Jews Win a Right of Return to Portugal Five Centuries After Inquisition

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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.”

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