A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective
Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Schechter Institute, Jerusalem
The riots of 1391 in Spain triggered a series of developments that would change the course of Jewish history as well as of Spanish history. Spanish society was not willing to accept the large group of Jews that succumbed to forced baptism at this time; this rejection led to ethnic discrimination, the establishment of the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the forced conversions of the Jews in Portugal in 1497. Regardless of their outward religious affiliation, these Iberian conversos retained a strong sense of identity that was deeply connected to Iberia, an identity that became defined as being a member of the Nation. This identity remained with the converso, whether he or she resided in Iberia or emigrated; in the latter case, each emigrant had to contend with the reality of his or her new environment. While a destination like Holland allowed for a relatively free expression of one’s new Jewish affiliation, France and England did not. By contrast, the emigrant in Italy faced an array of choices, from joining an existing Jewish community to forming one’s own, to remaining Catholic to attempting to maintain an ambiguous commute between the two worlds. The ties between the members of the nation were first and foremost ethnic, but also economic, familial, and emotional. Later, when the descendants of some of these conversos faced modernity, unexpected changes transpired: in Majorca, intermarriages took place for the first time; in Belmonte, conversions to Judaism were recorded; in the Southwest, claims that are extremely difficult to substantiate have been made by supposed descendants of sixteenth-century conversos . Consequently, the question of identity among Iberian conversos has proven to be surprisingly long-lived, for debates on the topic are still taking place well into the twenty-first century.