Working Together to Face Challenges to the Portuguese and European Jewish Communities

Over 40 years ago, on a visit to Israel, I learned from my cousin Chaya that our forebears may have originated in Portugal.

My mother was born in Lithuania, as was Chaya, her first cousin. They came from a small shtetl not far from Vilna, and frankly, most of our relatives had probably not given too much thought as to where our family might have originated. After all, the first Jews are believed to have arrived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 14th century. That was pretty far back in time.

Many in my mother’s family came to America decades before the Holocaust. Chaya made her way to pre-state Israel in 1934. We know of only one relative who survived the Shoah, who later made his way to Israel after the war. All of our other family in Lithuania was killed.

I was excited to hear that Chaya had done some research at one of Israel’s universities and was convinced that our origins were in Portugal. Her maiden name, and my mother’s, was “Berzak.” Chaya concluded that a Portuguese rabbi, Elkanah Bar Zera Kodesh, had been among those who left Portugal in the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the 15th century. The acronym for the rabbi’s name became “Berzak.” It is likely he or his descendants made their way to Hamburg, which was a jumping off point for many who arrived in Lithuania in the late Middle Ages.

I tell you all of this because I take a special pride both in the rich history of the Jews in Portugal, and today, in the rebirth of the Portuguese Jewish community. In Porto, which I had the opportunity to visit some months ago, the beautifully maintained Kedoorie Synagogue, the establishment of two excellent museums, a kosher restaurant and an active local community are all to be admired at a time when Jewish communities everywhere are debating the best way to ensure Jewish continuity and communal life in the still-new century.

But that is not the only challenge Portuguese, and by extension European Jewry, is facing. We have seen, over the past two decades, a tremendous spike in anti-Semitism—some of it emanating from the populist right or ultra-nationalist quarters, and some from the left and Islamic extremists. This perfect storm of Jew hatred has spread throughout Europe at viral speed, energized by social media and its “influencers.”

That anti-Semitism is present in Europe comes as no surprise to anyone. That it remains ensconced in country after country within the living memory of those who were victims of and witnessed Hitler’s barbarity, and with it the worst crimes ever perpetrated on the Jewish people, is reprehensible.

B’nai B’rith, founded in the United States in 1843, but which has been present on the European continent since the last quarter of the 19th century, knows of this hatred firsthand.  We confronted and battled anti-Semitism wherever it manifested itself here in the United States and in those places where we established a presence abroad.

In 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power, our organization had more than 100 branches in Germany alone, and in many other countries throughout the continent. At the war’s end, and as a result of the Holocaust, we had to re-build on the ashes of the devastation that befell European Jewry in Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, former Yugoslavia and so many other places.

Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest, most persistent and resistant form of hatred. It sprouts and flourishes where there are substantial Jewish populations—or no Jewish communities at all. It thrives on lies and distortions, on envy and a perverse taste for inflicting harm—mental and physical. And it often operates with the approbation of public figures and some in the media, who use it for political gain or to attract new followers, readers or viewers.

B’nai B’rith itself has been on the receiving end of this malicious, hateful behavior. In days past, it might be like that which used to appear in the Soviet press, when we were called “the first violin in the Zionist orchestra.” Today, you’ll see it on websites, even those which claim to be legitimate press outlets. Some continue to ply old, shopworn and outrageous tropes about us, and Jews generally, suggesting “secretive” powers of manipulation and control over the media, banks and everyone else.

Clearly, when it comes to anti-Semitism in Europe, the more things change, the more they stay in the same.

What can we do about all of this? Years ago, B’nai B’rith opened an EU Affairs office in Brussels, to create awareness of anti-Semitism on the continent at the European Commission, the European Parliament and other bodies (including the Council of Europe in Strasbourg). We work closely with the very able Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission Coordinator  on Combating Anti-Semitism and Fostering Jewish Life, and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions (ODIHR) to create new approaches to confronting Jew hatred Europe-wide.

In recent years, in several countries in Europe, there has been an assault--in the name of animal rights-- on the right of Jews to engage in the practice of shechita, or kosher slaughter, abrogating our right to freely exercise our religion. Bans and restrictions have been imposed in a number of countries in Europe, most recently in the Belgian regions of Wallonia and Flanders, and in Greece. Other initiatives have been afoot to ban circumcision, or brit milah. B’nai B’rith has been in the forefront of those speaking out loudly against attempts to roll back freedom of religion in a democratic Europe.

B’nai B’rith was among the earliest advocates for a standard working definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to clearly identify its manifestations, and not allow political leaders, the media, judges and others to either deny it or to nuance it away. That definition was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a consortium of 35 countries committed to Holocaust research and remembrance. Portugal is a member of IHRA and in 2019 adopted the working definition. A growing number of countries, provinces, municipalities, universities, sports federations and others are joining the list of those who endorse it.

Additionally, we have pressed various governments in Europe to facilitate Holocaust-era restitution to survivors and their families, and promoted Holocaust remembrance and education initiatives.

With all of this, so much more remains to be done. Much contemporary anti-Semitism emanates from various bodies of the United Nations, especially, but not only at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Israel is singled out continuously in resolution after resolution for carrying out the worst possible human rights violations. The lopsided votes against Israel often include many countries—some of them in Europe—who should know better. They often “go along to get along,” signing on to the annual festival of calumnies against the Jewish State. Recently, this activity has spilled over to agencies like the World Health Organization.

Which brings me back to Portugal. Our history there came to such an abrupt stop at the end of the 15th century. The thought has often crossed my mind, what if there had been no disputations, no expulsion, no Inquisition, no auto da fès and no burnings at the stake? Unfortunately, “what if’s” have no answers, just speculation. What we can imagine, with some certainty, is that the community would be one of the world’s largest and its contributions to Portuguese and Jewish life immense.

For the Jewish people, numbers don’t really speak to what we have contributed to civilization writ large, and to European culture, science, education and commerce over the centuries. That continues today. What we lack in size, we have been able to compensate by our solidarity, based on shared history, values, traditions, a common ancient—and modern—language and so many other intangibles that make us a justifiably proud and creative people.

B’nai B’rith is proud to be a partner in the renaissance of Jewish life in Portugal and an ally in the fight against anti-Semitism, one of the seminal challenges of the day. We’ll work together to find friends and allies who can join us in confronting it. We’ll continue to speak out in those fora in Europe to advance the message that anti-Semitism, in the 21st century, is totally unacceptable anywhere, anyhow. And we’ll be there together with you in support of Israel, our ancient homeland.

As we begin the new calendar year, let’s all pray that the year ahead is one of new accomplishments for your community, and for peace and security for Israel, and for each of us, wherever we call home—always in good health.