It is nearly impossible to dig into any chapter of Jewish history without uncovering lessons for our own age. Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries is a particularly striking example. Even today, our view of this period, and particularly of the Spanish Inquisition, colors our attitudes regarding relations between Jews and non-Jews. The Inquisition is considered one of Jewish history's darkest chapters — and one of Christian history's most shameful.
In 1391 intense, pent up anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian Spain erupted with great violence against the country's prosperous, well-established Jewish community. Spanish cities were engulfed in ferocious pogroms that destroyed much property and claimed many lives.
Thus began a century of conflict between Jews and non-Jews that culminated in the mass expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492. (Ten years later, the Muslims were likewise driven out.) In their edict of expulsion, issued on March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella announced their “decision to banish all Jews of both sexes forever from the precincts of Our realm.” Ordered, on pain of death, to leave within four months, the Jews were permitted to take their personal belongings, except for gold, silver, coined money, or jewels. Estimates of the number of Jews banished generally range from about 165,000 to 400,000. An estimated 50,000 Jews chose baptism to avoid expulsion. In his diary Christopher Columbus noted: “In the same month in which Their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”
Expulsions of Jews and outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence have been features of both European and non-Western societies over many centuries and under a variety of political and religious regimes. What is noteworthy about these 14th- and 15th-century actions in Spain, however, is that tens of thousands of Jews escaped death or expulsion by converting to Christianity. As a result, by the middle of the 15th century there was a numerically large (perhaps 100,000), and politically and economically significant community of people of Jewish descent in Spain who were, at least outwardly, Christians.
Beginning with a furious anti-Jewish uprising in Toledo in 1449, the hostility of Spain's common people came to be directed against these baptized Jews, who were known as “New Christians,” Conversos, or, contemptuously, Marranos ("pigs"). This new hostility developed in large part because the vast majority of these New Christians were, in the words of Jewish historian Cecil Roth, “Jews in all but name, and Christians in nothing but form,” (endnote) and in part because the Conversos, freed from the legal constraints against “open” Jews, rapidly ascended to the highest ranks of Spanish society and represented a competitive threat to all but the highest levels of “Old (non-Jewish) Christian” society.
In A History of the Marranos, Cecil Roth sums up the central problem. “In race, in belief, and largely in practice,” the Conversos “remained as they had been before the conversion.” These New Christians, Roth continues, (endnote)
were Christians only in name; observing, in public, a minimum of the new faith while maintaining, in private, a maximum of the old one … Baptism had done little more than to convert a considerable proportion of the Jews from infidels outside the Church to heretics inside it … The populace, whose feelings thus became more and more inflamed, could not be expected to appreciate the theological subtleties of the matter. In the Marranos it could see only hypocritical Jews, who had lost none of their unpopular characteristics, fighting their way into the highest positions of the state.
Another Jewish historian, Howard Fast, has similarly noted: (endnote)
The nut of the matter is that most of the converted Jews remained Jews; they accepted baptism, they assumed the trappings of Christianity; and in the seclusion of their families, their homes, and their hearts, most of them did a thing that was then called “Judaizing” … And not only did they Judaize, but in the feeling of power and security these Marranos had gained, they helped the Jews who had remained Jews, prevented a great deal of persecution, and gained favors for the Jews.
After decades of continuing anti-Converso disturbances, Ferdinand and Isabella, acting with papal approval, established the Spanish Inquisition in 1480. Its task was to combat religious heresy and root out crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims among the “New Christians.” “The introduction of the Inquisition,” reports The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “was largely fostered by the civil power as a means of checking the Jews, whose numbers, wealth and frequent intrigues with the Moors were causing alarm.” (endnote)
Soon this highly centralized authority was carrying out its work under Tomás de Torquemada, the able and energetic Grand Inquisitor who elevated the auto da fé, the “act of faith,” and the rite of purification by burning alive, into a spectacle at once horrifying and fascinating.
The vast majority of those brought before the Inquisition during its first 20 years of activity were Conversos accused of heresy (secret Judaizing). With the passage of time, this agency grew into a powerful institution for protecting Catholicism and the established order in Spain. (It was abolished in the early 19th century.) It played a major role in successfully persuading Ferdinand and Isabella to expel the remaining unconverted Jews in 1492 on the grounds that they were continuing to interact with the Conversos, and were proselytizing among their former co-religionists.
It should be emphasized that the grim reputation of the Spanish Inquisition is largely undeserved. Its cruelty and arbitrariness have been greatly exaggerated over the centuries, largely as a result of anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish propaganda. The Spanish Inquisition invoked torture and the death penalty only very sparingly, and actually treated heretics more leniently than did other European countries during this period. (endnote)
Nearly all chroniclers of this chapter of history have agreed that the Christianity of most Conversos was not sincere, and that they secretly remained Jews. In fact, as these and other scholars of Jewish history have pointed out, a common Jewish response to persecution has always been “crypto-Judaism,” that is, outwardly adhering to the prevailing social-religious mores and values, while secretly maintaining loyalty to the Jewish nation-religion.
Crypto-Judaism was a phenomenon as early as the fifth century BC, during a Zoroastrian persecution in Persia, and it occurred sporadically in Muslim societies (including Muslim Spain under the Almohades in the 12th century) as well as in Christian societies (including Christian Spain under the Visigoths in the seventh century). (endnote) In this century it occurred on a wide scale in Russia during the final decades of Soviet rule. (endnote)
There is abundant evidence to show that in Spain after 1391, New Christians practiced elaborate deceptions to secretly continue their observance of many of the 613 required Jewish rituals and commandments, including circumcision, Sabbath observance, and burial rites. (endnote) Converso parents first told children of their special status around the age of puberty, and Conversos routinely intermarried with other New Christians. For its part, Inquisition investigators developed a long list of practices by which crypto-Jews could be recognized. These included perfunctory participation in Christian rites and performance of Jewish religious rituals.
An important indication that the New Christians remained secret Jews is the fact that many of these Conversos and their descendants openly practiced Judaism after leaving the Iberian peninsula. (endnote) Groups of emigrating New Christians established openly Jewish communities in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bordeaux, Livorno and many other places, and New Christians in Brazil immediately emerged as Jews after the temporary Dutch conquest (1632-1654). Converso families had extensive kinship and mercantile ties with Sephardic (Iberian-Mediterranean origin) Jewish families around the world. Some of these New Christian families secretly preserved their original Jewish names for many generations, and re-adopted them after escaping the reach of the Inquisition.
