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When Jews Were ‘Illegals,’ They Took Away Our Children

A map of the migrations that Sephardic Jews were forced to take. Image by Creative Commons

We don’t know how exactly many Jews were forced out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella’s cruel Edict of Expulsion in 1492, but conservative estimates put the number of refugees somewhere between 100,000 and 160,000. We climbed the northern mountains to escape into Navarre, and from there we took to the sea, hoping to find refuge in Mediterranean ports. Some of us even braved the Atlantic hoping to make a home in the New World. Our largest group, well over 50,000 Jews, sought asylum in neighboring Portugal — a country famed for its freedom of worship, sheltering Jews who fled the violence of 1391 and the recent persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition.

At first, we tried to cross the long land border into Portugal in an orderly and legal fashion. We sent a representative to King João II of Portugal and secured his agreement to allow temporary resident permits for 600 families and the privilege of purchasing transit visas for everyone else. The price was crippling: eight cruzados per every Jewish man, woman, and child — about $20,000 in today’s American dollars.

A large auto-da-fé took place in Madrid on 30 June 1680 in the Plaza Mayor, presided over by the young Charles II (reigned 1665-1700) and his mother, Mariana of Austria, who are shown here beneath a canopy. Organised by the Inquisition, autos-da-fé were public ceremonies involving prisoners condemned for crimes against religion. Image by Wikimedia Commons

For every Jew who could manage the payment, perhaps four others were forced to enter Portugal illegally, under the cover of night along the loosely guarded land border. The only alternative was to accept a Christian baptism and return to our devastated homes in Spain. Many Jews did so, thinking perhaps that they could continue to practice Judaism in secret. Those who did so were known by the derogatory term “Marranos;” tens of thousands of these Jews and their descendants were mercilessly pursued by the Inquisition and ultimately murdered in public burnings.

King João II Image by Wikimedia Commons

By April 1493, many of us who entered Portugal found sea passage to other destinations. Others, especially those who paid for the transit visas, remained in government detention facilities; most lived quietly as illegal aliens in smaller communities throughout Portugal, trying to escape the notice of the authorities. King João II then adopted a zero-tolerance policy: any undocumented Jews, including those with now-expired transit visas, were to be arrested and sold as slaves.

2,000 Jewish children aged two to twelve were forcibly separated from their parents. In a chilling act of incomprehensible cruelty, João shipped them off to the uninhabited equatorial island of São Tomé off the coast of west Africa and abandoned them on shore. Later Portuguese expeditions would reveal that only some 600 survived. Many, according to the 16th-century historian Samuel Usque, were eaten by the huge lizards indigenous to the island.

João‘s cruelty did not extend to Portuguese-born Jews, but we and our children were not safe from his successor Manuel I. In late 1496 the new king, determined to follow the Spanish example, ordered Portuguese Jews to choose between expulsion or baptism. He recognized, however, that the Portuguese economy would benefit if the Jews would remain in the country, so he put into place another child-separation policy to coerce us to choose baptism over exile.

Image by Wikimedia Commons

On the eve of Passover in 1497, Portuguese authorities raided Jewish communities, seized all Jewish children below the age of fourteen, and baptized them as Christians. Eliyahu Capsali, a contemporary historian, wrote that when the Jews were searching for chametz in all the nooks and crannies of their homes, the Portuguese came with torches and searched them for our precious children. Parents were given the option of reunification with their offspring if they would but accept baptism — as in Spain, many did, and many lost their lives when the Inquisition crossed the border into Portugal 30 years later. In some cases, however, the children were simply lost — the government did not have a serious plan in place to reunite the families, and the children were never found again. In some cases, distraught Jewish parents committed suicide within the churches where they were to be baptized.


I am a historian, not a politician. Like everyone else, I have my opinions about the long-standing immigration debate in this country, but in general, I try not to share my views publicly. At the same time, I am a parent and a grandparent.

Last week I ran into a neighbor, another observant Jew, who mentioned in passing that he “could not care less” about the blanket child-separation policy occurring on the southern border. Me? I have difficulty sleeping, thinking about what this great country has done to these families — and the fact that months after the zero-tolerance policy went into effect (and weeks after it was rescinded), over 2,000 children have still not been reunited with their parents, including over a hundred under the age of five. I just can’t understand how we — as Americans, as Jews, as human beings — can be so callous to this suffering.

I don’t want to get political about this. I don’t want to say it’s the fault of this person or that party. I want to do my part to bring us all together in agreement on something that should be obvious: separating children from parents as a deterrent to illegal immigration is horribly wrong. Yes, we need a solution to secure our borders. This is not it.

And if we don’t care? Shame on us.

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