When I learned that the future Jewish Museum is going to be presented today in Lisbon, I remembered an interview with Rabbi Shlomo Pereira in which he stressed that “the Iberian Peninsula in the 1400s was the center of Judaism in the world … in everything”. The economist in the USA, where he answers by the name of Alfredo Marvão Pereira, added that, from the point of view of intellectual production, the Portuguese and Spanish Jews of that time could almost compare themselves to those of today in Israel, the United States and France. It is not by chance that the oldest printed book in Portugal, a Pentateuch that appeared in Faro in 1487, is in Hebrew.
But don’t think of the Jews as a separate community, speaking their own language. Shlomo Pereira assured me, in an interview about great thinkers of the time, that “the Jews did not live in Portugal in a ghetto”. Many were doctors, but for example Isaac Abravanel, one of the Portuguese geniuses in the book Jewish Voices of Portugal, was a great statesman in the service of D. Afonso V and his fall from grace and flight to Spain did not have to do with religion but with the suspicions of D. João II. In fact, Abravanel soon entered the service of Castile, then still spared the fanaticism that the Catholic Kings would make state policy intoxicated by the seizure of Granada and the discovery of America.
We are well aware of the tragedy that followed the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews in 1496, with D. Manuel upset to want to please Isabel de Castela and Fernando de Aragão, his in-laws. Tragedy for the Jews, who either left or falsely converted to Catholicism, a tragedy also for Portugal, which lost much of its schooling. The United Provinces, embryo of the Netherlands, and the Ottoman Empire, where a tolerant Calvinism and a tolerant Islam allowed the Portuguese Jews to find a safe exile. They also won the future United States where the first congregation was created by Sephardic Jews, Jews of Portuguese and Spanish origin who had come to live in Brazil occupied by the Dutch.
Proof of how Jewish history attracts more and more interest, a book has just been published about Portuguese Jews in the USA, by Carla Vieira. Emma Lazarus, the poet whose sonnet about “a warm brotherly hug” is on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, is a Lisbon’s great-great-great-grandfather.
The love for Portugal, the homeland that rejected them, remained for a long time. There is no lack of writings that praise the beauty of Lisbon, that speak of longing. But the persecutions continued, there was no shortage of New Christians here, which the Inquisition was looking for even under the rocks. That crypto-Jewish communities like Belmonte’s have survived is perhaps proof of the rootedness of Judaism in Portugal, which had a new life from the 19th century, with returning families, such as the Bensaude, who will have a descendant elected President of the Republic already in the our time, Jorge Sampaio.
It has a special symbolism that the date chosen to present this Tikva – Jewish Museum of Lisbon coincides with the 200th anniversary of the extinction of the Inquisition in Portugal. The Marquis of Pombal had already ended the distinction between New Christians and Old Christians, but it was the Constituent Courts that emerged from the Liberal Revolution of 1820 that ended the Tribunal do Santo Ofício. History is not erased, it is being made. Let there be hope.