Vestiges of crypto-Judaism can still be found in Spain, and crypto-Jews never disappeared entirely from Spanish America. (endnote) Even today there is a group of “Hispanic Catholics” in contemporary New Mexico who continue to marry among themselves and preserve several remnants of Jewish religious practices. (endnote) Well into the 20th century there persisted on Majorca an intermarrying group of descendants of Jews who were recognized as such by the other inhabitants of the island. (endnote)
New Christians also proved to be very tenacious in neighboring Portugal. The great majority of them descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 after refusing to convert to Christianity. (endnote) Though the last secret synagogue was discovered in Lisbon in 1706, communities of crypto-Jews continued to be discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries, and persisted even into the late 20th century. (endnote)
In addition, some of those who escaped the Inquisition lived as crypto-Jews in France beginning in the 15th century and in England in the 16th century, at a time when Jews were officially banned. Some crypto-Jews remained in France even after the edict of expulsion of 1615, although in the 17th century there were complaints that Jews were trading among the French “with no distinguishing marks.” (endnote) Portuguese Marranos living in France changed their pose of Christianity only at the turn of the 18th century.
Some returned to England in the latter part of the 16th century posing as Calvinist refugees; they were expelled in 1609 after an internal quarrel alerted the authorities to their existence. But they gradually returned, this time posing as Catholics, and only removed their disguise after the conclusion of official negotiations under Oliver Cromwell. In Italy, crypto-Jews who were refugees from the Iberian peninsula were also targets of inquisitorial suspicion if they failed to adopt a Jewish identity after arriving there. (endnote)
Among Jewish scholars, deep emotional involvement is seldom far from the surface. Thus, a common reaction of Jewish historians to the phenomenon of Iberian crypto-Judaism has been to accept its reality and portray it in very positive terms. In the preface to the first edition of his work, A History of the Marranos, Jewish scholar Cecil Roth wrote admiringly of the “incredible romance” of the story of these secret Jews, referring to “the submerged life which blossomed out at intervals into such exotic flowers; the unique devotion which could transmit the ancestral ideals unsullied, from generation to generation, despite the Inquisition and its horrors.” (endnote)
However, other Jewish historians — including Henry Kamen, (endnote) Ellis Rivkin, (endnote) and now, most notably, Benzion Netanyahu — have been troubled by the fact that the generally accepted view of this chapter of history implies that the New Christians were in fact cunning deceivers and hypocrites, and that their behavior thus provides a certain moral justification for the Inquisition. After all, nearly everyone during this period — Christians as well as Jews — regarded heresy as a serious crime worthy of severe punishment. Consequently, and regardless of how strange and even odious such sentiments may seem to the modern mind, the Inquisition was certainly acting within the moral and theological premises of the age.
It is this moral dimension that most concerns Netanyahu. In this massive (1385 page) work, he marshals evidence and arguments in an effort to prove that the “New Christians” were sincere adherents of Christianity, and even “ardent assimilationists” who were eager to marry into Christian families and otherwise melt into Spanish society. Consistent with this, Netanyahu seeks to prove that the Inquisitors, as well as the anti-Converso pogromists who preceded them, were immoral, bigoted hypocrites who knew that the Conversos were actually sincere Christians.
In keeping with his thesis, Netanyahu also castigates the Conversos for their supposed lack of Jewish loyalty, effectively writing them off as traitors to Judaism. He unfavorably compares the Conversos to the Jews of medieval Germany, who “far surpassed the Jews of Spain in religious devotion and readiness for martyrdom” (p. 163). From Netanyahu's perspective, these Iberian Jews, rather than convert to Christianity, should have accepted martyrdom like their Ashkenazi co-religionists (in central and nothern Europe) at the hands of the marauding Crusaders in 1096.
If the Conversos were really loyal Christians, and if even the Inquisitors believed that these New Christians were sincere in their new faith, Netanyahu asks, what motivated the Inquisition in persecuting them? He believes that the Inquisitors were motivated not by religious zeal but by a passionate racial-ethnic hatred of the Jews — one supposedly similar to that which prevailed in Third Reich Germany.
To this end he points to Spain's introduction of the concept of limpieza de sangre, “purity of blood,” and not mere public profession of faith, as a test of fitness. In city after city, laws were enacted disqualifying people of “impure” (Jewish) blood from entering universities, religious orders and city councils.
Actually, this Spanish “racism” was a response to the ardent ethnic consciousness of the Jews — both open and secret. In his 1954 study, The Structure of Spanish History, historian Américo Castro finds that Jewish “racism” long preceded the Spanish concern for limpieza: (endnote)
The people who really felt the scruple of purity of blood were the Spanish Jews … The historical reality becomes intelligible to us only when seen to be possessed of both extremes: the exclusivism of Catholic Spain was a reply to the hermeticism of the aljamas [Jewish communities] … purity of blood was the answer of a society animated by anti-Jewish fury to the racial hermeticism of the Jew.
In a society in which religious considerations were paramount, racial or ethnic criteria were not theologically legitimate factors in defining and categorizing social groups. The Inquisition, Netanyahu maintains, acted against a racial-ethnic group under cover of defending Christian faith to attain political-economic goals. The Inquisitors, he argues, cited theologically acceptable criteria to give an appearance of legitimacy to their campaign to oppose and neutralize Converso power. “The Inquisition never revealed its true aims and instead veiled its motives with arguments designed to justify its actions on moral grounds, as well as to give them an air of sanctity” (p. 1085).
If, as Netanyahu contends, the Inquisitors were driven by racial-ethnic hatred of Jews, and not concern about the authenticity of their Christian loyalty, how is it that not every Converso investigated by the Inquisition was convicted? Or why would the Inquisitors spare the lives of those who repented and embraced Christianity? Netanyahu himself concedes (p. 1085) that “religious interests … no doubt motivated some of its [the Inquisition's] leaders.” This startling admission, made almost in passing, undermines the author's central thesis about the supposedly racialist motivations of the Inquisitors.
One prominent 15th-century figure who clearly believed in the validity of the charges made against the Conversos was historian Andrés Bernáldez. He charged these secret Jews with religious heresy and with continuing a separate peoplehood (note his use of the term “tribe"). In the following statement, this scholar sums up the popular accusations at the time of the establishment of the Inquisition: (endnote)
Those people who can avoid baptizing their children, do so, and those who have them baptized wash them off as soon as they return home … They follow all the judaical ceremonies secretly so far as they can.
The men as well as the women always avoid receiving the sacraments of Holy Church voluntarily. When they confess, they never tell the truth; and it happened that one confessor asked a person of this tribe to cut off a piece of his garment for him, saying, “Since you have never sinned, I should like to have a bit of your garment for a relic to heal the sick.”
