Tuesday, February 05, 2013

New Portuguese Ambassador visits Netanya College

On Thurs Jan 31, the new Portuguese Ambassador to Israel, HE Miguel de Almeida e Sousa, visited Netanya Academic College with his Cultural Attache to participate in a short symposium entitled "Reviving Jewish Identity among the Secret Jews of Portugal."   There was an enthusiastic audience of ca. 75.  Prof. Michael Corinaldi, Head of the Intl. Inst for the Study of Secret Jews (Anusim) at NAC, made some introductory remarks and showed a short film about the Secret Jews of Portugal.  This included former israeli Pres. Yitzhak Navon meeting some Secret Jews in Belmonte, Northern Portugal.  Pres. Navon is also Honorary Pres. of the IISSJ at NAC.
The Ambassador then spoke extemporaneously about his feeling of being at home in Israel and assured us that we Jews and Israelis would feel equally at home in Portugal. The Ambassdor was obviously well informed and had prepared himself for this presentation.  He emphasized that although the past was fraught with terror, once the revolution occured in Portugal in 1975, the question of religion became a non-issue and all religions are tolerated.  People can live and worship as they please in the new Portugal, although it should be mentioned that many Secret Jews prefer to remain secret. 
Gloria Mound, Exec. Dir. of Casa Shalom, the Inst for Marrano-Anusim Studies, and Senior Advisor to the IISSJ, spoke about "The global inluence of the Portuguese Jewish diaspora."  Not many people are aware of the history of the Jews in Portugal.   In 1492, those Jews that remained in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity, but the rest of the Jews were expelled from Spain.  The largest group of the expellees (ca. 100,000) moved to  Portugal, where King Jaoa accepted them and allowed them to live there temporarily.  The King died in 1494 and the new King Manual I wanted to increase the population of his colonies, so he took 2,000 Jewish children, had them converted and sent them to the islands of Principe and St. Thomas in the Atlantic off Africa.  Their descendents still remain there to this day, and many know that they are of Jewish origin. 
The King wanted to make a connection with the Spanish crown by marrying his daughter to the Spanish royal family, but they would not allow this while Jews still lived in Portugal.  So in 1497 he issued an edict to forcibly convert the Jews and in 1505, the remaining Jews were gathered in the main square of Lisbon and forcibly converted and those who refused were massacred.  But, many managed to escape the persecution and left Portugal for many different places, including Holland, Ireland and England, forming a Portuguese Jewish diaspora.  They expanded to such far away places as the Caribbean, North America and Brazil. My own family went to Holland and my grandfather moved to London during the late 1920s.  It is estimated that ca. 20% of the Portuguese population left and that a large proportion of the remaining population was partly Jewish.  Those who became "new Christians" were subject to the terrible persecution of the Inquisition and thousands were tortured and were burnt at the stake in auto-da-fe. 
Micha van Son spoke about "The Crypto-Jews of Portugal: in my father's footsteps."   In 1915 an Ashkenazi Jewish engineer named Samuel Schwartz went to work in the remote north of Portugal and in 1917 he discovered a group of people who practised a primitive version of Judaism. These Secret Jews lived in and around the town of Belmonte in the mountainous far north of Portugal where the Inquisition did not penetrate, and they continued to practice Judaism in secret, believing that they were the last Jews remaining alive in the world!  Schwartz studied their customs and wrote an influential book in 1925 which was the first on the subject.  He was followed by others, including  the father of Micha van Son, who toured the region in the 1930's.  Micha and his family themselves toured in his father's footsteps in the 1990's, and showed photographs taken by his father to their grandchildren.   Many of the Secret Jews have "come out" and become practising Jews and there is a congregation of about 200-300 of them in Belmonte today.
The issue of Jews in Portugal is a complex one, as the Ambassador pointed out that it is illegal to ask or expect an answer to the question "what is your religion" to a citizen of Portugal.  However, as Prof. Corinaldi stated, in order to know how many Secret Jews there are in Portugal it is necessary to make a census, and the Jews are a nation, not only a religion.  Whether such a  census is either possible or legal, there are certainly a large number of Secret Jews in Portugal today, and finding and identifying them is indeed a difficult task.  There is also difficulty in having them recognized as Jews by the Rabbinical authorities and the State in Israel.  Nevertheless, the reviving of Jewish identity among the Secret Jews of Portugal and the Portuguese diaspora is a future challenge for the Jewish State of Israel.  In meeting that challenge it is essential that Portugal and Israel have mutual interests and friendly relations to achieve these goals.  Judging from the audience participation there is a tremendous interest in this emerging subject.


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