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History of the Jews in Portugal

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The history of the Jews in Portugal is directly related to Sephardi history, a Jewish ethnic division that represents communities who have originated in the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain).


Before Portugal

Jewish populations have existed on the area even before the country was established, back to the Roman era, or even before - an attested Jewish presence in Portuguese territory, however, can only be documented since 482[1]. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Jews were persecuted by the Visigoths and other European Christian kingdoms who controlled the area then on.

In 711, the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula was seen by the many in the Jewish population as a liberation, and marked as the beginning of what many have seen as the Golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula (the Islamic Al-Andalus), even if the Jews, as well as the Christians (the Mozarabs of the Visigothic rite), under Muslim rule were considered Dhimmi, and had to pay a special tax.

Rapidly in the 8th century, the Christian kingdoms of the north mountainous areas of the Iberian Peninsula (Kingdom of Asturias) started a long military campaign against the Muslim invaders, the Reconquista. The Jews, since many knew the Arabic language, were used by the Christians as both spies and diplomats on this campaign that took centuries. This granted them some respect, although there was always prejudice.


King Afonso I of Portugal entrusted Yahia Ben Yahi III with the post of supervisor of tax collection and nominated him the first Chief-Rabbi of Portugal (a position always appointed by the King of Portugal). King Sancho I of Portugal continued his father's policy, making Jose Ben Yahia, the grandson of Yahia Ben Rabbi, High Steward of the Realm. The clergy, however, invoking the restrictions of the Fourth Council of the Lateran, brought considerable pressure to bear against the Jews during the reign of King Dinis I of Portugal, but the monarch maintained a conciliatory position.

Until the 15th century, some Jews occupied prominent places in Portuguese political and economical life. For example, Isaac Abrabanel was the treasurer of King Afonso V of Portugal. Many also had an active role in the Portuguese culture, and they kept their reputation of diplomats and merchants. By this time, Lisbon and Évora were home to important Jewish communities.

In 1497, under the pressure of the newly born Spanish State, the Church and also the Christian people, King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Hard times followed for the Portuguese Jews, with the massacre of 5000 individuals in Lisbon (1506), the forced deportation to São Tomé and Príncipe (where there is still today a Jewish presence), and the later and even more relevant establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536.

The Inquisition held its first Auto da fé in Portugal in 1540. Like the Spanish Inquisition, it concentrated its efforts on rooting out converts from other faiths (overwhelmingly Judaism) who did not adhere to the strictures of Catholic orthodoxy; like in Spain, the Portuguese inquisitors mostly targeted the Jewish New Christians, conversos, or marranos. The Portuguese Inquisition expanded its scope of operations from Portugal to the Portuguese Empire, including Brazil, Cape Verde, and Goa. According to Henry Charles Lea[2] between 1540 and 1794 tribunals in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Évora burned 1,175 persons, another 633 were burned in effigy and 29,590 were penanced, but documentation of at least fifteen Autos-da-fé between 1580-1640 - the period of the Iberian Union - disappeared, so the real numbers must be higher. The Portuguese inquisition was extinguished in 1821 by the "General Extraordinary and Constituent Courts of the Portuguese Nation" .

Most Portuguese Jews, thousands, would eventually leave the country to Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Constantinople (Istanbul), France, Morocco, Brazil, Curaçao and the Antilles. In some of these places their presence can still be witnessed, like the use of the Ladino language by some Jewish communities in Turkey, the Portuguese based dialects of the Antilles, or the multiple Synagogues built by what was to be know as the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (such as the Amsterdam Esnoga).

Many Jews did stay in Portugal, however. A significant number converted to Christianity as a mere formality, practicing their Jewish faith in secret. These Crypto-Jews were known as New Christians, and would always be under the constant surveillance of the Inquisistion - many, if not most of these, would eventually leave the country in the centuries to come and again embrace openly their Jewish faith (such was the case, for example, of the family of Baruch Spinoza).

Some of the most famous descendants of Portuguese Jews who lived outside Portugal are the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (from Portuguese Bento de Espinosa), the classical economist David Ricardo and the Nobel-prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter (from Portuguese Pinto).

Some Jews, very few, like the Belmonte Jews, went for a different and radical solution, practicing their faith in a strict secret isolated community. Known as the Marranos, some have survived until today (basically only the community from Belmonte, plus some more isolated families) by the practice of intermarriage and few cultural contact with the outside world. Only recently have they re-established contact with the international Jewish community and openly practice religion in a public synagogue with a formal Rabbi.

In the 19th century, some affluent families of Sephardi Jewish Portuguese origin, namely from Morocco, returned to Portugal (such as the Ruah and Bensaude). When the first Brazilian Constitution of 1824 allowed freedom of belief, the first Jews to openly emigrate to Brazil were also Sephardi Jewish from Morocco. The first synagogue to be built in Portugal since the 15th century was the Lisbon Synagogue, inaugurated in 1904.

World War II

A new chapter of Jews in Portugal was marked by World War II. For the duration of the war, Portugal was under the control of António de Oliveira Salazar, who led a conservative dictatorship, the Estado Novo, bearing many similarities to the Franco regime in neighboring Spain. Early in September 1939, Portugal proclaimed its neutrality to combat threats to its colonial possessions from nations in both the Allied and Axis camps. Nonetheless, its sympathies were clearly on the side of the allies following Germany's invasion of the catholic nation of Poland. Germany's invasion of France brought the Nazis to the Pyrenees which allowed Hitler to bring unanticipated pressures on both Spain and Portugal[3].

At the outbreak of World War II, to the nearly 400 Jews that were living in Portugal an additional 650 Jewish refugees from Central Europe were granted a quasi-resident status. However, under threat of military action from the Nazis Salazar issued orders on November 11, 1939, that consuls were not to issue Portuguese visas to "foreigners of indefinite or contested nationality; the stateless; or Jews expelled from their countries of origin". This order was followed only six months later by one stating that "under no circumstances" were visas to be issued without prior case-by-case approval from Lisbon.

