Columbus as a Source of Jewish Pride?
This time of year, we should all remember Christopher Columbus, who many argue is a Jewish figure.
Despite documentation that he was a Genoese weaver’s son, there are persistent claims that Columbus was really born in Spain’s Catalonia, and learned navigation from Mediterranean pirates — or that his parents were Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity and then moved to Italy.
Spanish historian Salvador Madariaga also argued for Columbus’ Jewish origins, but tests of the skeletons of Columbus’ relatives have failed to confirm Jewish DNA.
Today, true believers — their ranks included Simon Wiesenthal — are still sure that Columbus was “a secret Jew.” They cite his interest in Isaiah’s prophecies and in rebuilding the Jewish Temple with new world gold.
He delayed setting sail one day, until August 3, 1492. August 2nd was the Ninth of Av — Tisha B’Av in the Jewish calendar, a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples. To sail on it would have been considered an ill omen by Jews.
The Alhambra Decree had required the estimated 200,000 Spanish Jews who refused to become Christians to depart by July 30, just days before Columbus set sail. Expelled Jews filled so many ships that few ships were left for Columbus to choose from. True believers remain certain that the primary motivation for Columbus’ voyages was to find a safe haven for exiled Jews. But most Jews sailed for North Africa or Turkey.
In the 19th century, Columbus’ reputation was resurrected. After defeat by the US in 1898, Spain embraced Columbus anew by moving his remains from Cuba to Seville. Italians and Italian-Americans campaigned to celebrate the Genoese explorer as their own. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was called the Columbian Exhibition. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved Columbus Day as an official holiday in 1933.
The family of Oscar S. Straus, later President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce, underwrote Rabbi Meyer Kayserling’s 1893 book, Christopher Columbus and the Participation of the Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese Discoveries. They hoped it would help counter antisemitic sentiment in America.
It’s true that a Jew, Don Isaac Abravanel, and two Christians of Jewish origin, Luis de Santángel and Gabriel Sanchez, bankrolled Columbus’ first voyage, and that confiscated Jewish wealth paid for his second voyage. Luis Torres, a crew member who could speak Hebrew and some Arabic, converted to Christianity just before the first voyage. Columbus dispatched him to explore the island of Cuba in hopes he might reach China and communicate with its “Great Khan.”
In the 1920s, Italian-Americans and Jews, both discriminated against by new immigration laws, joined in opposing the Ku Klux Klan’s disparagement of Columbus. They supported the establishment of Columbus Day.
But in 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States fueled a counter-movement by portraying Columbus as a genocidal colonialist who mistreated Native Americans. A wave of cities and states changed their commemorations of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Louis Farrakhan’s movement slimed the explorer as “probably a slave-dealing Jew.”
In the 21st century, American Jews attuned to PC culture are less inclined to claim Columbus as one of our own.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).