Although the first date of Jewish settlement in Spain is unknown, it is believed that Jews lived on the Iberian Peninsula as early as Roman times. Between 100 and 300 C.E. large Jewish populations had settled in towns in southeastern Spain, and the region south of Cordoba became a region of major Jewish settlement. Jews lived as farmers and landowners under the Visigoths, but they also suffered various persecutions; in 689 all were reduced to the status of slaves. In 711 Arab Muslims conquered the region and granted Jews Religious, though not complete economic or political, freedom, and the period described as the "golden age" of Spanish Jewry began. This golden age lasted roughly to near the end of the fourteenth century and saw the advancement of many Jews in instrumental roles as political advisers and physicians and the development of Sephardic Jewish traditions in poetry, Literature, philosophy, and biblical interpretation. Jews were active participants in Spanish society, and many felt that they were Spanish as well as Jewish. In 1136 the practice of Judaism was prohibited and Jews began to suffer from increased persecution, although restrictions were less in the Christian north, where the community continued to thrive. But beginning in 1391, the Jewish community came under increasing pressure, entire communities disappeared, and the golden age ended. From that point on, the Spanish Jewish community was regularly persecuted: restrictions were placed on participation in public life, many were forced to convert to Christianity, Jews and their property were attacked, and they were finally expulsed from Spain in 1492. Estimates place the number of Jews who left Spain at anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000. Most went to lands in what was then the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans), Portugal, and Italy (especially northern Italy). In 1496 Portugal moved to expulse all Jews, but in 1497 substituted a policy of forced conversion. Near the close of the next century a second diaspora of Sephardic Jews took place, this time involving Conversos from Portugal who moved to the Netherlands, and later to England, northern Europe, and the New World. Some of these Conversos reestablished their Jewish identity, while others assimilated into the Christian population. The third major movement of the Sephardim has taken place since World War II, with the settlement of many Middle Eastern and North African Sephardim in Israel, immigration to the United States, and migration from North Africa to France and Spain.
If we use the broad definition of Sephardic Jew, the countries with the largest Sephardic populations in the 1980s (all figures are estimates) were Israel (1.7 million), the United States (350,000), and France (260,000). Other countries with large Sephardic populations include Argentina (34,000), Brazil (30,000), Italy (30,000), Turkey (22,000), Mexico (15,000), Morocco (13,000), and Spain (12,000). For the most part, in most countries of the New World (i.e., Argentina, Brazil, the United States) where Sephardic Jews (sometimes Conversos) formed the earliest Jewish Communities, they are now far outnumbered by the descendants of Ashkenazic Jews whose ancestors arrived later. Similarly, diaspora communities founded by Conversos in Europe eventually disappeared as the Conversos either assimilated or reasserted their Jewish identity. However, Converso communities are reported as still existing in Mexico and on Majorca.