Cover: Marranos by Donatella Di Cesare


The Other of the Other

Donatella Di Cesare

Translated by David Broder


Esther had still kept it a secret that she was a Jew. She had not told anyone about her family background.

Book of Esther, 2, 20

Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.

Walter Benjamin1

Claims have also been advanced to the effect that the question of marranism was recently closed for good. I don’t believe it for a second. There are still sons – and daughters – who, unbeknownst to themselves, incarnate or metempsychosize the ventriloquist specters of their ancestors.

Jacques Derrida, Marx & Sons2

  1. 1. Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York, Schocken, 1969, p. 253.
  2. 2. Jacques Derrida, ‘Marx & Sons’ in Michael Sprinkler (ed.), Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, London, Verso Books, 1999, p. 262.

The Last Jews: To Begin

To speak of marranos, in a historical sense, is to refer to the Jews in Iberia and the Spanish dominions who were forced to convert to Christianity in order to escape exile or death. A result of the political violence and religious intolerance that was symbolized in most extreme form by the Spanish Inquisition, marranism created a lacerated identity, tragically split between two irreconcilable ties of belonging – one external and official and another intimate and hidden. Even once these ‘new Christians’ had been christened, they remained separate from the ‘old Christians’, who suspected them of secretly observing the Jewish rites. No auto da fé was enough. Suspicions regarding the marranos – who, despite everything, continued to appear unassimilable and extraneous – became so intense that the first racist laws of the modern age were proclaimed, as blood became the criterion for the protection of a supposed purity. The gates of universal brotherhood thus slammed shut.

Persecuted, hunted and tortured, the marranos were pushed back into a cryptic, subterranean existence that compromised their life and undermined its very conditions. They were trapped in a hybrid space, banished into a no-man’s-land. There, they kept their inaccessible secret over the centuries, even as they were accused of being infidels, liars and traitors. But this immemorial devotion would have paradoxical results. For the crypto-Judaism, which was conserved at such great pains, ended up holding on to almost nothing of the ancient faith. The marranos stood at a remove from other Jews, with whom their relations weakened or even vanished. They instead elaborated a religion and a way of life that rested on unstable foundations of ambivalence and dissent – as did their identity itself. It was no longer clear to the outside observer whether the marranos were heretical Christians or secret Jews. Nonetheless, a fervent messianic expectation, sustained by the memory of the future, lit up their dark night of exile. Isolated, excluded and segregated, they persisted in their secret, convinced that they were the last Jews on earth.

The marranos long remained clandestine, in the most distant and remote sites of oppression. In some striking cases, they would re-emerge only in the twentieth century. Many others returned to Judaism long before then, whether re-joining old communities or founding new ones. The effect was a disruptive one. For within themselves the marranos bore the seed of doubt, the ferment of opposition. Compelled to be dissidents, they gave rise to radical thinking. Having long lived on the edge, on the border, the marranos were extreme and eccentric – and they fed the emergence of messianic movements that shook institutional religion. Their return marked a profound rupture in tradition, indeed one that could not be healed. From this rupture, Jewish modernity was born.

Having come out into the open, those who considered themselves the last Jews revealed themselves to be the first moderns. The split self, the impossibility of a full belonging, a constitutive extraneousness – this is the marranos’ indelible legacy. With them, the myth of identity implodes and shatters.

It is thus necessary to go beyond this term’s restrictive historical meaning. In so doing, one can proceed to investigate a phenomenon that has not yet reached its conclusion, just as modernity itself has not been exhausted. This is all the more true given that, in refusing to divulge their secret, the marranos rendered their history invisible, making it impossible to produce a historiography. What, then, remains of the marranos, outside the archive of memory? To reflect on marranism in its complex and articulated sense, retracing its singular paths – without condemnation, but also without apologias – thus means to probe the very foundations of modernity.


The marranos’ history is not over. To put the final seal on it would, indeed, be a further violence – as if to decree that they had irrevocably disappeared. In recent years, there have been multiple cases of people, sometimes in tragic circumstances, detecting hidden traces of an unknown past. They have guessed, intuited or – thanks to some vague clue – re-awakened the lacerated memories that had been headed towards outright disappearance. These memories were prompted by a letter from a distant relative, a murmured deathbed confession, a photograph discovered by chance, an object appearing in a drawer, the re-evocation of an ancient rituality and of a singular gesture. Above all a name, the family name, which conceals within itself – impenetrable and yet still eloquent – the vicissitudes of entire generations. The marranos of both today and yesterday come back out into the open.

Scattered everywhere, from the south-west of the United States to the north-east of Brazil, from Portugal to Italy, invoking that practice of resistance and memory that has allowed them to survive – over and above any traumatic erasure – they demand not to be condemned to the archives. They ask this out of responsibility towards the secret whose memory they bear. They are, by calling, an-archiveable [anarchiviabili]. For they have confronted oblivion and challenged the very basis of arché, the principle of the archive, the order of archiving. Anarchically, they shrink from the remote past of antiquity, as they instead lay claim to a future perfect. And this is the future entrusted to a counter-history of those whom history has forgotten, already almost defeated by the compulsion to find refuge in clandestinity. How, then, can their testimony be recovered? How can they be brought out of the crypt? How can their name be redeemed?

The questions pile up. And, in their own paradoxical way, they reveal the fascinating and enigmatic figure of the marrano, who ingeniously evades any attempt at capture. This has been an irritation to more than one historian. Their inclination is to put an end to the matter by giving a definition of the marrano. They thus force the marrano to declare her identity once and for all and confine her to a closed book. Enough, then, with these marranos! And enough with those who would purport to trespass any further and extend the marranos’ presence.

In recent years, however, marranism has left the dominion of official history. Marranos are, indeed, known as navigators of borders. Marranism has come to arouse enormous interest among philosophers, anthropologists, novelists and psychoanalysts. In fact, it was a historian – Jacques Revel – who raised the question of the different modes of being marrano. He both widened its horizontal semantics and marked out its chronological verticality – and, ultimately, its durability. Does there exist a marrano condition? If so, what are its characteristic traits? The marrano ought to be seen, more than as a terminal figure, as an initiating one, who gives rise to a new era of Jewish history and, beyond that, to modernity itself. Yet the modernity to which the marrano gives rise is not a conciliatory and harmonious one, but rather one criss-crossed by an irreparable dissonance. From this flows a long tradition of revolt – one yet to reach its conclusion.

This is why it is possible to detect, within the troubling and spectral figure of the marrano, what Giorgio Agamben has called an ‘exemplary paradigm’. Just like the Homo sacer or the Muselmann, the marrano is both inscribed in history and exceeds its limits. Through her exemplarity she makes it possible to read the phenomena of the present, as she casts light on connections and family ties that may otherwise fall into oblivion.