“Your Highness completed the war against the Moors,” Columbus wrote in a letter addressed to the Spanish throne, “after having chased all the Jews…and sent me to the said regions of India in order to convert the people there to our Holy Faith.” [1] In 1492 the defeat of the Muslims and the expulsion of Jews from Spain converged with the conquest of the so-called New World. The separate quincentenary commemorations in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, however, have seldom acknowledged the linkage between these events. Although intellectually challenging and politically inspiring, “goodbye Columbus” counter-quincentenary debates have, for the most part, followed the same easy path of separating these issues.

The reasons can be partially located in the scholarly inertia that compartmentalizes historical periods and geographical regions into neat areas of expertise, overlooking the interconnectedness of histories, geographies and cultural identities. But they are also traceable to a general reluctance in progressive circles to chart the colonial dimensions of contemporary Euro-Israeli discourse. While the celebrations of Columbus’ “discovery” have provoked lively opposition, the Eurocentric framing of the “other 1492” has been little questioned.

From Reconquista to Conquista

The Spanish-Christian war against Muslims and Jews was politically, economically and ideologically linked to the arrival of Columbus’ caravels in Española. Spain, triumphant over the Muslims, risked investment in Columbus’ schemes. His voyages were largely financed by wealth confiscated from Jews expelled during the Inquisition. [2] Columbus’ fleet departed from the relatively unknown seaport of Palos because the shipping lanes of Cadiz and Seville were clogged with fleeing Jews. The Reconquista, which began in the eleventh century with the fall of Toledo and continued until the fall of Granada in January 1492, was a long process. Its policies of settling Christians in the newly (re)conquered areas, as well as the gradual institutionalization of expulsions, conversion and killings of Muslims and Jews in Christian territories, prepared the grounds for subsequent similar conquista practices across the Atlantic, as Columbus’ letter suggests. Under the marital-political union of Ferdinand (Aragon) and Isabella (Castile), victorious Christian Spain strengthened its sense of nationhood, soon to be turned into an empire as it subjugated indigenous Americans and Africans. Discourses about Muslims and Jews during Spain’s continental expansion crossed the Atlantic, arming the conquistadors with a ready-made ideology aimed at regions of India but in fact applied first toward the indigenous inhabitants of the accidentally “discovered” continent. (India’s turn came with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 and the Portuguese conquest of Goa in 1510, and, of course, the complete British takeover in the eighteenth century.)

The campaigns against Muslims and Jews, as well as against heretics and witches, made available an entire apparatus of racism and sexism for “recycling” in the newly raided continents. The Crusades, which helped inaugurate “Europe” by reconquering the Mediterranean area and making Europe aware of its geocultural identity, coincided with anti-Semitic pogroms. Christian Europe, on the verge of the conquest of the New World, indulged in fears of diverse “agents of Satan” — women, witches, heretics, Jews and Muslims — but anti-Semitism formed an especially integral part of the European ideological system then projected outward against Europe’s external others — the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas. [3] Although life in Spain before the expulsion of Jews and Muslims was characterized by a relatively peaceful coexistence between the three religious civilizations, the Spanish Inquisition, as an early exercise in European “self-purification,” sought to punish and expel, or forcibly convert, Muslims and Jews. The indigenous peoples of the Americas similarly were officially protected from massacres by the throne only once they converted to Christianity.

European demonology, then, prefigured colonialist racism. We can even discern a partial congruence between the phantasmatic imagery projected onto the Jewish and Muslim “enemy” and the black African and indigenous American “savage” — all imagined to various degrees as “blood drinkers,” “cannibals,” “sorcerers” and “devils.” Writing about his voyages, Amerigo Vespucci drew on the stock of Jewish and Muslim stereotypes to characterize the savage, the infidel, the indigenous man as sexual omnivore and the indigenous woman as sexual object. [4] “The chiefe God they worship,” wrote Captain John Smith in his Map of Virginia (1612), “is the Divell.” [5]

Eurocentric historical discourse tends to paint a flattering picture of Europe during the “age of discovery” while denigrating the newly colonized peoples. At the time of the onset of colonialism and conquest, Europe was a rather brutal and superstitious place, dominated by a “demonological discourse” (Delumeau). [6] Church-sponsored brutalities toward Jews and Muslims have to be seen therefore on the same continuum as the forced conversions of indigenous peoples of the Americas who, like the Jews and Muslims in Catholic Spain, were obliged to feign allegiance to Christianity.

