The Jews of Yemen have lived in that region for twenty-five hundred years. Just decades ago, their population was around sixty thousand, and today, only about ninety Jews remain in Yemen.
But apparently, ninety Jews in a country of 25 million people is ninety too many for Yemen, and now these last remaining Jews of a lineage stretching back millennia are faced with the ultimatum of either throwing off their Jewishness or fleeing to a country they have never known.
And much like in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, a third option lingers: death.
Columbus Day is coming up, which i don’t think anyone should celebrate for reasons that have nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with the fact that he was one of history’s great monsters. However, the anniversary of his voyage does serve as a moment to consider the country of Spain, which sponsored Columbus, and its treatment of Jews.
1492 was the year that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella passed the Alhambra Decree that all non-Catholics must either convert, leave the country, or die. Oh, and they had to leave behind all their gold, silver and money when they left. This decree effectively ended Jewish and Muslim life in Spain for centuries. Jewish converts or conversos were still stigmatized, marginalized and were frequently tested for their sincerity by the Spanish inquisition. This “test” could only be described as torture and if they didn’t pass they were burned at the stake.
Many Jews remained “secret Jews,” passing along certain Jewish practices like lighting candles on Friday evening to their children. Many people discovered generations later that their family traditions signified that they were descended from the conversos. Some estimate that as many as 20% of people in Spain are descendants of conversos.
The Alhambra Decree wasn’t revoked until 1968.
An interesting note is that, as reparations for the Inquisition and the Alhambra Decree, as of 2012, Sephardic Jews have right of return to Spain.