… Not without reason did Our Redeemer call them a wicked and adulterous generation. They do not believe that God rewards virginity and chastity. All their endeavor is to increase and multiply. And in the time when this heretical iniquity flourished, many monasteries were violated by their wealthy men and merchants, and many professed nuns were ravished and mocked, some through gifts and some through the lures of panderers, they not believing in or fearing excommunications; but they did it to injure Jesus Christ and the Church. And usually, for the most part, they were usurious people, of many wiles and deceits, for they all live by easy occupations and offices, and in buying and selling they have no conscience where Christians are concerned.
Never would they undertake the occupations of tilling the soil or digging or cattle-raising, nor would they teach their children any except holding public offices, and sitting down to earn enough to eat with little labor. Many of them in these realms in a short time acquired very great fortunes and estates, since they had no conscience in their profits and usuries, saying that they only gained at the expense of their enemies, according to the command of God in the departure of the people of Israel to rob the Egyptians …
Netanyahu makes no effort to hide his passion or his bias. He lives in Israel. He emigrated to Palestine as a child and fought as a member of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's militant Zionist organization. His son Benjamin is the leader of Israel's ultra-nationalist Likud party, and this book is dedicated “with unrelieved grief” to his son Jonathan, who died leading the Israeli raid on Entebbe. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that Benzion Netanyahu's personal devotion to Jewry is essential to this work and its thesis. (endnote)
The following quotation (pp. 1085-1086) gives the flavor of Netanyahu's passion for his subject:
As we see it, the “hearts” of the Inquisitors — i.e., their mental constitutions — were incurably perverted by the various influences that shaped their thinking and their tendencies. Apart from the religious interests (which no doubt motivated some of its leaders), these tendencies were expressed by the officials of the Inquisition, down to its lowest functionaries and agents, in a blatant disregard for human life; a fervid desire to flaunt power and exercise control over life and death; a capacity for repression that could crush any spirit; a morbid passion for inflicting torture and causing pain that could break all resistance; and apart from all this, a shameless rapacity designed to render the torturer also the inheritor of his victim's goods.
In Netanyahu's view, these opponents of the New Christians are barely recognizable as human. Predictably, he can't resist comparing the Spanish Inquisitors with the German National Socialists of our own century (p. 1084):
… Like the Spanish antisemites' hatred of the conversos, the German Nazis' hatred of the Jews so affected their thinking, their policies and decisions that all their activities, in virtually all fields, were influenced in varying measure by that hate. Not only did that odium obsess them, but it overflowed their souls to the point where it needed more objects of torture, exploitation and destruction than the Jewish people could possibly provide.
Clearly this is no dispassionate scholar seeking historical truth, but rather an academic zealot bent on carrying on intellectual warfare, even more than 500 years after the events he discusses. Netanyahu compares Hitler with Spanish king Philip II, each of them with “minds unhinged at least partly by the maddening [anti-Jewish] urges to which we have referred.” He continues (pp. 1084-85):
Thus we see how both these developments — the Spanish and the German — which so drastically affected the history of Europe and had their beginnings in those torrents of hate which stemmed from ancient and later antisemitism, managed to produce anti-social forces which, driven as they were by their fierce animosities, proved almost impossible to restrain.
(In keeping with the currently fashionable spelling of the term, Netanyahu consistently writes of “antisemitism.")
Netanyahu's suggestion that Spanish hostility toward Jews was unusual or aberrant is erroneous. Animosity toward Jews was the norm, not the exception, in Europe during this entire period. In England, for example, Jews were entirely banned. (They had been expelled in 1290, and were not legally permitted back until 1656, more than three centuries later.) This era of Jewish expulsion encompassed the Elizabethan period and the nation's golden age of culture, which included Shakespeare and Marlowe (each of whom wrote plays dealing with the “Jewish question"). Jews were similarly driven out of many other European lands: In 1492 they were expelled from Sicily and Sardinia, in 1496 from Portugal, in 1541 from Naples, and in 1596 Pope Pius V expelled the Jews from the Papal territories. From the kingdom of France the Jews were expelled in 1306, and again in 1322 and 1394. Jews were banished from Warsaw in 1483.
Essentially Netanyahu proceeds by ignoring scholarship that conflicts with his ideas — by discounting as untrustworthy and biased any sources from the anti-Converso movement or the Inquisition — while at the same time regarding the work of recognized New Christian apologists such as Fernán Díaz and Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, not to mention rabbinical sources, as based on “fact and logic” (p. 410) and entitled to “the fullest and most careful consideration” (p. 443). (endnote)
This bias can also be found in Netanyahu's earlier book, The Marranos of Spain, which baldly states its intention to question the moral basis of the Inquisition, and takes essentially the same position as the present work regarding the Conversos and the sincerity of their Christianity. (endnote) This earlier work has been subjected to devastating criticism. (endnote)
His tendentiousness is so transparent, in fact, that one reviewer of the present work, historian Richard Kagan, could only interpret Netanyahu's style of historiography as a reaction to the Holocaust: (endnote)
Mr. Netanyahu's expansive, highly personal and emotive style carries us back to another era, to a mode of polemical discourse rarely practiced among professional historians today. More poignantly, this book illustrates the lasting intellectual repercussions of the Holocaust on historical scholarship about the Jews.
The general flavor of Netanyahu's methodology can be illustrated by his discussion of Cardinal Juan de Torquemada's writings. Like several other prominent 15th-century figures, Cardinal Torquemada (uncle of Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada) was a Converso who rose rapidly in the Church hierarchy and used his position to defend his fellow converts. Netanyahu maintains that Torquemada's writings exonerating the New Christians should be given great weight even though he acknowledges Torquemada's apologetic tendencies whenever the Cardinal discusses the relationship between Christianity and the Jewish people. In one case, Netanyahu describes Torquemada's distortion of the essential spirit of St. Augustine's writings as part of a programmatic tendency to reject or ignore traditional Christian perspectives in which the Jews are portrayed as damned for their rejection of God.
By engaging in such deceptive scholarship, writes Netanyahu (p. 464), Cardinal Torquemada was able to project
an image of the Jewish people that was quite opposed to the Christian view. Obviously, no better way could be found to attain this than to let Augustine speak in his behalf — that is, to quote those passages of his works in which the Jews, regardless of what Augustine was driving at, emerge as a people whose religious history and achievements evoked the astonishment and awe of the great saint and, indeed, cannot fail to excite the admiration of anyone who has a sense for the wondrous and divine.
