Portugal, New Christians: the Marranos, and the right of return

            September 2013    
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Portugal Passes Law of Return 500 years after forced baptism (what does it all mean?)

By Manuel Lopes Azevedo

In 1492, on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, known by us as Tisha B'Av, all Jews were expelled from Spain. Four years later, on December 4, 1496 King Manuel of Portugal ordered all Jews to leave Portugal, but in 1497, in an about face, the king ordered all Jews forcibly baptized; only about 60 were allowed to leave the country. The king promised the newly converted Jews that there would be no inquiries as to their private religious practices for 20 years and no inquisition. This, in the late professor Yerushalmi's view, created a distinct group of modern Jews, outwardly Catholics but inwardly Jews, Jews in their hearts.

Portugal's secret Jews became know as New Christians or Marranos. For almost 300 years the secret Jews of Portugal who did not flee the country were terrorized by state and Church, imprisoned, tortured, and burned alive. Their houses, land and assets were seized by the Inquisition. Families were torn apart.

There are over 45,000 Inquisition files in the “Torro de Tombo”, Portugal's national archives, mostly of charges against New Christians for Judaizing. Like the Nazis, the Holy Roman Apostolic Catholic Church kept meticulous records, a blessing in disguise. Now Historians can minutely research the lives of thousands of New Christian Jews.

The New Christians resisted. Many continued to secretly adhere to the essential rituals of Judaism, observing Shabbat and dietary laws, celebrating the high holidays, reciting prayers and fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays; obviously circumcision was discontinued. Books were prohibited but they were smuggled into the country.

Sometimes New Christian “rabbis” travelled to communities in the diaspora for instruction, such as the case of Domingos de Oliveira the barber of Carção near Bragança, who on the pretext of travelling to Rome to get permission to marry his cousin, went to the well established Portuguese Jewish community of Livorno for religious instruction. When he returned home, he formed an “irmandade” which built a chapel and conducted “dry” mass. The resistance to the Inquisition continued to the 20th century as the now famous secret community of Belmonte attests.

Now, after more than 500 years, the Portuguese national Assembly unanimously passed a law permitting any descendant of forcibly baptized Portuguese Jews to regain Portuguese citizenship. Although the maxim of “justice delayed is justice denied' is apposite, the dramatic action by the national government is yet another step in the long overdue recognition of Portugal's Jewish heritage.

In 1989, then president Mário Soares apologized for the Inquisition. On the 4th of December 1996, the National Assembly revoked the 1496 Edict of Expulsion. And last year, Captain Barros Basto, the “Portuguese Dreyfus” was finally rehabilitated by a unanimous vote in the National Assembly after being condemned for leading a Marrano revival in northern Portugal in the 1930's.

In 1938, the year of Kristallnacht, the Captain completed the Kadoorie Mekhor Haim synagogue in Porto, one of the largest synagogues in Europe, still standing. Finally, he and Aristides Sousa Mendes who saved many more Jews than Schindler during World War II are now being recognized for the heroes that they are.

What is happening in Portugal? Is the new law of return just a ploy to entice Jews to invest in Portugal at a time of crisis, as some suggest? For almost 500 years the subject of Portuguese Jewishness has been taboo in Portugal; almost like the Mafia law of “Omerta”, imposing its law of silence on every aspect of society, it's not discussed, it's not taught in schools, better to pretend it does not exist. There are no national museums of Judaism or the Inquisition, and until recently there were no local Jewish museums either.

The persecution of Jews is a a dark stain on Portuguese history. Its consequences are imbued in the psyche of every Portuguese person as the distinguished professor and essayist Eduardo Lourenço, resident in France observes, “The Inquisition is the most present, obsessive and enigmatic episode of our collective life”. But things are changing.

Although the “official” version of Portuguese history ignores the Semitic roots of its people and the great contribution of Jews to Portuguese culture, memory and history are combining to create a new societal dynamic in Portugal, one that remembers, values, and cherishes its Jewish past. Five hundred years is a long time, but not long enough to eradicate collective memory, to completely destroy the roots of a vibrant foundation.

Until 1496, Portugal was a tolerant country where the people of the three books lived side by side in relative harmony. Jews have lived in Portugal before the country even existed. Portugal's first treasurer under King Afonso in the 12th century as the chief rabbi Ben Yahia, a tradition that continued for hundreds of years. In the medieval period, every king and queen in Europe wanted a Portuguese doctor, Jewish of course. In the 17th century the “men of the nation” dominated trade and commerce in the Mediterranean; “Portuguese merchant” was a euphemism for being Jewish.

The enshrining of the law of return in Portuguese law is another step in the awakening of Jewish memory in Portugal. It may also attract new immigration and capital which is sorely needed. It could help create a Jewish civil life for the remnants of the Jewish people, which in Portugal encompasses a great part of the population, DNA studies notwithstanding. After all, any taxi driver in Lisbon will tell you that most Portuguese people have a Jewish “rib”, and that the popular dish “alheira” is Jewish food. I rest my case.

(this article first appeared at www.ladina.blogspot.com)


from the September 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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