Eliding Muslims

In November 1991, the ceremonial opening for a conference at the University of California-Los Angeles dedicated to the expulsion of Sephardic Jews included the screening of the film El Santo Oficio (The Holy Office, 1973). Arturo Ripstein’s film features the attempt by the Holy See to spread the Inquisition into the New World. We see Sephardic Jewish Conversos (also referred to as Marannos) in Mexico obliged to practice Judaism in secret. At the film’s finale, the Conversos, along with heretics, witches and indigenous infidels, are burned at the stake for their lack of faith. Those who refused to convert are burned alive; others are burned after hanging. Although the film focuses on the Conversos, it does not isolate their persecution from that of other religious and racial oppressions practiced by the conquistadors of the Americas, the heirs of the reconquistadors of Spain. Ripstein’s remarkable film provoked strong emotions at the screening, but its documentation of Sephardi Jewish rituals practiced in tormenting secrecy, and its visual details of torture, rape and massacre were not received in the spirit of the linkages I have charted here. The audience consisted largely of American Jewish educators, scholars and community workers eager to consume the narrative of the singular nature of the Jewish experience. As a result, the conference ignored the historical and discursive links of the Inquisition and the expulsion of Sephardi Jews to the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, to the devastation of African peoples, and also to the Christian persecution of Muslims in Spain. The elision of the Arab-Muslim part of the narrative is especially striking.

During the centuries-long Reconquista, not all Muslims and Jews withdrew with the Muslim forces. Those Muslims who remained after the change of rule were known as Mudejars (deriving from the Arabic mudajjin, “permitted to remain,” with a suggestion of “tamed” or “domesticated.”) Like those Jews who remained in Christian Spain, after a certain period of tolerance, and economic and cultural contribution to Christian Spain, they were persecuted. The Inquisition, which was institutionalized as a tool of the state in 1478, did not pass over the Muslims. In 1499, mass burning of Islamic books and forced conversions took place, and in 1502 the Muslims of Granada were given the choice of baptism or exile. In 1525-1526, Muslims of other provinces were given the same choice. Thereafter the same Inquisitory measures taken against the Jewish Conversos who were found to be secretly practicing Judaism were taken against Moriscos (Moors converted to Christianity) found to be practicing Islam. In 1566 there was a revival of anti-Muslim legislation, and between 1609 and 1614 came edicts of expulsion. As a result, about half a million are said to have fled to North Africa, where they maintained, as Sephardi Jews did, certain aspects of their Spanishness.

These details are well documented. [7] Yet they find little echo in events such as those taking place under the auspices of the International Jewish Committee-Sefarad ‘92. The reasons cannot be simply attributed to a literalism — to the fact that the 1492 edict of expulsion was addressed to the Jews. The elision of comparative discussion of the Muslim and Jewish situations in Christian Spain is rooted in present-day Middle Eastern politics. The 1992 commemorations reflect present-day battles over the representations of history. Subordinated to a Eurocentric Zionist historiography, they lament yet another tragic episode in a homogenous, static Jewish history of relentless persecution.

The screening of El Santo Oficio at the Expulsion conference, not surprisingly, elicited such remarks as: “You think it’s different today?” and “That’s also what the Nazis did to us. If the Arabs could, that’s what they’d do!” Such comments underline the commemorations’ role as a stage for demonstrating Israeli nationalism as the logical answer to such horrific events as the Inquisition. The Inquisition of Sephardi Jews is seen merely as foreshadowing the Holocaust of Ashkenazi Jews. In this paradigm, the traumas of Nazism are facilely projected onto the experiences of Jews in Muslim countries, and onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [8] Arabs of today are merely one more “non-Jewish” obstacle in the Jewish trajectory.

The uniqueness and common victimization of all Jews at all times is a crucial underpinning of official Israeli ideology. The genocides of indigenous Americans and Africans are not a point of reference, while the linked persecution in Iberia of Jews and Muslims, Conversos and Moriscos, is rendered irrelevant. This selective reading of Jewish history hijacks the Jews of Islam from their Judeo-Islamic history and culture and subordinates their experience to that of the Ashkenazi European shtetl, presented as a “universal” Jewish experience. In the Zionist “proof” of a single Jewish experience, there are no parallels or overlappings with other religious/ethnic communities. All Jews are by definition closer to each other than to the cultures of which they have been part.