In trying to show that the Jews are assured salvation, adds Netanyahu (pp. 466, 467), Torquemada “had to resort to strenuous maneuvering to make the points he thought vital for his case.” Netanyahu also concedes that “this kind of manipulation of sources violates modern scholarly norms, and even a medieval critical reader might question its propriety.”
Netanyahu shows how Torquemada drastically distorts his sources to produce a deceitfully positive portrayal of Jews. At the same time, though, Netanyahu urges us to accept at face value Torquemada's claim that the vast majority of the Conversos were entirely sincere in their devotion to Christianity.
As already noted, Prof. Kagan attributes Netanyahu's passion for polemics to the trauma of the Holocaust tragedy suffered by Jews during the Second World War. Actually, there is a very long tradition of Jewish scholarship that deliberately distorts the historical record to further Jewish group interests. Not only does Netanyahu carry on this tradition of slanted scholarship in his own work, he also exonerates the New Christian historians who systematically did the same.
For example, one Converso historian went to great lengths to remove explicit references to tax collectors as “infidels and heretics” because contemporary readers would identify them as New Christians. “That this was the sole intent,” writes Netanyahu, “and that he was ready to go to any length to fulfill it by altering, mutilating and abbreviating the original, and also by deleting whole passages … is evident from his whole revision of the manuscript and the careful thought he gave to every expression that might cast a shadow of disrepute on the conversos” (p. 635).
Netanyahu regards such distortion of the historical record as morally and intellectually justified (pp. 660-661):
Their “falsification” of the records could appear to them, in their overall considerations, as the presentation of the inner truth of history, while the fuller and ostensibly truthful presentation could be judged by them as leading to misunderstandings and hence to distortion of the basic facts … Obviously such a form of revision would involve a flagrant distortion of the truth. But historical truth was less important in their eyes than the consequences it entailed for the welfare of their group.
In other words, a truthful account would have described in detail the charges of heresy made by the Old Christians against the New Christians. But such an account might lead Old Christians to believe that the charges were true, and, because this awareness would have had undesirable consequences, the New Christian chroniclers were justified in their deception. Moreover, writes Netanyahu, such New Christian historians were justified in their distortion of the record because they “believed [not only] that the Marranos, or their overwhelming majority, were free from the execrable crime of heresy, but [also] that their accusers, too were well aware of this” (p. 660).
Both these claims are doubtful. Minimally, the proposal that the Old Christians did not believe their own charges is highly unlikely, given the human tendency to assume the worst about one's perceived enemies. For Netanyahu, however, putting group interests above truth is itself an acceptable standard of veracity for these New Christian historians. So justifiable does Netanyahu find such deception that one can only suppose that he applies this same standard in his own work.
Like the 15th-century chroniclers who falsified their work by omitting crucial details, Netanyahu does not mention recent scholarship indicating that the New Christians were a religiously diverse group that included a substantial percentage of crypto-Jews. (endnote) In a critical review of Netanyahu's book, professor David Berger of Brooklyn College writes: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that an entire generation of recent scholarship goes unrepresented here.” (endnote) Berger goes on to write that “this book is marked by a degree of confidence unjustified by the nature of the sources,” and that the author engages in a “reconstruction of motives and intentions based on slim evidence.”
Perhaps most egregiously, Netanyahu places no weight on the fact that over the long life of the Inquisition many New Christians (re-)assumed overt Jewish identities after they emigrated from Spain. Historian Howard Fast writes admiringly: (endnote)
During the next two hundred years, the boldest, the toughest, and the most sensitive of the Marranos left Spain. They left family by family, some openly, some secretly, but in almost every case, these Marranos, some of whose families had been outwardly Christian for several hundred years, underwent circumcision and returned to the Jewish fold the moment they were out of the Inquisition's power.
When Netanyahu does mention this phenomenon, his main point is to assert that it was unreasonable for 15th-century Spaniards to infer that the Converso relatives (in Spain) of crypto-Jews who had assumed overtly Jewish identities after emigration were themselves crypto-Jews (p. 945). Netanyahu holds 15th-century Spaniards to a very high standard of proof indeed!
In this same passage (p. 945), Netanyahu states that it is “hardly surprising” that emigrating New Christians assumed overt Jewish identities, given the hostility they had experienced in Spain. But if this hostility was so intense that it motivated emigrating New Christians to openly proclaim Judaism after leaving the country, it is only reasonable to suppose that this same fervent hostility would motivate those who remained in Spain to be crypto-Jews, rather than sincerely embrace the Christian faith. How can Netanyahu logically suppose that the New Christians who remained in Spain were any more sincere in their Christianity than their emigrating brethren?
A critical point here is that Netanyahu attaches no moral importance to a key fact about 15th-century Spain — that the New Christians, whatever their religious beliefs, constituted a highly successful and even dominating group within Spanish society. All scholars of the period, including Netanyahu, agree that the New Christians remained throughout a clearly distinguishable group, one with high levels of within-group cooperation and patronage, and quite self-aware of its particular status. This “groupness” of the Conversos was independent of whether they secretly regarded themselves as Jews.
Netanyahu deserves praise for providing massive detail about both the group cohesiveness of the New Christians as well as for showing the economic and social roots of the animosity of the Old Christians. In this regard he is well within the mainstream of historical research. Throughout the period of the Inquisition, both in the Iberian peninsula and the New World, the New Christians were organized as a set of intermarrying and interlocking family clans characterized by high levels of within-group cooperation and patronage in pursuit of economic and political goals. (endnote)
Netanyahu's description of the “peoplehood” of the New Christians is quite accurate and bears quoting at length (pp. 993-994, 995, 996):
Yet while the convert abandoned his people, his peoplehood did not abandon him. It was reflected in many of his characteristics, the product of numerous factors — ethnic, social, environmental and educational — that had influenced Jewish life for centuries. These were essentially Jewish characteristics; and although assimilation had somewhat dimmed them, they could still be discerned in the Jewish convert even decades after his conversion.
… When masses of Jews were converted at the same time, each of them saw himself within his people and by no means as one who had forsaken it. In Spain, where these converts or their great majority lived for many years in boroughs of their own, this feeling of communion was kept alive as long as the process of assimilation had not destroyed, or seriously affected, the collective fabric.
