ladino which is based on medieval Spanish the way Yiddish is based on medieval German.

Now here's coincidence that has bothered me for a long time. 1492 is one of the dates that everybode kno, like 1066.  Because
in fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
which at the time was a small-small thing compared to the momentous events in Al-Andalus but a giant step for mankind. There is a bit of whisper that old Cristoforo. who was born in Genoa but didn't speak Italian and left a weird will, was Jewish and that he sailed on the first tide after the Alhambra Degree became absolute. Now that's not true!  He waited until 3rd August.

So far, so far away. But the Spanish government, for reasons which are beset with fuzzy-thinking, are in the process of passing a law to give Spanish citizenship to the descendants of those expelled more than 500 years ago.  There is an estimate of 225,000 being the Jewish population of Spain in 1492, and there are 45,000 now.  But the Irish diaspora, running the Chicago police department and supplying an occasional POTUS, outnumbers the current inhabitants of the island by at least 10 to 1 and possibly double that.  So the bureaucrats working under Spanish Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon will have to work out the logistics of his sentimental gesture (see also Turing, and Guildford for further examples of revisonist nonsense|). Someone has published a list of qualifying surnames in Israel and there has been a lot of interest. Apparently the ability to speak Ladino will also allow you an EU passport. As Judaism is a matrilineal religion (because everyone knows who your mother was but your father could have been the milkman), then I can imagine an enterprising company getting a kit to test the mitochondrial genome (which is inherited from the mother because the sperm delivers no mitochondria to the fertilisation process) for "Sephardism".  Testing the Y chromosome is as irrelevant as looking to the surname for establishing Jewishness.

There was a minor scandal in 1990s Ireland when the Prime Minister Charles Haughey organised an Irish passport for a Maltese businessman who had been generous to his Fianna Fáil party.  If my pal Malpica is correct in his assertion that Spain is much better at corruption than the Irish, then there is going to be an unseemly scrum for Ladino classes in South America.

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