The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain, by B. Netanyahu

This is a very long book–over 1080 pages before you get to the appendices. Why do I pick up these books? Because they’re there–the Everest and K2 of books. (I think I need an oxygen mask!)

As the title says, this is about the origins of the Spanish Inquisition, not the proceedings of the Inquisition itself. The author, father of the Israeli politician and a professor at Cornell, begins actually in ancient Egypt with a prologue on antisemitism, then moves quickly through first millennium Spain and into the 15th century. There is a tremendous amount of detail; the book is really an encyclopedia, with long passages on all sorts of participating figures. There is great, depressing detail on the repeated pogroms against the Jews in the centuries leading up to the Inquisition. Out of these pogroms developed the mass conversions of many Jews to Christianity as a way of escaping persecution.

Netanyahu is not out to get anyone or absolve anyone here. He states his sympathies clearly at the beginning, but notes that his research led him to a conclusion different from what he thought at first. The victims of the Spanish Inquisition, he concludes, were not, as he had thought, outwardly converted Jews who had secretly held on to their Jewish religion and were persecuted for it; instead, they were genuine Christian converts from Judaism who were persecuted for being ethnically/racially Jews. He waits till the last chapters to draw the obvious comparison to Nazi Germany.

(Actually, he does spend quite a bit of time showing how the conversos really were not ritually murdering children, desecrating consecrated Hosts, or poisoning wells, as supposedly was being done according to Jewish ritual. This hardly seems necessary to explain, but you can’t fault him for not being thorough enough.)

He makes clear that the racist persecution of the conversos was not called for by official Church doctrine and policy, but also shows that there was enough antisemitic teaching to give the racists cover. Popes clashed with the Spanish hierarchy but did not do enough to stop the destruction. Could they have done more?

Grim stuff, but worth reading, especially in recent weeks when antisemites have caused such pain for the Church.

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