Also many characteristics of the Jew and his life-style, which even isolated converts retained for many years, were guarded for much larger periods in the converso communities. As a result, the converso could still be recognized — even several generations after his ancestors' conversion — by his Jewish appearance, his habits and mannerisms, his attitudes and reactions, as well as his views on a variety of issues. In consequence, in the middle of the 15th century (and no doubt in many cases even later) the great majority of the New Christians in Spain had not yet shaken off the shadow of their past; and the result of this fact was the consciousness of their “otherness” that determined the attitude of their neighbors …
The Marranos were viewed as a distinct nationality which, in more ways than one, was related to the Jews. Indeed, not only did their enemies so regard them, but also their friends among the Old Christians; and, what is more, they were so regarded by the Marranos themselves … As a “nation apart,” despite their conversion, as a nation united by common origin or race, the Marranos were thus exposed to the evaluation of their group as an alien national entity, whose fellowships with the people of the country must be questioned, and whose preparedness to betray it could be taken as likely even by moderate adversaries. [italics in text]
Beyond this very clear realization that the New Christians retained their sense of peoplehood and ethnicity, as well their sense of constituting a separate group within Spanish society, Netanyahu does not deny that there was a hard core of self-consciously crypto-Jews among the New Christians prior to the Inquisition. “That there were some Jewish pockets among the Marranos in the sixties [1460s], and probably in the seventies too, may be taken for granted,” he writes. (p. 931). Indeed, another point of unanimity among the 15th-century New Christian apologists and their opponents is the acknowledgment that at least some among the Conversos had retained Jewish religious beliefs (p. 625).
Given the prevailing outlook of the period, and the hostile nature of inter-group relations, the realization that some Conversos were really crypto-Jews could well be expected to bring sanctions against the entire group of Conversos — especially because, while it was known that at least some were deceivers, it was very difficult to determine what people believed in their hearts.
Netanyahu's moral censure of the Inquisitors is based on an individualistic moral sense that was entirely foreign to the sensibility not only of corporate Medieval society but even more to traditional Judaism. New Christians perceived themselves and were perceived by others as members of an alien and detested group within Spanish society. As one might expect, Spaniards tended to “assume the worst” about them, especially when it was well known that, among other things, emigrating New Christians rapidly assumed overt Jewish identities in other lands.
Netanyahu has done a service in identifying the social, economic and political sources of inter-group conflict that were critical in the establishment of the Inquisition. “Indubitably,” he acknowledges, “the factor that first put much strain on the relations between the Old Christians and the New was the growth of converso economic power” (p. 1044)
He also provides considerable detail on the extent of Converso economic and political domination of Spain's traditional Christians. In so doing Netanyahu goes a long way toward showing why, apart from any question of religious heresy, the Conversos were so widely hated by the non-noble classes or estates. Conversos emerged as a dominant force in the areas of finance, commerce, international trade, law, diplomacy, and all levels of public administration. Wealthy Conversos purchased and endowed ecclesiastical benefices for their children with the result that many members of the high clergy were of Jewish descent. And high level New Christian officeholders (such as Fernán Díaz, secretary to King Juan II) appointed fellow Conversos to positions throughout the government bureaucracy.
In his 1932 study, A History of the Marranos, Cecil Roth summed up the incredible situation in forthright language that would scarcely be permitted today: (endnote)
The Law, the administration, the army, the universities, the Church itself, were all overrun by recent converts of more or less questionable sincerity, or by their immediate descendents. They thronged the financial administration, for which they had a natural aptitude, protest now being impossible. They pushed their way into the municipal councils, into the legislatures, into the judiciary. They all but dominated Spanish life.
At the heart of the conflict between Old and New Christians was the familiar tendency of the non-Jewish ruling elite to utilize Jews to further their interests at the expense of the non-elite members of society, that is, of the great mass of the Spanish people. Beginning in the Greco-Roman and Persian world of antiquity and extending into the post World War II era of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Jews have often served as middlemen between oppressive ruling elites (especially those of alien origin), and native populations. A significant source of animosity toward the Jews in Christian Spain was the widespread belief that the Jews had aided the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century, and in the ensuing centuries had served the Muslims as loyal administrators over the subject Christian population. (Modern scholars, including Netanyahu [p. 57], accept that this belief is based in fact.)
Jews were typically recruited for this status because they were known to have no strong loyalty to the native people or culture. Ruling elites knew that Jewish loyalty to the regime derived from their status as dependent aliens. In Spain, there was a long history of kings patronizing the Jewish community in return for Jewish loyalty as administrators and tax farmers, and in the 15th century these functions were assumed by the New Christians. (In return for payment of a fixed sum of money, determined through bidding, the king commissioned the highest bidder as a tax farmer, granting him the exclusive right to amass as much money as he could collect through taxes levied on the people of a given district.)
As in many other traditional societies, the Jews' alien or outgroup status with regard to the rest of society, and their loyalty to the king (rather than to the people or nation) made them ideal tax farmers. Rulers knew that because the Jews (or, after 1391 in Spain, the Conversos) had no loyalty to the native people, they could be trusted to treat the non-Jewish subjects as an outgroup, and would thereby maximize the king's revenues. (By contrast, to employ non-Jews as tax collectors would be disadvantageous, because their identification with the native population would make them less likely to wring out the maximum amount in taxes.)
"Tax collection remained largely in Jewish hands until the end of the Jewish sojourn in Spain,” writes Netanyahu. He continues (pp. 71-72):
It was primarily because of the functions of the Jews as the king's revenue gatherers in the urban areas that the cities saw the Jews as the monarch's agents, who treated the common people as objects of massive exploitation. By serving as they did the interests of the kings, the Jews seemed to be working against the interests of the cities; and thus we touch again on the phenomenon we have referred to: the fundamental conflict between the kings and their people — a conflict not limited to financial matters, but one that embraced all spheres of government that had a bearing on the people's life.
It was in part thanks to this conflict of interests that the Jews could survive the harsh climate of the Middle Ages, and it is hard to believe that they did not discern it when they came to resettle in Christian Europe. Indeed, their requests, since the days of the Carolingians, for assurances of protection before they settled in a place show (a) that they realized that the kings' positions on many issues differed from those of the common people and (b) that the kings were prepared, for the sake of their interests, to make common cause with the “alien” Jews against the clear wishes of their Christian subjects. In a sense, therefore, the Jews' agreements with the kings in the Middle Ages resembled the understandings they had reached with foreign conquerors in the ancient world.
