Review by Michel Cruz. Having lived in a variety of countries, Michel settled in Spain 14 years ago. Fascinated by its diversity of sights and experiences, he has written about the country ever since. Although his activities are varied, including the running of design and publishing agency Manifesto Design, and the topics he writes about include other countries and fields of interest, it is clear that he remains as keen as ever to discover, experience and relate new things about this multifaceted country.
Although this is in essence an academic-style book written by the Emeritus Professor of Modern and Contemporary History of Spain at the University of Westminster, it is also surprisingly easy to read. While obviously a man of learning, Michael Alpert does not talk down to the reader or try to impress his peers with pompous language. Instead, he gets down to the business of shedding light on a rather obscure but all the more fascinating chapter in Spanish history.
First of all, it is important to know that this is not a novel set against a historic context, but a non-fiction study into the continued and secret practice of Judaism in the centuries during which Spain and Portugal fell under strict Catholic rule. Alpert looks at the build-up of intolerance towards Judaism in a society where Catholic control reached a crescendo between the 15th and 18th centuries, before finally losing out to the forces of Enlightenment in the 19th century.
The reconquest of Iberia from the invading Muslim masters set the stage for a Christian zeal that fought to root out all that was not Catholic, be it Protestant, Muslim, Pagan or Jewish. This process lead to the establishment of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, but while it would be easy to ridicule and stigmatise this institution, Alpert treats the subject matter with professional objectivity, intelligence and profound background knowledge. You’ll find no cheap shots and whining here, but a thoroughly researched and credible account of a facet of Spanish history that was to have serious repercussions that are still felt to this day.
First the Jews of Spain and Portugal were ‘encouraged’ to become Christians. Then those who did, the so-called New Christians, were subjected to suspicion and social discrimination while the remaining Jews were later expelled. Iberia’s loss was the gain of France, England, Italy and the Low Countries, who availed themselves of the skills and energy of the Jewish people. Even as Spain sank into isolation it forged ahead on a policy of wiping out religious opposition, using the Inquisition to relentlessly pursue anyone deemed not to be a ‘good’ Catholic.
For the New Christians it meant constant harassment, with neighbours and associates informing on them and the authorities trying to catch them out at practising their old faith. While many perfectly fervent Catholics were unjustly persecuted in this way, Alpert points out that elements of Judaism survived throughout the centuries and in spite of the Inquisition. Many fled, but others pretended to be Catholics whilst secretly continuing their Jewish belief for generation upon generation. To this day their descendants can be found in the secret Jewish communities of Belmonte, in Portugal, and the Chuetas of Mallorca, amongst others, and while their form of Judaism is no more than a badly remembered patois, it is a powerful testament to human resistance to social and ethnic engineering.
I like to think I know a fair bit about Spanish history, but I learned a lot of new things in this book. Well worth reading if you love history.
Since this book was published , a number of people in Belmonte have gone through a formal conversion procedure to be again fully Jews.