Portugal's attempts at Jewish reparations and the modern Dreyfus

 


Over the past 100 years, Portugal has made sudden, somewhat fitful, unplanned, and as it turned out, cynical proposals accompanied by dramatic announcements of its intention to carry out “historic justice” and make reparations to the descendants of its Jewish population expelled in 1497. Following a previous example set by Spain in 2013 guaranteeing a “Jewish right of return” by descendants of those expelled in 1492, observers have struggled to understand what if anything is at stake other than a cosmetic attempt to assuage a conscience that had not previously been troubled or cash in on a lucrative source of Jewish tourism.

The co-sponsor of a bill promising Portuguese citizenship to Jews of authentic Portuguese origin, and Portuguese Socialist Party spokesperson, Maria de Belem Roseira, poetically proclaimed that “this law tells them their homeland is still there and reserved... for those who may keep the key to the house of their ancestors.” A Christian Democrat member of parliament Joao Rebelo explained the reasons behind unanimous support from all parties,”Call it apology or reparation, the new act is trying to erase a black mark on our nation, something terrible and unfair.”


The Portuguese Inquisition established in 1536, witnessed show trials, public executions, mass killings and the forced separation of children shipped off to Portugal’s colonies. Many Jews remained as “new Christians” in both Portugal and in Spain but the majority fled to what is now modern day Greece, Turkey, the Netherlands, Morocco, Italy and even Denmark, Northern Germany as well as Brazil from which the first European Jewish settlers of New York City arrived. There are estimated to be only 600 Jews in Portugal today.

Despite the stirring rhetoric, most Portuguese lawmakers admit it may take “another year to establish procedures for implementing the edict,” there is little likelihood that the offer will result in rebuilding one of the most glorious examples of creativity in the long history of the diaspora. To be fair, one has to examine the repeated previous and failed attempts to do the same thing in the past. The claim that Portugal’s existence as a modern multicultural and multiracial nation through a love of a common language and culture extending across the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, known as “Lusotropicalism” also had a noble ring but it too was originally introduced as a self-serving ploy to prevent the independence of Portugal’s many colonies.


The Jews as pawns in modern Portuguese and Spanish schemes

A revolution in 1910 ended the monarchy in Portugal as well as its close links with the Catholic Church and reconsidered the possible utility of encouraging relations with the Sephardi communities around the world. The Portuguese broke with the past overnight introducing a new flag and a national anthem, separating church and state, and adopting a new constitution as well as ending the monarchy - all anathema to the ruling circles in Spain. Portugal’s republican leaders also toyed with the idea of offering parts of their African colonies, particularly in Angola for Jewish colonization as both a practical solution to dramatically increase the white population and to win support from liberal circles in Britain highly critical of the treatment of the native African population.

By June, 1912 the Portuguese Chamber of Deputies passed the final version of a bill to authorize concessions to Jewish settlers. Its articles clearly indicate the republic’s desire to use Jewish immigration to consolidate its hold over Angola. Colonists wishing to settle the Benguela Plateau would immediately become naturalized Portuguese citizens at their port of entry upon payment of a “nominal fee.“ The Jewish settlements would be required not to have any “religious character” and Portuguese was to be the exclusive language of instruction in any schools the Jewish colonists might build. No practical financial support was enlisted and by the end of 1913, many officials of the Jewish Territorial Organization in London that had entertained the proposal had begun to turn against it in response to the steady progress being made in Palestine under the direction of the Zionist movement.

No practical steps were taken by the Portuguese government which let the idea drop into obscurity particularly when, as a result of World War I, the German threat against territory from Portugal’s African colonies no longer existed.

The brave but futile efforts of Artur Barros Basta

A second attempt at rapprochement centered around the career of Colonel Artur Carlos de Barros Basto. He was a military figure born in 1887 who carried out a long campaign to win recognition for those Portuguese who wished to return to their ancestral Jewish identity and faith and create a vibrant modern community. Barros Bastos was the one who raised the Republican flag in the city of Porto and thus enjoyed some favor in liberal circles who felt that a renewed Jewish community might be a cause to win sympathy abroad.

Barros Basto became the leader of the Jewish Community in Porto, the country’s second largest city and was instrumental in the successful construction of the magnificent Kadoorie Synagogue. He helped the return of Crypto-Jews and, during World War II, helped Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. During the First World War, as a lieutenant of the army he had commanded a battalion of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the Flanders front. For his acts of bravery and honor on the battlefield, he received medals and was promoted to captain. He learned Hebrew he lived for a while in Morocco where he began a formal process of conversion to Judaism.

Back in Lisbon, he married Lea Israel Montero Azancot, of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, with whom he had a son and a daughter. He also had several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Barros Basto raised funds that enabled him to buy the plot of land for the future synagogue that immediately put him in the category of a “perverse eccentric accusations which steadily mounted as Portugal drifted from a liberal republic in the 1920s to an authoritarian regime under the autocratic rule of Professor Antonio Salazar.

The campaign against Barros Basta

Barros Basto became associated with the opposition in the 1930s. The new government was committed to traditional and conservative rural values and a reconciliation with the Catholic Church. This made him doubly suspect and resulted in reassignments to locations farther away from Porto in order to alienate him from the project of encouraging a return to Judaism and creating a Jewish community around the new synagogue, Salazar’s government had pledged to renew Catholic influence in Portugal and promote the pilgrimage to Fatima, scene of a supposed miracle in 1917 when three children claimed to have witnessed the Virgin Mary.

In 1937, Barros Basto was called before the Disciplinary Board of the Army and dismissed for allegedly participating in circumcision ceremonies of the students of the Israelite Theological Institute of Porto, considered an “immoral” act. During World War II, having already been dismissed from the army, Barros Basto nevertheless helped hundreds of Jews escape the war and the Holocaust. He died in 1961, and was, according to his wish, buried in his native Amarante wearing the uniform with which always served his country. Justice would only come in 2012, over 50 years after his death. As a result of a petition presented to the Parliament on October 31, 2011; the name of Barros Basto was rehabilitated. The petition was approved unanimously by all political parties. It states that his dismissal from the army was a matter of political and religious segregation on account of being Jewish.

Salazar suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1961 forcing his retirement. History had the last laugh—all of the remaining Portuguese colonial possessions won their independence in quick succession like a collapsing house of cards One can only hope that in the light of the past fig leaf-like failures, the most recent parliamentary bill promising citizenship to Jews of Portuguese origin was more seriously and honestly conceived and will be promulgated in the noble spirit it truly deserves as one of the great Sephardi communities.

Norman Berdichevsky taught one evening course at UCF on the history, culture and folklore of the Sephardim. One part of the course was devoted to modern Portugal and Spain.

 

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