- Jews and the Atlantic World: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries:Review Essay
Historians writing about the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries have, increasingly in recent years, focused less on national than on Atlantic history. This perspective has been conveyed through the words of Bernard Bailyn, whose volume, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours, offers an explanation of the growing historiographical importance of the Atlantic perspective:
The emergence of this interest in Atlantic history, as more than a geographical expression—as a subject in itself, as a historical conception, as an essential passage in the development of the world we know—has its own history. It is a [End Page 146] story that winds through the public life of the late twentieth century, through the interior impulses of technical scholarship, and through the social situation of those who write history.(p. 4)
Consistent with this perspective has been a growing collection of studies of the topic, including one of the most recent, Thomas Benjamin's important work, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Their Shared History, 1400-1900.
While the portrait that Bailyn paints (an example of which is Benjamin's book) of the origin of the Atlantic historiographical view developed out of the international perspective following the end of World War II and the Cold War, the Atlantic perspective has become ever more prominent in the writings of historians of the past three decades, as globalism has become characteristic of the way in which most nations have viewed themselves, their economies, and their relations with other nations. Such a perspective was part of a groundbreaking book, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism, by Ronald Sanders, who viewed the origin of American racism in Spanish intolerance during the Age of Exploration.
Sanders attempted to show that the Age of Exploration, the colonization of the New World, and the origin of American racism all were aspects of the history of the Jew in the period. Sanders' argument portrays Spain from the fourteenth century onward as "fanatically intolerant," and this view came to dominate Spanish development in both the Old and the New Worlds. Religious fanaticism lay at the heart of Spanish racism. During the eighth century, Islam overran most of the Iberian Peninsula, and Christians were confined to a relatively small portion in the northwest. During the next three hundred years, gradually Christian forces gained strength and subsequently reconquered the entire Peninsula. By the mid-thirteenth century, this effort was partly successful, although for another century Moors retained control of part of the Peninsula.
Sanders shows how the outbreak of anti-Jewish rioting, beginning in Seville on June 4, 1391, started off a wave of pogroms all over Spain. In such major cities as Cordova, Toledo, Madrid, Majorca, Burgos, and other areas, Jews were killed, synagogues were looted or turned into Christian churches, many Jewish communities were destroyed, and Jews were given the choices of death, conversion, or flight. These options were formalized by the Spanish Crown in the summer and fall of 1492, which marked a final chapter of the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain and the triumph of militant Christendom throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Sanders argues that Jews were among the earliest victims of Spanish fanaticism because Spanish Christians believed that Jews possessed tainted and heretical religious views. In the atmosphere [End Page 147] of heated fanaticism, Jews (and subsequently other peoples) were considered fundamentally tainted people, for they were not Catholics. Thus, Sanders held that...