The Portuguese government on Thursday 29 January 2015 approved modifications to a law that regulates nationality rights to the descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian nation five centuries ago, local media reported.
“I would not say that it is a historical reparation, because I believe that in this regard there is no possibility of repairing what has been done. I would say that it is the granting of a right,” Portuguese RPT news quoted Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz as saying at the conclusion of a cabinet meeting.
Portugal’s law on naturalizing descendants of Sephardic Jews was passed by parliament on July 29th 2013.
“We expect the law to be effective by mid-February or the beginning of March 2015,” said the president of Lisbon’s Jewish community Oulman Carp.
According to the legislation, “the government will give nationality … to Sephardic Jews of Portuguese ancestry who belong to a tradition of a Portuguese-descended Sephardic community, based on objective prerequisites proving a connection to Portugal through names, language and ancestry.”
Oulman Carp said it also will apply to non-Jewish descendants of Sephardim, Oulman Carp said.
Existing legislation on the naturalization of Sephardim has not been applied because it still does not contain regulations for bureaucrats, which may be published along with the final letter of the law.
The authors described the legislation as an act of atonement for the expulsion of Portuguese Jewry in 1536 during the Portuguese Inquisition. Similar legislation is underway in Spain, where it awaits a final vote in Congress. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Iberia from 1492 on because of Church-led persecution.
In both countries, legislators and government officials said Jewish communities would be consulted and perhaps made partially in charge of screening applicants. The Jewish community of Lisbon, where the vast majority of Portugal’s 800 Jews live, has rejected applications because the final letter of the law has not yet been published, Oulman Carp said.
Reflection and Prayer: This symbolic gesture cannot begin to redress the injustices, persecution and destruction of life and property that took place hundreds of years ago, nor can original wrongs be righted by an apology. Yet it is an important gesture nevertheless, showing a real desire for reconciliation and restoration of relationships. As such it should be welcomed and affirmed, in the hope that others would follow such an example, and Jewish people feel welcome again in countries that so often persecuted and expelled them.
Oseh shalom b’imromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol hagoyim, v’imru Amen. May he who makes peace in the heavens also make peace among us and among all Israel and the nations, and say ye, Amen.
Jews Win a Right of Return to Portugal Five Centuries After Inquisition
In a remote Wales town, artist Judy Rodrigues sees a chance to complete a search for belonging traced through the ancient synagogues of London and Amsterdam. In Israel, retiree Sara Cassuto Sachs wonders if stumbling on her maiden name as a tourist in the Portuguese city of Tomar can lead to the convenience of an E.U. passport. In Istanbul, the Portuguese Consul has been flooded with calls from a long-standing Sephardic community nervous about the strengthening Islamist influence in Turkish politics and eager to reconnect with a country whose language still infuses their prayers.
Portugal may not be the land of the Second Coming. But it very well could become the second country of choice for some Jews seeking to live in an ancestral homeland. The July 29 promulgation of a new law grants automatic Portuguese nationality to descendants of the estimated 400,000 “judeus” expelled, killed or forced to convert during the dark days of the 16th century Inquisition. “For those who may keep the key to the house of their ancestors,” declares the bill’s co-sponsor and Socialist Party heavyweight Maria de Belem Roseira, “this law tells them their homeland is still there.”
Formally established in 1536, the Portuguese Inquisition saw show trials, executions, mass killings and the forced separation of children shipped off to Portugal’s colonies. While more Jews remained as “new Christians” in Portugal than in Spain, most fled to what is now modern day Morocco, Turkey, the Netherlands, and turned up in Venice’s ghetto as well as among the first European settlers of New York City. There are estimated to be only 600 Jews in Portugal today, not counting ex-pats, compared with some 400,000 at the time of the Inquisition.
Call it apology or reparation, the new act is “trying to erase a black mark on our nation, something terrible and unfair,” says Christian Democrat member of parliament Joao Rebelo. “Nothing else could win unanimous support from all parties. It’s making history in a good way.”