The Jews of Islam, and more specifically Arab Jews, problematize this Eurocentric representation. Thus Zionist historiography, when it does refer to Islamic-Jewish history, consists of a morbidly selective “tracing the dots” from pogrom to pogrom. This picture of an ageless and relentless oppression and humiliation ignores the fact that, on the whole, Jews of Islam — a minority among several other religious-ethnic communities — lived relatively comfortably within Arab-Muslim society.

My point is not to idealize the situation of the Jews of Islam, but rather to suggest that, with a few exceptions, the agendas of Zionist and anti-Zionist historians have either subsumed Islamic-Jewish history into Christian-Jewish history or ignored the status of Jews in the context of other minorities in Islamic societies. [9] On the occasion of the quincentenary, the Zionist perspective privileges Sephardi Jewish relations with Christianity over those with Arab Islam, projecting Eurocentric maps of Jews (West) and Muslims (East). The only Muslim country that receives some attention is Turkey, partly due to Sultan Bayazid II’s ordering his governors in 1492 to receive the Jews cordially. Even here the emphasis is less on Muslim-Jewish relations than on the voyages of refuge, and on Turkish (national) as opposed to Muslim (religious) shelter. Such a version plays down the fact that at the time of the expulsion there were well-established Jewish communities all over the Islamic Arab Middle East and North Africa.

Beyond Sephardi Exotica

The master narrative of universal Jewish victimization has been crucial for the Israeli “ingathering” of peoples from such diverse geographies, languages, cultures and histories, as well as for the claim that the Jewish nation faces a common historical enemy in Muslim Arabs. Associating Arabs with Nazis (and in 1992 with the Inquisitors) projects a Jewish European nightmare onto the structurally distinct political dynamics of the Middle East. Sephardi Jews experienced an utterly different history within the Arab world than that which haunts the European memories of Ashkenazi Jews; the conflation of the Muslim Arab with the archetypal European oppressors of Jews strategically understates Israel’s colonial-settler dispossession of Palestinian people.

The simplistic equation of the histories of Ashkenazim and Sephardim (in the broad sense now of including all Jews of the Middle East and North Africa) functions to assimilate Sephardim into Ashkenazi history. The discussions of expulsion bring out the “wandering Jew” motif, though the Jews of the Middle East, for the most part, had stable, “non-wandering” lives in the Islamic world. Sephardim moved within the regions of Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean not because of persecution but rather for commercial, religious or scholarly purposes. The major displacement took place in recent years, when Sephardim were uprooted, dispossessed and dislodged due to the collaboration between Israel and Arab governments and Western colonial powers, who termed their solution for the “question of Palestine” as a “population exchange.” [10] (That no one asked either the Palestinians or Arab Jews whether they wished to be exchanged is typical of other Third World histories.) Sephardim who have been able to leave Israel, often in response to institutionalized racism there, have dislocated themselves yet again, this time to the US, Canada, France, Britain or Holland. Ironically, today it is to the Muslim Arab countries of their origins that most Middle Eastern Jews cannot travel.

The quincentenary events also center on the Spanishness of Sephardi culture (largely on Ladino or Judaeo-Espanol language and music) while marginalizing the fact that Jews in Iberia formed part of a larger Judeo-Islamic culture of North Africa and the Middle East and even the European Balkan area of the Ottoman Empire. Major Sephardi texts in philosophy, linguistics, poetry and medicine were written in Arabic and reflect specific Muslim influences as well as a strong sense of Judaeo-Arab identity. The Jews of Iberia had come there from the Middle East — some with the Romans, others with the Muslims. When they fled Spain, over 70 percent returned to regions of the Ottoman Empire, while the rest went to Western Europe and the Americas.