As Netanyahu notes, Jews were well aware of their role as intermediaries between conflicting segments of gentile society (rulers and subjects). There is no question that as a result of their special relationship with the king, Jews were often viewed as exploiters by the common people. The Petition of 1449 by the rebels of Toledo accused the New Christian tax gatherers of having “caused the [economic] ruin … of many noble proprietresses (dueñas, caballeros, and hijos-dalgo)” and of having “oppressed, destroyed, robbed and depraved … most of the old houses and estates of the Old Christians” (p. 959). “Throughout the country,” historian Cecil Roth has noted, “they [the Conversos] farmed the taxes. Thus, they inevitably became identified in the popular mind with the royal oppression.” (endnote)
Netanyahu provides considerable detailed evidence showing that during the 15th century the kings of Spain utilized the New Christians in this very traditional manner as a highly competent intermediary group between themselves and the great mass of Christian subjects. Alvaro de Luna, King Juan II's chief minister, advanced the fortunes of both Jews and New Christians as a force loyal to the monarchy in its struggles with the nobility, and in preference to the non-Jewish urban aristocracy. New Christians were even more valuable than Jews because, as nominal Christians, they gave a sort of theoretical legitimacy to activities such as tax farming that was lacking when Jews performed these functions (Netanyahu, pp. 217ff).
Conversion therefore put a new twist to the traditional Jewish role as an alien, exploitative middleman. A 15th-century satirist depicts an Old Christian lamenting that the New Christians, because of their ostensible conversion, had become “legitimate” and were now entitled to use their “manipulations, chicaneries, subtleties and deceits, without fear of God and shame of the people” (p. 513). Conversion had not changed the cohesiveness or group status of the “Hebrew race,” nor their eagerness to exploit the Old Christian population — but merely by changing their surface religion, their much-resented behavior toward the Old Christians had now become permissible, at least from a Christian theological perspective.
Spaniards understandably continued to regard the Jewish “New Christians” as a cohesive group that very successfully exploited the traditional (Old) Christian population. In spite of conversion, this group persisted in many of the same oppressive activities that had provoked anti-Jewish hatred prior to their conversion, especially tax farming and collaborating with the king against the interests of the people.
For all his biased interpretation of sources, the facts presented by Netanyahu are consistent with the following overall scenario: The Conversos remained a separate, unassimilated “nation apart” within Spanish society well into the 15th century, and indeed through the height of the Inquisition period, and even into the 18th century. Freed from the traditional economic and social constraints placed on Jews, this self-aware ethnic-cultural group rose quickly to a position of dominance, and was correctly perceived by the mass of people (Old Christians) as an alien, exploitative enclave.
It is this fundamentally unhealthy situation that ultimately led to the Inquisition. Indeed, it is this general condition (which of course has varied in particulars from country to country and from age to age), that has provoked hostility toward Jews throughout history.
In Spain, periods of close Jewish ties to the monarch and the country's ruling elite were characterized by exploitation of the common people by the rulers, and alienation between the monarch and his subjects. Given the generally hostile relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Spanish society, it is not surprising that changes of government or periods of royal weakness often resulted in anti-Jewish pogroms, especially in the century prior to the establishment of the Inquisition.
As Netanyahu shows, the closer the alliance between the King and the Conversos, the greater the hostility toward the King among the people. Fray Alonso de Espina, a Franciscan friar who was instrumental in establishing the Inquisition, not only hated the Conversos, he also condemned the rulers who had betrayed their people. Quoting Espina, Netanyahu writes (p. 731) that he sharply criticized the
"detested avarice of the Christian princes” and “the temporal gains which they get from the Jews” that brings them to let the Jewish crimes go unpunished. It is their excessive converse with the Jews, and the numerous gifts they receive from them, that lead them to permit the “ravenous wolves” who have entered the “flock” of God to continue their ravages without opposition.
Espina praised the rulers of England and France for their wisdom and concern for the good of their nations in expelling the Jews from their realms. He had particular praise for French King Philip II (Augustus) as a ruler who “burned with the zeal of God” when, in the year 1182, he despoiled the Jews of his country and expelled them, in spite of pleas from the nobility and prelates, and offers of bribes from the Jews. (p. 831).
Netanyahu is exquisitely sensitive to the “immorality” of the Old Christians when or if they exaggerated a lack of religious sincerity among the Conversos. Similarly, he condemns the Inquisition for its “blatant disregard for human life … [its] desire to flaunt power and exercise control over life and death … [and its] shameless rapacity” (pp. 1085-1086).
But Netanyahu's moral sense is one-sided. He implicitly suggests that the Spaniards should have been unconcerned that they were being dominated and exploited by an alien group, and that their aristocracy, and indeed the entire upper classes, were fast becoming “New Christian.” In Netanyahu's view, the Spaniards should have acknowledged their inferiority and humbly acquiesced in their own economic, social and political domination by an outgroup dedicated to its own interests. The astonishing notion that a people is morally obligated to passively accept its own eclipse and domination is certainly not likely to appeal to sincere advocates of social justice, whatever their ideology. Such a “morality” is unlikely to win approval by any subjugated nation.
Netanyahu seems incapable of seeing the self-centered and even hypocritical nature of this interpretation of history, apparently because he views morality through strictly Jewish-Zionist eyes. While accepting the view that Jews constitute a distinct national-religious group, and that the Jewish people-nation can and should compete with non-Jewish nations for resources and power, he condemns as immoral the efforts by non-Jews to resist or counter Jewish domination. Institutions developed by non-Jews to protect and further their own group interests — such as the Inquisition — are predictably seen by Netanyahu (as well as by other similarly motivated historians) as the height of immorality.
In Netanyahu's view, efforts by non-Jews to increase their own power and position at the expense of Jews are inherently immoral, and are ascribed to motives of envy, jealousy and racism. (Netanyahu repeatedly calls the Inquisitors and the anti-Converso pogromists “racists.") On the other hand, he sees nothing wrong or immoral about the efforts by Jews throughout history to take and maintain economic, social and political power, often with great success, at the expense of others. Thus he portrays the motives of the Conversos as entirely natural human strivings for money, political power and social status. Consistent with this, he regards tax farming as a morally neutral activity that was a necessary part of the machinery of government in the Middle Ages.
In spite of the author's intellectual dishonesty and ethical bankruptcy, this book is worthwhile. In addition to a careful chronicling of the close relationships between Spanish kings and their Converso subjects, and a detailed summary of the social and political sources of animosity toward the Conversos, it provides a wealth of information on the intellectual, social, and political battles between Spaniards and Conversos in the 15th century. Netanyahu also presents a valuable and interesting account of the multifaceted strategies used by the Conversos to attain their social and political goals — strategies that presage many of the techniques Jews have used in modern societies to combat anti-Semitism and further their interests.
