Sephardi Diaspora


In 1492, the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon ordered the expulsion of its Jewish communities. How many Jews fled? Scholars do not agree on exact figures, but estimates range from 50,000 to  150,000. Research reveals that large numbers chose to convert to Christianity rather than leave their ancestral lands. These New Christians joined the ranks of the tens of thousands of Jews who had become conversos in previous centuries.

Hiding under the cloak of Christianity
After 1492, a significant proportion, perhaps even a majority, of Jews escaping Spain went to  Portugal, as this neighbour was known for being more tolerant towards Jews. But, by 1497, Jews in Portugal were being forced into mass conversion. This created a large converso community in Portugal, most of whom  gradually  integrated into Christian society. 

Small numbers of Crypto-Jews, also known as conversos, were able to leave Portugal to seek sanctuary in parts of France, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. Others left for the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, only to find that the long arm of the Inquisition also stretched across the Atlantic. Jews who had established themselves in the Dutch colonies in Brazil fled when these were colonised by the Portuguese. They went on to settle in New Amsterdam, later to become New York. 

Sephardim in the Caribbean
In her book Nearly The New World, Dr Joanna Newman remarks that Jewish merchants and traders became part of the slave and sugar economies of the Protestant-held Dutch and British colonies. In the mid-seventeenth century, these Jews formed one to two percent of the white settler populations in Barbados and Jamaica.  Their work was mainly selling dry goods. Newman notes that, ‘best known among the early modern Jewish communities of the Caribbean is that of Curaçao with its new synagogue built in 1730-1732.’ Historian Jonathan Israel suggests that Oliver Cromwell’s interest in the re-admittance of Jews was to have agents for England’s colonial interests residing in London to strengthen English commercial ambitions.

Sephardi Jews who departed for destinations other than Portugal scattered across the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Some crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and went to nearby Morocco and other parts of North Africa. These lands were still under Moorish control,  and were where previous generations of Sephardim had taken refuge during the fifteenth-century waves of persecution. Others emigrated to the various states that comprised Italy. But it was within the expanding Ottoman Empire that Sephardim were most welcomed.

Welcomed by the Ottomans
The Ottoman Empire encompassed not only what is currently Turkey but also stretched across most of the Balkans. Vibrant Jewish communities lived in the trading cities of  Salonika, Constantinople and Smyrna. They also lived in the Ottoman domains now known as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria and parts of Greece.

Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, who reigned at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Iberia, encouraged and even assisted the settling of Jews in his lands. He is rumoured to have said: ‘Iberia has been impoverished by the expulsion of its Jews and the Ottoman empire enriched by it.’ Jewish arrival in the Ottoman Empire followed a historical pattern – Jews persecuted in various parts of Europe had been migrating there before 1492. The Ottomans’ generosity was motivated at least partly by expediency: they recognised the value of Sephardi technical, commercial, political and diplomatic expertise. Sephardi exiles are said to have enjoyed a Golden Age within the Ottoman Empire from 1492 onwards. 

The origins of the Ladino language
Exiles from 1492 mostly expressed themselves in Castilian. But, cut off from its geographical and cultural roots over the centuries, the language slowly evolved into something more distinctive that became known as Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish. It remained a Romance language, related to Castilian.  

Ladino expresses linguistic elements of Portuguese and Catalan as well as  fragments of Hebrew,  Turkish and Greek. The relative isolation of some Sephardi communities meant that distinct regional variations of Ladino also evolved over time. Haketia is a variant of Ladino, spoken by Sephardim in Morocco. This was also derived from Castilian, with added Arabic influences. Conversely, Ladino was not spoken by Sephardi Jews and Crypto-Jews living in Western Europe, including England. These Sephardim continued to speak Castilian or Portuguese until, as a result of assimilation, this was replaced by English. In recent years, there has been a revival of Ladino as a buried legacy alongside renewed interest in Ladino musical traditions and songs.

If Ladino has become an almost-disappeared European language, this is because today little remains of the Mediterranean and Balkan Sephardi world. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the political and military convulsions that rocked twentieth-century Europe largely destroyed this centuries-old culture.

The Holocaust effect
Sephardi populations in Yugoslavia and Greece were decimated by the Shoah. Descendants of Crypto-Jews who had fled Amsterdam and other parts of western Continental Europe, also suffered hugely. After 1945, those that remained mostly emigrated to Israel. There is still a small Sephardi community in Turkey, and fragments in a handful of countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Morocco. Jews living in Bulgaria during the war mainly survived, because the authorities refused to hand them over to the Nazis.

(This subject is also addressed here as part of ‘Strangers at Home’.)

Today, it is estimated that there are 2.3 million Sephardim worldwide. Of those, 1.4 million live in Israel. There are also around 300,000 Sephardim in France. They are descendants of Jews who found sanctuary in North Africa: most chose to live in France following the independence of Algeria and Tunisia. Other smaller but notable communities live in the US, Argentina and Brazil. And, after Brexit, some have even returned to Spain.

Sephardim and Mizrahim
Mizrahi Jews are those who had lived in the Near East since Biblical times. They never migrated to Europe. Many now live in Israel, having finally found the Arabic world too hostile an environment in the 1950s and 1960s. They are culturally and historically distinct from Sephardim, though they tend to follow the religious customs and traditions of Sephardi Judaism. This is why they often self-identify, or are identified as, Sephardim.

In the UK, a large majority of Jews affiliated at Sephardi synagogues are, in fact, Mizrahi. Their story is flight from countries including Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Relatively few of them are descended from the Portuguese and Spanish families who settled in England from the seventeenth century.

The Sephardi diaspora has absorbed many other cultures over the centuries. It is not one diaspora but many.