Following the Nazi invasion of Russia which cutoff their supply of wolfram (tungsten) from Asia, Germany initiated tactics to extract wolfram from Portugal, initially by artificially running up prices in an attempt to get the people to by-pass the Portuguese government and sell directly to German Agents. Salazar's government attempted to limit this and in October 1941 Germany retaliated by sinking a Portuguese merchant ship, the first neutral ship to be attacked during World War II. Germany then torpedoed a second Portuguese ship in December. England then invoked long-standing treaties with Portugal dating from 1373 (Anglo-Portuguese Alliance) and 1386 (Treaty of Windsor) and Portugal honored these by granting a military base in the Azores to the Allies. The Allies then promised all possible aid in the event of a German attack against Portugal. Portugal continued to export wolfram and other goods to both Allied countries and Germany (partly via Switzerland) until 1944 when Portugal declared a total embargo of wolfram to Germany [4].

Despite Salazar's cold treatment of European Jews, efforts to provide entry visas into Portugal to Jews via rescue operations continued. An estimated 30,000 visas were issued to Jews and other persecuted minorities who were able to flee the Nazis via Lisbon with help from the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes who issued visas against Salazar's orders. Aristides de Sousa Mendes was eventually dismissed by Salazar from his diplomatic post and reduced to poverty. Because of his heroic efforts in opening up a refugee escape route at a time when none had previously existed, Aristides de Sousa Mendes has been honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among The Nations. The escape route remained active throughout the war allowing an estimated million refugees to escape from the Nazis through Portugal during World War II[5].


As of today, Jews enjoy a peaceful life in Portugal, even if isolated attacks on the community occur, such as the vandalism perpetraded in Lisbon's Jewish Cemetery in 2007 (painting of swastikas). This attack was promptly denounced by public authorities, that committed themselves to aid in the cleaning up in an official visit to the cemetery by the President of Portugal Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the Leader of Lisbon's Muslim community and the Mayor of Lisbon António Costa.

In 1987 the then President Mário Soares, for the first time in the history of Portugal, asked forgiveness of the Jewish communities of Portuguese origin for Portugal's responsibility in the Inquisition and all the past persecutions of Jews.

At present there are numerous Jewish cultural heritage sites in Portugal [6] including five synagogues in the country, in Lisbon (Sha'aré Tikvá - Orthodox/ Ohel Yaakov - Conservative), Porto (Mekor Haim), Ponta Delgada in the Azores islands (Porta do Céu - Shaar ha-Shamain) and Belmonte, and several private places where the Jewish community meets. There are a series of kosher products being produced in Portugal including wine.

It is hard to say how many Jews live in Portugal as of 2006. The Portuguese census estimates a Jewish population of 5000 individuals as of 2001, with a between-census estimate (as of 2006) of 8000. CIA's World Fact Book refers a smaller number of a thousand Jews, mainly central European Holocaust survivors. But the Marranos (Crypto-Jews) and returned Sephardim represent the remainder.

Some Portuguese personalities are known Jews or descendants of Jews, most notably Esther Mucznik (leader of the Israelite Community of Lisbon), the award winning photographer Daniel Blaufuks, screen actress Daniela Ruah, former Lisbon Mayor Nuno Krus Abecassis, and the former President of the Republic Jorge Sampaio, whose grandmother was a Moroccan Jew of Portuguese-Jewish origin. Sampaio does not consider himself Jewish stating that he is agnostic[7].

Famous Portuguese Jews

See also


  1. Jorge Martins (2006), Portugal e os Judeus: Volume I - dos primórdios da nacionalidade à legislação pombalina, Lisboa, Vega.
  2. Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain, vol. 3, Book 8.
  3. The New History of Portugal, H.V. Livermore, Cambridge University Press, 1969
  4. The New History of Portugal, H.V. Livermore, Cambridge University Press, 1969
  5. See[1], "The Jews Of Portugal: Contemporary Sites And Events Aristides de Sousa Mendes: A Moral Model For The World" published on the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website
  6. See[2], An Online Resource of Jewish Heritage in Portugal
  7. See[3], retrieved from the Jerusalem Post of the 7th of November, 2003:
    Jerusalem Post: I understand that you have Jewish ancestry in your family. What is your personal connection to the Jewish people? Do you consider yourself to be a Jew?.
    Jorge Sampaio: My grandmother belonged to a Jewish family that came from Morocco in the beginning of the 19th century. She married a non-Jewish naval officer who later was Foreign Affairs minister. I am naturally very proud of this ancestry and of all those that I call my "favorite Jewish cousins," one of whom is the president of the Lisbon Jewish Community, as I am proud of the ancestry on my non-Jewish father's side. Personally, I am agnostic, and I do not consider myself a Jew; but I am proud, as I said, of my ancestors.


  • Alexandre Herculano, História da Origem e Estabelecimento da Inquisição em Portugal (English: History of the Origin and Establishement of the Inquisition in Portugal, translation of 1926).
  • Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain, vol. 3, Book 8.
  • Jorge Martins (2006), Portugal e os Judeus: Volume I - Dos primórdios da nacionalidade à legislação pombalina, Lisboa, Vega.
  • Jorge Martins (2006), Portugal e os Judeus: Volume II - Do ressurgimento das comunidades judaicas à Primeira República, Lisboa, Vega.
  • Jorge Martins (2006), Portugal e os Judeus: Volume III - Judaísmo e anti-semitismo no século XX, Lisboa, Vega.
  • The New History of Portugal, ed H.V. Livermore, Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at History of the Jews in Portugal. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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