Of the conversos, marranos, and cristãos novos who lived in the Spanish and Portuguese domains of the New World, little is known; what we do know comes largely from the records of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which is as though one were to study the lives of early Bolsheviks solely through the record of the Moscow trials. Understandably, therefore, the pivotal questions that must be answered if one is to write about this historical period are: who were these people? were they guilty as charged? which is to say, were they secret Jews?
For Seymour Liebman, there can be only one answer, and he has devoted his professional life to idealizing the marranos, who were coerced by church and state to live as Catholics but who, he does not doubt, were Jews. In New World Jewry, Liebman brings together “the scattered fragments of the Holy Office procesos which constitute the major sources for the history of the Jews in Latin America during the colonial period” (p. 33). He also presents a certain amount of information on the place of Jews in Spanish history, the extension of the Inquisition to the New World, and the customs of the Sephardim.
So great is Liebman’s devotion to his subject that he fails to examine it critically. Benzion Netanyahu, in his The Marranos of Spain, opens with this question: “How Jewish were the Marranos?” (p. 2). Writing in 1966, he challenges earlier scholarship with the hypothesis that “the overwhelming majority of the Marranos at the time of the establishment of the Inquisition were not Jews, but detached from Judaism, or rather, to put it more clearly, Christians” (p. 3).
This is a stiff dose to take, because marranos have been the heroes of Jewish history for centuries. Acknowledging that some among them may have succumbed to force and time, actually becoming Catholics, is in itself a sort of heresy. Understandably, Netanyahu’s thesis set off an ongoing debate among Jewish historians. One need not be a partisan of either position in order to realize that, since 1966, no historian can tackle the subject of marranism without responding to Netanyahu’s challenge.
This, Liebman fails to do. His account of the personal tragedies of individuals caught in the toils of the Inquisition never rises above the level of bathos. Missing entirely is the sweep of political, economic, and social forces that brought the captives and their captors to this historic confrontation. Most of Liebman’s sources date from the 1950s or earlier. Netanyahu’s work is not mentioned in the bibliography. Neither is the equally important work of Albert Sicroff, who traced the concept of limpieza de sangre, the legal means by which Spanish society contrived to keep its central institutions free of the Catholic descendants of Jews (thus rendering conversion a mockery). It is true that these authors are mentioned in an appendix, but in a polemical context only, and without expounding their ideas or, more important, dealing with them. In fact, throughout the book, Liebman reveals that his own conception of who the marranos were is rather mushy. ‘“New Christian’ (read crypto-Jewish) …” (p. 156) is an equation that is not historically defensible, blurring as it does the distinction between seeming Catholics who practiced Jewish rites in secret (cryptoJews or judaizantes), and believing Catholics who were torn from the bosom of the church through the accident of having had a Jewish grandmother.
Readers will recognize much of the material contained in this book, for it has appeared previously in other books and articles written by this prolific author. The prose is choppy and awkward; a good copy editor would have been invaluable.
In his long career, Liebman has performed a service by retelling the lives of the marranos (now more properly called conversos) and demanding a place for them in the historical record. It is left to others to analyze what that record means, not just for Jews but for Latin American societies that were founded on the utter physical, cultural, and moral destruction of dissidents.