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Learning from the history of Portugal’s Jews

After Oct. 7, the revival of Jewish life in the country is a lesson in resistance and rebirth.

A Portuguese Inquisition auto-da-fé in Lisbon. Credit: The National Library of Israel.
A Portuguese Inquisition auto-da-fé in Lisbon. Credit: The National Library of Israel.
Ashley Perry
Ashley Perry is an adviser to the Middle East Forum’s Israel office. He served as an adviser to Israel’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2009 to 2015. He is president of Reconectar, an organization dedicated to relinking the more than 200 million descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Israel and Jewish life. Originally from the United Kingdom, he moved to Israel in 2001.

At the beginning of the 16th century, my family fled the Iberian Peninsula, which had been their home, according to family tradition, for the better part of two millennia, having been exiled directly from the Land of Israel.

They appear to have left soon after the Lisbon Massacre of 1506, an antisemitic pogrom that killed thousands of Jews. This was only 14 years after my family entered Portugal from Spain after the Spanish Jews were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s infamous edict and 12 years since they tried to leave Portugal only to be forced to stay by royal decree.

After the Lisbon atrocities, King Manuel of Portugal issued a temporary edict allowing Jews to leave the kingdom. My family took this brief opportunity, fleeing over the Pyrenees mountains that separate Iberia from the rest of Europe.

They were among the lucky ones because massacres of forcibly converted Portuguese Jews, who were now called “New Christians,” kept occurring over the decades and centuries that followed.

Manuel Peres, my 15th great-grandfather, eventually found himself in France, then Hamburg and Amsterdam, and finally London over three centuries ago.

Nevertheless, it was the Lisbon massacre of 1506 that was emblazoned on our collective memory. The antisemitic excesses of that time have been unfortunately re-enacted in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and now Israel.

Just as on Oct. 7, back in 1506, Jewish children were butchered and burned alive, with the heads of men, women and children decapitated and stolen as prizes. Just as on the Black Shabbat and Simchat Torah, the frenzy was marked by the slaughterers’ delight and religious fervor.

As Gabriel Senderowicz, the president of the Jewish Community of Porto in Portugal and a member of the board of the European Jewish Association, said: “To know the 1506 massacre in Lisbon is to know the 7 October 2023 massacre in Israel and the historic genocides of Jews all over Europe. The only change has been in the weapons.”

That is why, to ensure that the Jewish people and others understand that Oct. 7 was just the latest of many attempts to annihilate the Jewish people, the Jewish Community of Porto has released the film “1506: The Lisbon Genocide,” which will officially premiere in April.

Over the past decade, the Porto Jewish community has been extremely active in the struggle to further our understanding of history and promote Jewish culture and education. Among its notable achievements during this period was the feature film “1618,” which recounted the story of the Inquisition in the city and won the largest number of international awards ever given to a Portuguese film.

The Jewish Community of Porto was only officially reestablished in 1923 by Captain Barros Basto some four centuries after it was destroyed by the Inquisition. Basto became known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus” after he was persecuted for his efforts.

This remarkable story of return and rebirth was captured in “Sefarad: The Movie,” which is now available for free online during these difficult times for the global Jewish community, in the hope that these stories of courage and heroism inspire us all.

The Jewish Community of Porto is the story of a Jewish community that fought against oppression and discrimination to rise again from the ashes. It is the story of all Jews, wherever they may be. It is a story of resilience and resistance. Porto’s Jews have shown that it is possible to rise again, even against seemingly impossible odds.

Those of us in Israel, especially those devoid of hope and optimism due to the scenes from that devastating day of Oct. 7, the rise in antisemitism, and the international campaign of hate and delegitimization against us, could do worse than to look to Porto for inspiration.

The Jewish Community of Porto has shown us that we can and should learn from history in order to overcome tragedy and destruction. Its story is quintessentially Jewish.

I know that my ancestors, who loved the Iberian Peninsula and lived through the heights of the period of peaceful coexistence called the Convivencia and then the lows of the Inquisition and Expulsion but persisted despite the threats and dangers they faced, would be proud to see what has become of a city with such a strong Jewish past.

It is from Porto that we learn from our past for the sake of the present and our collective Jewish future.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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