American Morning

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September 10th, 2010
10:57 AM ET

The Muslims who rescued my Jewish Ancestors

Editor's Note: David Levy is a proud U.S. Air Force Veteran. He is also a journalist and a graphic artist who lives in New York City.
[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Jewish animosity and religious persecution continued for a century and culminated in the Spanish Inquisition in 1478"]
By David Levy, Production
My mother hates the fact that I live and work in New York City, especially when 9/11 comes around. She worries about Islamist terrorists attacking the city again. And yet, she also reminds me I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the moderate Muslims who rescued my Spanish-Jewish Ancestors.

Spanish Jews, or Sephardi, are Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain or Portugal in the Middle Ages until they were persecuted and forced to leave. My father is Sephardic. He came to America from Cuba in the 60's when Fidel Castro took power. My grandparents were born in Turkey, where the Levy family had lived for hundreds of years, ever since sometime around 1492.

Does that year, 1492, ring a bell? Of course, it's the year Columbus set sail for India with ships and money from the Spanish King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella. But that's not the only, or even the biggest, historic event in Spain that year. The same Ferdinand and Isabella we know from grade school also ordered the expulsion of Jews from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, in 1492.

Up until the late 14th century, Spanish monarchs were tolerant of their non-Christian subjects. The encyclopedia Britannica notes medieval Spain was the only multi-racial and multi-religious country in Western Europe and Jews were an integral part of its economy and administration. However, anti-Jewish sentiment among the Christian public had been growing for some time. Even the Jews who converted to Christianity were distrusted. False, negative propaganda against Jews spread around the country. Jews were even blamed for the Black Death pandemic that killed up to a third of Europe.

This popular animosity and religious persecution continued for a century and culminated in the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. In 1492, Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition's first Grand Inquisitor convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to expel all Jews who didn't convert to Christianity.

And that's where the Muslims enter this story. Bayezid II was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, a huge nation based around modern-day Turkey. Bayezid saw an opportunity in the Spanish Inquisition. Where the Spanish monarchs viewed their Jews as a liability, Bayezid felt they could be a huge benefit for his empire. He realized the Jews had served Spain well in commerce and education and could do the same for his realm. Bayezid publicly ridiculed the Spanish king, questioning his wisdom in weakening Spain while enriching the Ottomans.

So Bayezid sent ships to Spain to guarantee safe passage for the Jews. He also instructed his governors to give the Jewish immigrants a friendly reception and the Jewish community flourished among the Ottomans over the next several centuries. Now, I won't say everything was perfectly rosy, as Jews didn't have first-class status among Muslims as we know it today. But, I can say my family had a good life there and were accepted at the highest levels. My mother once showed me a picture of one of my ancestors who served in the Ottoman army as a General. My grandparents didn't leave until the Ottoman Empire fell during the beginning of the last century.

After a false start in Cuba, my grandparents eventually came to the U.S., a country that promises religious freedom and tolerance for all in its founding document.

Knowing all of that, my mother still worries about me living in the city, especially on 9/11.

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soundoff (One Response)
  1. Average American

    It's not any surprise that the people of Pakistan dislike/distrust Americans – just look at the history of what Americans have done in the Arab/Muslim world for the last 70 or 80 years.

    Hell.. I'm american and I don't trust the American Government.

    September 13, 2010 at 6:36 am |