Sephardic Diaspora

THEMES > Sephardic Diaspora

     The term “Sephardic”, a gentilicio from the toponym Sepharad which appears in the book of the prophet Obadiah 1:20 and which has traditionally been identified with the Iberian Peninsula, is applied to the descendants of the Jews who left Spain at the end of the Middle Ages.

     The history of the Sephardim has traditionally been divided into three periods. The first period spans from the late 15th century to the mid-17th century; the second period lasts from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century; and the third period spans from the mid-19th century to World War II. What happened after World War II will be discussed briefly at the end.

First period

     The first period corresponds to the period of the expulsion and the formation of the Sephardic Diaspora.

     Although 1492 is taken as the reference date for this first stage, the formation of the Sephardic communities in the Diaspora neither begins nor ends on that date. The departure of Jews from the Hispanic kingdoms took place especially after 1391. Nor did it end in 1492, since throughout the 16th and 17th centuries numerous converts left the Peninsula to embrace Judaism once again.

     The routes of departure of those expelled in 1492 were broadly speaking: from the north, Navarre, from where they disappeared in 1498; from the west, Portugal, where in 1497 they would be subjected to forced conversion, many of them later fleeing to the Netherlands and the south of France; and mostly, from the south, towards North Africa; and from the east, towards Italy, which was both a destination point and a stage towards the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.

     The Sephardim will settle in three large geographical areas: North Africa; the East (Ottoman Empire and the community of the city of Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, founded in the 18th century); and the West (Italy and the Netherlands, where Amsterdam ends up engendering the communities of Hamburg, London and some in the Caribbean and the United States).

     The fact that in the first two zones the religion of power was Islam and that in the third it was the Christian religion, whether Catholic or Protestant, will influence the future of the Sephardim established in each territory. The existence or not of Jewish communities settled in those places since ancient times, as well as the greater or lesser proximity of the territory to the Iberian Peninsula, will also have an impact.

     The first period ends with a great convulsion that shakes the foundations of all Judaism: the rise and disappointing end of the pseudomesianic movement of Sabetay Sebi (Smyrna, 1626-Ulcinj, 1676).

Second period

     This stage is characterized because the great Sephardic mass, that is the one integrated in the Ottoman Empire, sees interrupted almost all contact with Spain, constituting in the Balkans one more of the nations or mil-let integrated in the administrative structure of the Ottoman Empire and enjoying a sufficient autonomy in what refers to leaders, rabbinical courts, administrators and system of education.

     Something similar happens with the Sephardim established in North Africa, who, under the status of “people of the book”, live in a Muslim environment with the obligation to pay taxes and the permission of autonomous internal organization.

     A relevant difference between the Sephardim settled in North Africa and those in the East is that the former returned to direct contact with Spain after the end in 1860 of the African war against the Sultan of Morocco and the establishment of the Spanish protectorate in the area.

Third period

     At the dawn of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire still ruled over vast extensions. The Sephardim of those lands had to live long periods of wars that broke out between the Ottoman Empire and several European countries, as well as the First World War, very serious events to which were added several internal alterations, such as the rise of nationalisms, the revolution of the Young Turks, the foundation of the republic by Atatürk, etc.

     Many of these episodes gave rise from the beginning of the 20th century to a strong current of emigration of Sephardim, especially of young people, to different European countries and to their colonies in Africa, to Israel and to the two Americas.

From the Second World War to the present day

     The Sephardic communities received the final blow with the Second World War and the Nazi extermination. Most of the new communities that are being created are Sephardic from the genealogical point of view, but very few are Sephardic from the cultural point of view and even less from the linguistic point of view.