The interconnectedness of Jewish and Portuguese people

EJC President Moshe Kantor  (Jewish News)
EJC President Moshe Kantor (Jewish News)

In 2016, when President of the Portuguese Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited the Lisbon Synagogue, he spoke about how Portugal must cherish its unique relations with the Jewish people and how these ties have helped shape modern Portuguese national identity.

“It is never too much to express a word of gratitude to this inheritance, which enriched us in the past and which played an important role in shaping our identity.” said President Rebelo de Sousa.

This common heritage is immense and has played a significant role in shaping each other’s identity and distinctiveness.

One need only pay a visit to Jewish communities of Portuguese origin across the diaspora and Israel to realize how evident and undeniable these profound ties are and how, many centuries after being forced to leave the country, their Portuguese heritage forms an integral part of their most cherished traditions.

That is why the amendment to the Portuguese Nationality Law in 2015 to offer citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews of Portuguese origin was so important.

It reconnects what was disconnected, rights a horrible injustice, and extends a hand of warm embrace to those whose ancestors were forced out.

This act of tolerance and reconciliation is as relevant, symbolic and inspiring to the Jewish people and other nations as it was when it was approved five years ago.

As I mentioned in my letter to the President of the Assembly of the Republic, the decision to open the path to nationality to the descendants of these Portuguese Jews is unique in its wisdom and generosity.

It is wise because it demonstrates Portugal’s willingness to turn the lessons of history into a source of reconciliation. It is generous because it demonstrates that, in an age of nationalism, parochialism and intolerance, some countries are willing to share what is most precious – their national community, in order to make that reconciliation a living and lived reality.

Portugal is rightly praised all over the world, by Jews and non-Jews alike, for this legislation. As a Jewish leader, I often hear about it and how it stands in stark contrast to the rising tide of antisemitism in Europe and beyond.

That is why parliamentary and governmental debate on inserting amendments that threaten the very spirit of this law is disheartening. Any changes that would make it exponentially harder for the descendants of Portuguese Jews to receive Portuguese citizenship would dilute its cherished and sacred intention.

While we understand that all legislations have unintended consequences, and this one is no exception, we urge the Portuguese authorities to amend the administrative flaws in the implementation of this historic law without losing sight of, or endangering, what is essential: the continued opening of a real, achievable path to citizenship of the Portuguese Republic to the descendants of persecuted Portuguese Sephardic Jews.

This law brings our historic ties a full circle and Jews who have applied and received Portuguese citizenship are well aware of the significance of this gesture. They appreciate it as a precious gift of fraternity and kinship, and a symbolic act of healing of ancient wounds.

Our shared past should embolden us to shape a more positive and unified future. We dare not leave the past behind; we call for it to form the basis for closer ties, affiliation and cooperation.

We also hope this law and the recently passed Portuguese law to officially commemorate those who lost their lives during the Inquisition of Jews annually on March 31st serves as the basis for greater understanding and reciprocity.

Most Jews and Portuguese are less aware of these historic ties, which include the fact that when Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the globe, he was able to do so because of the tables and the astrolabe of Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, noted mathematician and astrologer who served as Royal Astronomer to King John II of Portugal.

Not enough Jews are aware of the inspiring example of Portuguese consul in Bordeaux Aristides de Sousa Mendes played in rescuing the lives of more than 10,000 Jews during the Holocaust by indiscriminately issuing visas to desperate Jews in France who were fleeing from persecution and death.

While many Jews possess and are familiar with religious texts by Isaac Abravanel, few know of his role as a Portuguese statesman and his progressive writings on humanism and philosophy.

These are some of the connecting points of Jewish and Portuguese history and culture whose sparks remain with us today. That is why the law is not only an important positive and moral step, but also the culminating point of our inescapable ties.

We hope that as more Jews seek to reconnect with their Portuguese ancestry, more Portuguese people will reconnect with their Jewish ancestry. This will only serve to bolster and strengthen ties between our peoples and mutually benefit each other.


About the Author
Dr Moshe Kantor is President of the European Jewish Congress, the umbrella organisation representing and federating over 42 national Jewish communities across Europe.
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