This trip has been different from most of my trips. Normally I travel to a location to work on issues of tourism security, but this trip to Portugal is special. I am here due to my work with the Center of Latino – Jewish Relations (CLJR). Usually the CLJR takes Latino leaders to Israel. This trip, however, is the reverse – taking both Latinos and Jews to the gateway of the world of Sephardic culture and the jumping-off point for many who came to the lands of the Americas.
Portugal’s relationship with the Jewish people is one of highs and lows. On the negative side, the Portuguese Inquisition was so bad that people actually fled Portugal for Spain deciding to take their chances with the Spanish Inquisition. On a more positive side, Portugal was the preferred refuge of Spanish Jews who fled Spain in 1492. So many Spanish Jews went through Portugal to Latin America to escape the inquisitional flames that in many parts of Latin America, the term “portugués” is synonymous with “Jews.” In more recent history, Portugal served as a main transit point allowing Jews fleeing the horrors of German-occupied Europe to find freedom in the Americas and to escape the Holocaust’s horrors.
Jews greatly contributed to Portuguese society. It was the science of Abraham Zacuto that allowed for precise navigation on the open seas many centuries before any ever imagined a GPS. It was Dona Grácia Mendes who showed the world that a woman could be just as capable as a man in both major commerce and banking. This political hodgepodge is woven into the very nature of Portugal’s soul.
Being on the European continent, Portugal, like much of Europe, is a place of “old world” charm, elegance, prejudices, and animosities. Portugal not only faces west, but it is Europe’s most western nation, the farthest western point on the European continent. As such, this is a land whose body is in Europe, but its soul is in the Atlantic Ocean, and its eyes gaze toward a new world of renewal and hope.
For all these reasons our CLJR, along with the Jewish Heritage Alliance, decided that our first joint non-Israel trip would be not only to this land that symbolizes the spirit of exploration but also is the place from which so many Jews and Latinos across the America nations hail.
Yesterday was our first almost full day here in Lisbon. We were out of the airport by 10:00 am local time and were lucky enough to get an early check-in. Then we combined the charm of Lisbon with a visit to its first pre-Inquisitional synagogue. Those in the group tasted the city’s famous “Pasteis de Belem,” sampled its wine, and came face to face with its Jewish community’s hopes and challenges, and then presto began to “enter” the world that bridges old and new, despair and hope.
Today, we went to some of Lisbon’s most famous “suburbs.” Sinta is a beautiful and historic city today with modern roads making it about 45 minutes from Lisbon. The other two cities are famous playgrounds for the chic, rich, and famous. Sinta was the summer or country retreat of King Manuel.
The Irony of King Manuel
History is filled with ironies. The story of the relationship between King Manuel and the Jews is one such irony. Manuel was a king who was so pro-Semitic that ironically he caused great harm. History teaches us that as part of the marriage price, Manuel had to pay to the evil monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, to marry their daughter. These Spanish monarchs demanded that he expel his Jewish subjects, and at the time, over 20% of Portugal’s population was Jewish. Many of these people were Portugal’s most productive citizens.
This demand left the king with a major dilemma – not to expel the Jews meant his marriage would never occur and perhaps he would lose his chance to inherit the Spanish throne, but to expel his Jewish subjects meant that Portugal would lose 20% of its population and many of its most talented citizens. His solution? The forced conversion of Portugal’s Jews. The solution seemed to be a way that the king would keep both his most talented citizens and still be able to marry, and perhaps one day take over, Spain.
Manuel did marry the evil Spanish monarchs’ daughter but never gained the Spanish throne. As for the Portuguese Jews, life became terrible. They had to deal with riots, massacres, and the Inquisitional flames. These three factors meant that although Portugal’s borders and ports were closed, many would find a way to escape to the freedom of Holland and the New World.
When they left, they took their talent with them. The descendants of these Portuguese refugees built great communities in Amsterdam, New York, and Mexico. Portugal slowly sank into a dark abyss, and it was only in the late 1980s that Portugal’s Prime Minister formally apologized to the Jewish people. It is with Mario Soares’ apology that a new chapter opened in Jewish-Portuguese relations.
Modern Portugal understands that the damage done by the Inquisitional flames can never be undone. Many of the descendants of this “religious rape” have given much – not to Portugal – but to other nations around the world.
Ironies in history, however, still does exist. Today these victims would be shocked to learn of new-old Jewish communities once again existing in cities around Portugal. As partial compensation for its past acts, Portugal has now extended in an act of historic justice, citizenship to many of the victims’ descendants. Perhaps after five centuries, we are finally seeing the closing of a circle that began in 1496 and lasted for five centuries.