While attention has already been drawn to some of the activities of 15th-century New Christian intellectual apologists, this scarcely begins to tell the whole story. During the Inquisition period, Jewish emigrants from Spain and Portugal produced a large body of polemical, apologetic literature meant to refute Christianity and bolster the resolve of the crypto-Jews who remained on the Iberian peninsula. (endnote)
In addition, Netanyahu shows that even prior to the Inquisition, New Christian intellectuals such as Fernán Díaz, Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, and Alonso de Cartagena emerged to defend the supposedly sincere Christian orthodoxy of the New Christians, to refute the arguments of the Conversos' enemies, and to develop novel theological arguments that portrayed the Jews, both in Old Testament and modern times, in a positive light. To do so, these writers had to counter a very large body of Christian writing that depicted Jews in a searingly negative light. Their success in this task impressively illustrates the ability of Jewish intellectuals throughout the ages to fashion effective strategies, conforming to the currently prevailing zeitgeist, in defense of Jewish (or, in this case, New Christian) interests.
It is noteworthy that within this entire body of pro-Converso writing, Jews are regarded as a distinct ethnic-racial group. The writings of the Converso Bishop Alonso de Cartagena, for example, viewed Jews as a group that was “united by a blood relationship whose origins went back to Abraham” (Netanyahu, p. 530). Cartagena argued that God chose Abraham to be the progenitor of the people that would be dedicated to His service, and because of their special role as the carnal progenitors of Christ, they had to remain separate from other peoples and occupy an elevated moral status compared to other humans: “Not only was the Jewish people raised to the status of nobility in mankind … it was also allotted the status of holiness” (p. 533).
In a twist on the traditional Jewish view of themselves as a special, “chosen” people, Conversos portrayed themselves as constituting a kind of closed religious order made up of morally superior individuals distinguished by a superior biological heritage — a group therefore worthy of being the progenitors of Christ. Consistent with this view, the conversion of the Jews to Christianity was really no conversion at all, because it merely represented a higher fulfillment of their great and predestined historical role. Converso intellectuals developed this fantastic argument to refute charges by their enemies that baptized Jews would be unable to accommodate themselves to Christian teachings. (endnote)
A remarkable aspect of New Christian apologias, and their intellectual defenses generally, is that they were crafted in such a manner that the Conversos could view and portray themselves as remaining loyal to their (Jewish) peoplehood and (Mosaic) law. (pp. 936-937). By superficially becoming Christians while at the same time retaining their ethnic identity and sense of peoplehood, they provided a bridge between “ethnic Israel” and “spiritual Israel.” Alonso de Cartagena argued that Christianity could serve as a viable ideology in which New Christians could preserve their ethnic group cohesiveness and solidarity in precisely the same manner as Jews had always done. What we have here, in short, is a novel ideology of superficial Christianity that served to rationalize the continuity of Jewish group identity and cohesiveness among the New Christians.
Cartagena correctly saw that Christianity does not ultimately recognize races at all because, at the theoretical or spiritual level, it fosters the unification of all humanity. And he proposed that eventually there would be complete intermingling of races and nations (a notion, I suggest, that served much the same function in his writing as the “withering away of the state” does in classical Marxist political theory).
While anticipating the eventual emergence of a society free from ethnic distinctions, Cartagena contended that because ethnic divisions would persist into the foreseeable future, and because they have no legitimate place in Christian theology, we should do our best to ignore them. Thus he did not advocate a program to encourage intermarriage, nor did he condemn the New Christians for their continued group consciousness, their political and economic inter-group cooperation, their consciousness of common descent, or their pride in their Jewish ancestry. Instead, Cartagena attempted to change the traditional outlook and social behavior of non-Jewish Spaniards by urging them to view both themselves and the New Christians as members of one people — even though these different groups were not only disunited but in fact were actively engaged in grim and sometimes violent conflict.
Cartagena's message was that the continuation of the New Christians as an unassimilated, segregated group within Spanish society should be irrelevant from a Christian moral and theological perspective. He even proposed that the categories of New Christian and Old Christian be abandoned altogether, on the theory that eliminating such distinctions would lessen hostility by Old Christians toward New Christians. At the same time, though, Cartagena argued that New Christians should be allowed to maintain their own strong sense of superior group consciousness.
The implication is that the New Christians can and should continue to retain their group integrity and even their ethnic uniqueness in order to preserve their distinguished lineage. However, the rest of Christian society ought to view such behavior as theoretically irrelevant and cease even categorizing individuals as New Christians because such racialist thinking is contrary to Christian theology and morality. In other words, Cartagena urged non-Jewish Spaniards to abandon their own sense of group self-awareness, while urging baptized Jews to retain their separate group identity. (endnote)
A striking feature of the struggle over the New Christians in 15th-century Spain was that their defenders were intellectually far more sophisticated than their opponents. Collectively they dominated the literature of the period. (This has often been true in other eras as well, such as during the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France, and in the United States today.) (endnote)
Netanyahu details the distinguished intellectual and political accomplishments of Torquemada and Cartagena prior to their apologetic work, and points out that Díaz was the second or third most powerful official in the government of Castile. Their arguments were presented in a highly literate, scholarly style that commanded respect from educated readers. Moreover, these writers showed great skill in developing intricate, tortured arguments to offset the long-standing anti-Jewish bias inherent in Christian theology. Similar comments could be made about a very large body of pro-Jewish literature directed at non-Jews in more recent historical eras, including our own. Indeed, a good example is Netanyahu's book.
The result of all this intellectual activity was a stunning, if temporary, victory. Writes Netanyahu (p. 658):
The Marranos were faced with a campaign of vilification which clearly threatened their existence in Spain, and they were inevitably looking for the best method to quash that campaign, or reduce its effectiveness. As long as Toledo was the headquarters and center of the rebels' anti-Marrano agitation, the Marranos met the violent diatribes … with a counterattack that soon put their enemies on the defensive. Determined to fight fire with fire, the Marranos placed in the forefront of their battle-line the strongest and ablest men they possessed — Torquemada, Cartagena, the Relator [Fernán Díaz], and others; they enlisted in their support men of courage and brilliance, such as Lope de Barrientos and Alonso de Montalvo …
They built a massive public opinion that was so adverse to Sarmiento [a leader of the anti-Converso revolt] and his followers that the latter came to be regarded as outlaws, not only politically, but also morally and religiously. Within one year after the Toledan outbreak, the Marranos saw their foes in retreat; the Pope had denounced and excommunicated them; their leaders had been executed or hunted down; and Toledo … was clearly seeking accommodation with the Crown.
