The Sephardic Diaspora

Scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain after the expulsion of 1492; the estimates range from 50,000 to 300,000. Where they went is easier to determine. Many simply crossed the border into Portugal, from which they were subsequently expelled in 1497. Some went to Palestine, augmenting small, existing communities in Jerusalem and Safed. Others traveled northward to England and the Netherlands (ruled, at the time, by Spain), and many more dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region. Sephardic Jews also established communities in North Africa, where they remained into the late 20th century.

Farther east, the Ottoman Empire was particularly receptive to the Sephardim, who settled in Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, and Palestine. Much of this area was or would become part of the Ottoman Empire, whose ruler, Bayezid II, was well aware of the skills Spanish Jews possessed in the sciences, business, and government. These were exactly the kind of people needed to solidify control and expand commerce in a growing empire. Jewish tradition tells us that Bayezid welcomed the Sephardim, saying, “Ferdinand is called a wise king, he who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.”

In Morocco and Tunisia —as in the Ottoman Empire—Jews benefited from the enlightened concept of convivencia, the same guiding principle of peaceful coexistence that prevailed when the Moors ruled Spain. Although there was a Jewish community in North Africa dating from Roman times, the population increased considerably in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Here, at the western extremity of the Ottoman Empire, Jews and Moslems shared aspects of culture in a way that could serve as a model of tolerance, cooperation even, among people of different beliefs. At Passover, for example, Moroccan Jews would “sell” their leavened goods to Moslem neighbors and “buy” the items back when the holiday ended. Since the Six Day War (1967) most of the Jewish population of North Africa has fulfilled the ancient prophecy of Obadiah by immigrating to Israel.

Sephardic Jews founded new communities in cities such as Istanbul, Salonika (now Thessaloniki), Smyrna (now Izmir), and Edirne, where they grew and thrived over the next four centuries. Smaller Jewish communities grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Balkan cities and their surrounding towns, in Sofia, Bulgaria, on the island of Rhodes, and in the Middle East: Safed, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Alexandria. These communities flourished in relative security until well into the past century, when thousands of Sephardic Jews living in southern Europe perished in the concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany or fell prey to such ultra-nationalist groups as the Ustashe and the Chetniks. While remnants of these communities still exist, most surviving Sephardic Jews immigrated to North and South America, and, of course, to Israel.