The commonalities between Jews and Muslims, particularly the “Arabness” of Jews in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, is a thorny reminder of the Middle Eastern character of the majority of Jews in Israel today. Erasure of the Arab dimension of Sephardim is crucial from a Zionist perspective, since Israel has ended up in a paradoxical situation in which its “Orientals” had closer cultural and historical links to the presumed enemy — the “Arab” — than to the Ashkenazi Jews with whom they were forcibly merged into nationhood. The elision of Arab Jews (or Jewish Arabs), and the narrow focus on Sephardi history in relation to Christian Spain, rejects an Arab and Muslim context for Middle Eastern Jewish history and identity, while unilaterally subsuming Middle Eastern Jews into a pan-Jewish historical perspective.

The Zionist establishment, since its early encounters with Palestinian (Sephardi) Jews, has systematically attempted to eradicate the “malignancies” of those other Jews — for example, by stigmatizing Sephardi-Arabized syntax and accents in Hebrew, by marginalizing Asia and Africa and Islamic-Arab and Jewish-Arab histories in school curricula, and by rendering Sephardi culture and political activities invisible in the media.

The 1992 events pose a problematic relation between past and present. The past of Sephardim is reduced to persecution, while the present is displaced into exotic traditions. Sephardi-Oriental identity is now accepted only in the form of folklore, adding spice to the Euro-Israeli culture. Insensitive to questions of self representation, quincentenary events have relied typically on Ashkenazi experts on the Jews of Islam, leaving the religious and folkloric aspects, such as cuisine and music, to “authentic” Sephardim. In fact, Sephardi “folklore” constitutes an Israeli national industry, which exports (often expropriated) goods (dresses, jewelry, liturgical objects) and ethnographic photos, films and books about the charming folkways of Sephardim to Westerners eager for Jewish exotica. The occasion of the quincentenary has not prompted any rethinking of this colonial ethno-graphic model.

This appropriation contrasts with politically and culturally critical Sephardi-Oriental self-representation, seen in the last decade in such movements as East for Peace and the Oriental Front in Israel, Perspectives Judeo-Arabe in Paris, and the World Organization of Jews from Islamic Countries in New York. It also contrasts with the spirit of the meeting between Sephardi Jews and Palestinians held in Toledo, Spain in 1989, where the participants insisted that peace would mean more than geographical borders, and would require dismantling the artificial East/West cultural borders between Israel and the Arab world.


[1] Quoted in Jean Comby, “1492: Le Choc des Cultures et l’Evangelization du Monde,” Dossiers de l’episcopat Français 14 (October 1990).
[2] See Charles Duff, The Truth About Columbus (New York: Random House, 1936).
[3] See Jean Delumeau, La Peur en Occident (Paris: Fayard, 1978) and Le Peche et La Peur (Paris: Fayard, 1983). See also Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Harpers, 1943). Jan Pieterse makes the more general point that the theme of civilization against barbarism was a carryover from Greek and Roman antiquity, while the theme of Christianity against pagans was the keynote of European expansion culminating in the Crusades. The Christian theme of “mission” was subsequently used with “civilization,” as in the mission civilisatrice. See Jar Pietersee, Empire and Emancipation (London: Pluto, 1990), p. 240.
[4] See Jan Carew, Fulcrums of Change: Origins of Racism in the Americas and Other Essays (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1988).
[5] Captain John Smith, Map of Virginia (1612), quoted in Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).
[6] As late as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther expressed his strong belief that the Turks against whom Christians were struggling were not “flesh-and-blood beings” but rather “an army of devils” against whom only “angels” could be efficacious, using a God-is-on-our-side rhetoric subsequently invoked in diverse colonial and neo-colonial military venues, most recently during the Persian Gulf war.
[7] See, for example, W. Montgomery Watt and Pierre Cachia, A History of Islamic Spain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977); James T. Monroe, Hispano-Arabic Poetry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974).
[8] For the analogies between Nazis and Arabs in Zionist discourse see Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989) and “The Media’s War,” Social Text 28 (Spring 1991).
[9] For such complex analysis see Ilan Halevi, A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern (London: Zed Books, 1987); and Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (London: Saqi, 1983).
[10] For more see Abbas Shiblak, The Lure of Zion: The Case of the Iraqi Jew (London: Saqi, 1986); G. N. Giladi, Discord in Zion: Conflict Between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel (London: Scorpion, 1990); and Ella Shohat “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims,” Social Text 19-20 (Fall 1988).

How to cite this article:

Ella Shohat "Rethinking Jews and Muslims," Middle East Report 178 (September/October 1992).

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