As with all high-minded impulses, the difficulty may be getting down to the details. (A similar ruling, announced with less public fanfare late last year by Spain’s Ministry of Justice, has become mired in controversy – slowed by long waits, onerous regulations like renouncing other citizenship and what Rebelo describes as “a large Muslim lobby we don’t have in Portugal.”) Despite the stirring rhetoric, Portuguese lawmakers admit it may take another year to establish procedures for implementing the edict and exact criteria for approval of applications. Between Inquistion records and synagogue membership here and overseas, many of the common names the exiled Portuguese Jews adapted can be traced and verified.
“The Rabbis of our three approved communities should have the say,” argues Jose Oulman Carp, President of Lisbon’s 300-member “Israelite” Community. “They would know best who are Jews, who has Iberian rather than Eastern European origins, though the problem comes when trying to determine if families originated here or in Spain.” Where many fled across borders and the majority hid their identity with “new Christian” names, M.P. Rebelo points out, “There were no Facebook pages back then to help us keep track.” And Lisbon’s current main Rabbi Eliezer Shai Di Martino insists, “Everything will of course be done in accord with civil authority,” adding, “While mostly symbolic, I hope this may eventually add life to our small community.”
In fact, the single-sentence amendment to Portugal’s code does not even specify that applicants have to be practicing Jews, know much about Portugal, have clean criminal records. They won’t even have to reside in the country to gain citizenship — a provision that proponents like Roseira, a staunch human rights advocate, cite to refute suspicions, as voiced by Rabbi di Martino and others, that managers of an economy in austerity may hold the “old idea that all Jews are rich.” As Roseira points out, “laws already exist to grant citizenship to those investing a half-million Euros. Our only motive was to reassert this country’s tradition of tolerance for the mixing of cultures and races.”
Still, admits Esther Mucznik, grand-daughter of a Lisbon Rabbi, “While celebrating, it’s hard not to feel some bitterness. It’s like the duck they killed before is laying the golden egg.”
More likely, the law’s enactment comes as the fruition of a four-decade resurgence of appreciation for Portugal’s Jewish past since the overthrow of staunchly Catholic, Nazi-sympathizing dictator Antonio Salazar. Anti-fascist heroes like Aristides Sousa Mendes, Portugal’s so-called “Schindler”, have been officially rehabilitated. Sephardic life, customs, even food have become common subjects for scholarship here and in Brazil, spurred in part by the popularity of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, a historical novel by American Richard Zimler, who has found success in Portugal through Jewish themes.
While Carp hopes the new law will lead to resumption of direct flights between Lisbon and Tel Aviv, that will be spurred by commercial initiatives like the Rede das Judarias — a “network of Jewish sites” that has already enlisted 22 towns and cities to research and renovate their former synagogues, ritual baths, Jewish quarters or draw up blueprints for local museums. These include Belmonte, where Jews carried on in secret for five hundred years. And tiny Trancoso, a town where buried carvings of hundreds of Jewish symbols were recently found, has just opened its ambitious Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation, as well as its first temple since the late 15th century. To network creator Jorge Patrao, a non-Jewish official in Portugal’s isolated Serra da Estrela mountain province, his brainchild won’t just “spur income in places where tourism was based mostly on snow,” but help to “reclaim so much of our region’s historic identity.”
The same can be said for Portugal’s uncompromising embrace of its exiled children. Given the Nazis’ mass extermination of Sephardic communities, author Zimler notes, “it’s too bad the gesture comes eighty years too late.” But, says lawmaker Roseira, “we can only set things right for our time, see the past with our own eyes.”
Portugal becomes 2nd country, after Israel, with a Jewish law of return
500 years after the expulsion of its community, Lisbon’s new legislation corrects a moral wrong, albeit with some ‘economic considerations as well’
JTA — Until 2009, right-wing Portuguese politician Jose Ribeiro e Castro didn’t have much interest in the expulsion of his country’s
Jewish community in the 16th century. That changed once Ribeiro e Castro opened a Facebook account.
Online, the 60-year-old lawmaker and journalist connected to several Sephardic Jews, descendants of a once robust Jewish community numbering in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom were forced into exile in 1536 during the Portuguese Inquisition. Eventually the encounters morphed into a commitment to rectify a historic injustice.
