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.

Read more at Jewish History Lectures

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


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount