Portugal is once again on the Jewish map. The variety of faces, geographies, professions and stories of these new Portuguese is remarkable. Rabbis and typically Jewish figures proudly show their passport. The same goes for some men listed by Forbes: from the US, Russia, China and elsewhere. Many widely different international organisations are setting up in Portugal. There is a new tomorrow, whatever it may be.
This Jewish community is still one of the smallest in Europe but has had Portuguese blood for over two millennia. This factor could make the difference. There is a meaningful destination: an additional force vis-à-vis the Jewish community of other places. Life is not a game of chance.
Will the Portuguese State be able to take advantage of its Jewish community scattered around the world?
Who does not have an interest in that?
Will antisemitic clamouring again be heard against the Jews’ conspiracies and their money?
Will B’nai B’rith International be accused of belonging to the freemasons, as the Nazis did?
Will Portuguese philanthropists also be insulted?
Will the Portuguese banker in the US be linked to the capitalism that devours the working classes?
Will the Portuguese businessman who was born in Russia be connected to the oligarchy?
Will the Portuguese philanthropist whose business affairs are in China be associated with Chairman Mao?
Will there be a conspiracy between rabbis and millionaires?
Who fears the Jew’s laborious and tenacious spirit and his skills in culture, science and thrift?
The responses we seek regarding the future may already have been answered in the past. No people in Portugal was as ferociously persecuted as the Jews. Even the Muslims, enemies of war, were only occasionally ill-treated, even by the Inquisition. Spite, rivalry and envy against the Jews are unparalleled and probably ineluctable.
Older than the Romans, the Jews have long lived in the territory that is now Portugal. The higher classes relied on them when they were in trouble. Trained in flight and suffering, the Jews always had savings, knowing full well that it was their only salvation.
With the foundation of Portugal in 1143, the Jews thought they would be more respected and loved by the population as a whole. The symbolism expressed by the friendship between the first king of Portugal and Yahia Ben Yaish, who became the first Chief Rabbi of the country, was important.
As with the Jews of Castile, the Jews of Portugal, whose cousins they were, were the richest in Europe and the world, highly educated, indeed, they even ran the old universities of the Cordoba and Toledo caliphates. They attended the Royal Court. The financiers helped the royals solve their cashflow problems. Jewish doctors cured the nobility.
The Jewish people spoke many languages, helped with the diplomatic policy of the Iberian kingdoms, played important roles in science, trade and the Discoveries. In Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator often used Jewish capital, for the income from the Order of Christ and the Fisheries of Algarve was not sufficient.
There was an idea that the Jews were a life force in Sepharad. This force was used to the advantage of the peninsular kingdoms, which conquered empires when they had strong Jewish populations. The two kingdoms became so prosperous that in the late 15th century they divided the world between them with the Treaty of Tordesillas.
The kingdoms of the Peninsula saw their golden opportunity of becoming the centre of the world for many successive centuries, but not only did they not do it, they decided to ill-treat, expel and kill their best scientists, financiers, merchants and indefatigable workers.
The Jews departed to found the traditional Sephardic communities of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Balkans, Turkey, Syria and Palestine, as well as the modern communities of the west in London, Bordeaux, Hamburg, Amsterdam, the USA and others. Portuguese and Spanish influence were such that they actually penetrated into the Ashkenazi communities. The US Chabad Movement was founded in Poland, in Rua de Portugal.
The fact that the Jews expelled from Sepharad were a family of families and constantly intermarried, now also with their brethren of Central and Eastern Europe, made it easier for their networks of interests and business, connecting Europe, Africa, the Middle East, America and Asia.
From the late 15th century and through the next centuries, a Portuguese Jew named Leon, Harari or Bendahan could travel to Tangiers, Tunis, Livorno, Bordeaux, Antona, Istanbul and Damascus and not feel the slightest difference. His brothers of the faith, all relatives, occupied prominent positions in all those places, prayed in Hebrew, spoke the local languages, as well as Portuguese, Spanish and a mixture that resulted in Ladino.
The Jews were never ungrateful to their Portuguese and Spanish homeland. However, now that some of them were Dutch, they headed the East India Companies which, in a matter of decades, destroyed Luso-Spanish power in America. This fact was only extenuated by the use these kingdoms made of the "New Christians" who still lived there, whose greatest wish was to emigrate as quickly as possible and join their brothers in other countries. This would enable them to regain their Hebrew names and to live as Jews.
Yet, the life of the Jews was not easy in every country. There were many persecutions against the Jewish people, who were unprotected and lacked their own means of security. It is horrifying to consider the fate of the Jews in the former Russian Empire and in Central Europe, after they had been linked to tricks and dealings against their host countries and charged with poisoning the Rhine and the Danube, constantly facing the dilemma of forsaking their faith or facing death. Mainz, Esslingen, Speyer, Frankfurt and Brandenburg are just a few examples chosen at random: synagogues transformed into pyres with the entire Jewish community inside, babies and mothers floating in the Rhine inside wine casks, ghettoes invaded by crowds who killed everyone before them, as had already happened in Lisbon in 1506.
Currently, one of the richest men in the city of Oporto descends from a family expelled from Sepharad in the 15th century and then again from Baghdad in the 20th century, which he left carrying only two suitcases of clothes. Another member of this same community recalls an old Portuguese Moroccan tradition: when King D. Sebastiao invaded Africa, the Sephardim thought they would again be converted to Christianity.
This is the Portuguese Jewish community today, with its merits, its memories and its fears. The Portuguese Jews underwent successive exiles: first, from Jerusalem to Sepharad; then from Sepharad to multiple destinations; later, from Arab countries to Israel; in the future, no one knows. Today, like yesterday, in Portugal and in other countries, the Jews are considered foreign elements.
There is one question I would like to leave for future memory. Who will be persecuted next in Portugal: the Jews or the antisemites? What role will the world, the European Union and the State of Israel play in catching and repressing the antisemites?
Anyway, despite the persecutions and torments over the millennia, they, we, have always survived, grown stronger through suffering and through our belief in Adonai who has never forsaken us, nor will ever forsake us, Amen.