For Ribeiro e Castro, correcting the injustice meant spearheading a bill to naturalize the Jewish descendants of expelled Jews, a measure that unanimously passed the Portuguese parliament in April and went on the books last week, making Portugal the only country besides Israel with a Jewish law of return.
“The law is a commendable initiative,” said Nuno Wahnon Martins, the Lisbon-born director of European affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “It has economic considerations as well, which do not subtract from parliament’s worthy decision.”
King John III, who requested the inquisition in Portugal (photo credit: Wikipedia commons)
Portugal’s initiative comes as countries across Europe continue to invest millions to develop Jewish heritage sites — an effort they say is rooted in their belated recognition of the continent’s vibrant Jewish history, but often is also an acknowledged attempt to attract tourist dollars at a time of economic stagnation.
Last year, Spain announced a similar repatriation plan to Portugal’s, though the effort has yet to advance
Last year, Spain announced a similar repatriation plan to Portugal’s, though the effort has yet to advance. And the country boasts a network of nearly two dozen cities and towns, known as Red de Juderias, aimed at preserving Spain’s Jewish cultural history in an effort to attract tourists.
Later this month, Portugal will open a $1.5 million learning center in Trancoso, a town once home to many Jews. The prime minister is slated to attend the July 19 opening of the center, which will be aimed at the area’s anusim, descendants of Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisition.
“The tourism drive and the repatriation effort in Portugal and Spain are connected on several levels,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that runs outreach programs for anusim and will operate the Trancoso center. “The Sephardic Diaspora can be viewed as a large pool with the potential to benefit Spain and Portugal’s economies, provided that pool can be drawn to visit, settle and invest.”
Ribeiro e Castro, a soft-spoken man who tends to gesticulate vibrantly when discussing politics, insists he has no ulterior motives for promoting the legislation.
‘The tourism drive and the repatriation effort in Portugal and Spain are connected on several levels’
“For me, this is purely a historical and emotional goal,” he said. “These efforts got stuck in Spain had remained stuck also in Portugal for a long time, until we move them along.”
According to Ribeiro e Castro, his involvement in the project began as an experiment. In 2010, he encouraged several of his Jewish Facebook friends to apply for Portuguese citizenship, “just to see what happens.”
At first, Portugal’s powerful Socialist Party was none too thrilled about inviting descendants of Portuguese Jews to return. But the Socialists eventually came around, submitting their own bill to naturalize Sephardic Jews that ultimately was incorporated into Ribeiro e Castro’s amendment to the Law on Nationality.
The new legislation says “the government will give nationality … to Sephardic Jews of Portuguese ancestry who belong to a tradition of a Portuguese-descended Sephardic community, based on objective prerequisites proving a connection to Portugal through names, language and ancestry.”
The law names Ladino, the Spanish-based Jewish dialect spoken by some 100,000 people worldwide, as a viable “linguistic connection.”
Whatever his motivation, focusing international attention on the Catholic Church’s dark history is a bold choice for Ribeiro e Castro, a Catholic himself and former director of the Church-affiliated TVI network. He attributes his decision to an old high school buddy who taught him about Sephardic traditions in Portugal, and to his father, who served as Portugal’s colonial governor in Angola in the 1970s.
‘My father was an admirer of what he called “small history,” minor developments with a huge impact. Naturalizing the Sephardim could be that’
“My father was an admirer of what he called ‘small history,’ minor developments with a huge impact,” Ribeiro e Castro said. “Naturalizing the Sephardim could be that.”
For the law to have any impact, bureaucrats in Lisbon first need to address a host of complications. The Portuguese Bar Association already has warned that the law could compromise the constitutional principle of equality before the law.
And then there are practical issues.
“Differentiating between Jews whose families were exiled [from] Spain and those who fled Portugal is very difficult,” said Jose Oulman Carp, president of Lisbon’s Jewish community. “Clearly the Jewish communities [of Portugal] will need to be consulted on the screening process and we can provide some input, but the distinction is nearly impossible in many cases.”
But whatever the end result, merely the effort to lure back Portuguese Jews constitutes, in Freund’s mind, an ironic twist of history.
“Five centuries ago, the expulsion happened partly because the Iberian rulers wanted the Jews’ assets,” Freund said. “Now we see efforts to welcome back the Jews partly for the same reason.”