Searching for the Traces of Judaism in Portugal

Sept. 13 2018

In the late 14th century, as the persecution of Spanish Jews by their Christian rulers grew more severe, many fled to nearby Portugal. Many more would arrive after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492; only a few years later, however, the Portuguese monarchy forcibly converted its own Jewish population. As a result, crypto-Judaism persisted in Portugal much longer than it did in Spain. The historian Henry Abramson describes several weeks spent in Portugal on a tour of Jewish sites, and tells the story of the country’s Jews;

Portugal boasts an ancient Jewish settlement that reached a population of some 30,000 by the end of the 15th century. Perched on the edge of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal earned a reputation for tolerance that had long attracted Jews fleeing Spanish oppression, including [the 15th-century rabbi and diplomat] Don Isaac Abravanel’s grandfather Samuel, who fled the 1391 riots and forced baptisms [in Spain] to reclaim his Jewish faith in Portugal. . . .

In a break with Portugal’s history of relative religious tolerance, King João II initially refused to admit the estimated 100,000 Jewish refugees massing at his borders [in 1492]. Intensive petitioning finally moved the king to grant a six-month transit visa to 600 prominent families, at the exorbitant price of six cruzados per person (approximately $20,000 in contemporary currency). Despairing, many Jews chose to turn back, accept Christianity, and risk the depredations of the Inquisition. Others entered Portugal illegally, hoping to blend into the local population.

Both João and his successor Manuel I imposed harsh anti-Semitic decrees aimed at forcing the Jews to accept baptism, including the kidnapping of Jewish children and exiling them to São Tomé, a recently acquired island off the coast of west Africa; according to the historian Samuel Usque, himself a Jewish refugee from Portuguese persecution, nearly 2,000 of the 2,500 children abandoned on São Tomé died there, perhaps eaten by huge indigenous lizards. By 1497, the Portuguese persecution reached its nadir with the mass conversion of all remaining Jews, both Portuguese [natives] and Spanish refugees, such that the entire Iberian Peninsula was rendered [officially] Judenrein: free of Jews.

Amazingly, [these Jews] persisted. Traces of crypto-Jewish activity over the following centuries are recorded in Inquisition trial records and memoirs of those who managed to emigrate to safe havens like Amsterdam. [S]ecret traditions continued through the centuries, right up to the 20th century, when a Polish Jewish civil engineer named Samuel Schwarz . . . heard rumors of a Portuguese community that practiced Judaism in a tiny village called Belmonte. . . . Schwarz reported that the Belmonte conversos were skeptical that he was even Jewish. Only when he recited the familiar words of the Sh’ma prayer did they accept the fact that the Inquisition had not reached every living Jew.

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More about: History & Ideas, Marranos, Portugal, Spanish Expulsion, Spanish Inquisition


Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war