In their intellectual struggle, the Conversos recruited prominent and respected Old Christians to defend their cause — a strategy commonly employed by Jews through the ages. (Even in the ancient world there developed an entire apologetic literature written by Jews masquerading as non-Jews.) (endnote) Similarly, in modern societies Jews have often covertly funded organizations headed by prominent non-Jews that combat anti-Semitism or otherwise promote Jewish interests. Examples of this phenomenon in 20th-century America include the successful campaigns to establish a US trade embargo against Tsarist Russia and to revise American immigration policy to promote maximum racial and cultural pluralism. (endnote)
As Netanyahu shows, the Conversos recruited several prominent Old Christians to support their cause. Lope de Barrientos, an Old Christian and Bishop of Cuenca, was recruited by the Converso Fernán Díaz to write a tract supporting the Christian orthodoxy of most Conversos and condemning their enemies (p. 612). Actually, this tract was no more than a revision of one that Díaz himself had written. Another Old Christian, the jurist Alonso Díaz de Montalvo, sought help from two prominent New Christian intellectuals in writing a pro-Converso apologetic tract.
So it was that the New Christians engaged in an elaborate, multifaceted strategy to counter and vanquish their enemies. This included polemical writings by Converso intellectuals, recruitment of prominent non-Jewish intellectuals, as well as falsifications and deletions of the historical record by Converso scholars. It also included efforts to persuade the King to deal harshly with anti-Jewish pogromists, and to persuade the Pope to excommunicate the anti-Jewish Toledo rebels of 1449. During the Inquisition era New Christians bribed the Pope and other high officials, and at times were able to infiltrate the Inquisition itself, as part of the effort to soften the effect of its campaign against crypto-Jews. Converso efforts were not confined to the intellectual field. They also included the establishment of para-military urban self-defense organizations, and even assassinations of anti-Converso leaders during periods of armed conflict.
Because of such efforts the New Christians remained a prominent political force in Spain well into the 17th century (even as the Inquisition remained active well into the 18th century). One can only be impressed by their incredible tenacity, as well as that of Jewish historians such as Netanyahu who continue to fight their battles five centuries later.
In this regard Netanyahu is of course continuing a long tradition of Jewish intellectual apologetics that stretches back to the ancient world. Jewish scholar Jacob Katz sees this academic pattern as very much alive in today's world. Jewish Studies Departments in American universities, he finds, are explicitly linked to Jewish nationalism, and they often violate customary standards of scholarly objectivity: “The inhibitions of traditionalism, on the one hand, and a tendency toward apologetics, on the other, can function as deterrents to scholarly objectivity.” The work of Jewish historians, says Katz, exhibits “a defensiveness that continues to haunt so much of contemporary Jewish activity.” (endnote)
Another recent book on the Inquisition, José Faur's In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (endnote) is even more disgraceful than Netanyahu's in its disregard for the normal scholarly pursuit of truth, pressed into the service of promoting a thoroughly Judeocentric historiography. In the introduction, Faur describes his deep commitment to Judaism and attachment to the Jewish culture of his childhood. “This book is written from the perspective of the 'other',” he writes. “The story of the conversos … concerns the attempt of the oppressed to break the silence imposed on them by the persecuting society, and transmit the perspective of the persecuted to future generations.”
Faur completely rejects “objective” or “scientific” history whose real function has been “to suppress alternative perspectives, particularly the perspective of the victim.” He boldly lays out his goal:
There will be no “Jewish history” without Jewish historians establishing a specific Jewish perspective. Therefore, the rise of a Jewish historical consciousness is indispensable for a particular Jewish history … Without a historical consciousness the destiny of the Jewish people will remain unfulfilled.
Historiography for Faur is fundamentally subjective. “The most awesome responsibility of the Jewish historian,” he writes, “is to validate the authority of Jewish memory.” Just as with the 15th-century Converso chroniclers, historians such as Netanyahu, and a very long line of Jewish apologists stretching back into the ancient world, José Faur sees his intellectual work as dedicated first and foremost to furthering Jewish group interests.
In spite of their unconcealed bias, historians such as Netanyahu and Faur encounter no obstacles in today's world. Their works are published by the most prominent and respectable publishing houses, while revisionist scholars who attempt a more objective perspective on history — one that inevitably conflicts with Jewish self-conceptions and interests — are typically relegated to a sort of intellectual underground, if not driven to oblivion.
Every healthy society requires a sense of moral and ethical rectitude, even a kind of self-righteousness — and no people has refined this sense more acutely than the Jews.
Beginning with Philo and Josephus in the ancient world, Jewish scholars and religious leaders have developed complex arguments intended to present the Jewish people and Judaism in a positive light. As part of this effort to morally justify the Jewish role in history they often portray Judaism as a morally superior religion, Jews as acting according to high ethical principles, and the Jewish people as, consequently, a moral beacon for the rest of humanity. This “light unto the nations” argument has persisted as a prominent theme of 19th and 20th century Jewish apologia.
Consistent with this, Jewish intellectuals have sought to defend Jewish history and tradition by portraying as immoral all societies and cultures that have been unfriendly to Jews. Especially in recent centuries, Jewish scholars have been at the forefront of efforts to malign and discredit the intellectual, cultural and religious foundations of Western civilization. Referring to this process, British historian Paul Johnson writes of “the sheer destructive power of Jewish rationalism once it escaped the restraints of the traditional community.” (endnote)
Netanyahu is squarely within this tradition. His work seeks to portray Jewish (and Converso) behavior as ethical, and Judaism as moral, while at the same time castigating anti-Jewish societies as fundamentally irrational and malevolent. Thus he censures not merely Spanish culture, but Western civilization — including its religious pillar, Christianity. In the view of Jewish intellectuals such as Netanyahu, the history of the West — beginning with the Roman Empire and the early Christian era, and culminating in Auschwitz — has largely been a chronicle of Jew-hatred, and therefore of almost unrelieved evil.
For their part, non-Jews in widely varying periods and places have regarded Jewish behavior, as well as the fundamentally ethnocentric moral code of Judaism, with loathing and contempt. (endnote) One finds this from Roman intellectuals in the ancient world, in the spectacular Christian-Jewish “disputations” of the Middle Ages, in repeated condemnations of the Jewish Talmud by Popes and other Christian leaders, and as a prominent strand of 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment discourse about the Jews (for example, by Kant and Voltaire).
In a world in which Jews and non-Jews are still groping to determine the proper place of Jews in society, Jewish historians such as Netanyahu and Faur take their work very seriously. They regard themselves not as dispassionate scholars in search of historical truth, but as intellectual warriors in a conflict that is being waged for the highest stakes. They believe, correctly, that the very survival of the Jewish people requires ceaseless scholarly defense, even in our “enlightened” age. In this ancient conflict, Netanyahu's book is an important intellectual weapon — massive and sharp, but also double-edged.