In 1492, the Sephardic population of Portugal was estimated at no more than 20,000 souls. Of these, many were descendants of the Hebrew tribes who had spread throughout the Mediterranean basin following the destructions of the Temple of Jerusalem (in 586 BC by the Babylonians and in 70 CE by the Romans) and of the voyaging evangelists who preached the gospel of Christ which was, per se, a reform movement of ancient Judaism.
But a sizeable minority consisted of converts, mainly of the Berber people, and of domestic slaves who had been forcibly circumcised and/or immersed in the mikvah. All used Judeo-Arabic as a lingua franca.
Many of the Sephardim had achieved high positions within society and had become financial advisers, tax collectors and administrators to the crown. Others were international merchants and bankers which resulted in an accumulation of wealth and caused the envy of many Portuguese people (and the Catholic church) who suffered the burden of usury.
Prince Henry the Navigator administered his estates almost entirely through civil servants drawn from the Sephardim who manned the caravels he sent to the coast of West Africa to bring slaves to his market at Lagos.
He was also the master of the Order of Knights Templar in Tomar some of whom took Jewish maidens as wives or mistresses.
Among the nobility and royalty, this was common practice and accounts for the theory that the upper classes of modern times have a probable inheritance of a 20%-30% Sephardic bloodline.
This relatively happy state of assimilation and co-habitation was brought abruptly to an end by the Alhambra Decree of 1492 by which the Castilian monarchy ordered the expulsion of all Sephardim who were unwilling to formally convert to the Catholic faith.
Most of the rejectionists emigrated to the Judeo-Arabic strongholds of the Maghreb or to Italy and the Balkans, but a number, probably in the region of 80,000, decided to move westward into Portugal.
At various points on the frontier, the Spanish Customs relieved them of much of their goods while the Portuguese guards extolled payment for a visa of permanent residence from 600 of the wealthiest families at a cost of 60,000 cruzados while the rest were granted only transit visas at 8 cruzados a head. The indigenous Sephardim grudgingly accepted this temporary stress on their overcrowded amenities in the Judiarias.
The accession of King Manuel I to the throne in 1495 brought another peripeteia to the Jews because his Castilian Queen insisted that the ousting of Jews already commenced by the Inquisition in her country should extend to Portugal. This the king refused but conceded that all Sephardim who were not of the Catholic faith must convert or be exiled.
There had already been some movement to the fortresses of Tangier and Arzila in North Africa, but ships were not available for the more desirable locations such as Holland and France. However, many acquiesced and became “New Christians” under royal protection and resumed their toil as servants of the crown and its national economy.
When public protest resulted in the church-led Lisbon pogrom of 1506, Manuel I took stern measures to rebuke the insurrectionists and renewed his guarantee of protection for a term of 16 years. But later, the political weathercock changed again when, in June 1532, “converted” Jews were forbidden to leave Portugal and ships captains were instructed not to carry their cargos.
A papal bull issued in 1536 confirmed the institution of a Portuguese version of the Spanish Inquisition which required the investigation and punishment of heresy, apostasy and the performance of Judaic, Muslim, Protestant or magical rites. As in Spain, some of the prosecutors, perhaps the most enthusiastic in their pursuit of divine justice, were former Sephardim.
Flight from Portugal increased tenfold with Muslims going south to North Africa and Egypt, Protestants to England and the Low Countries and Sephardim to Holland and France in the north and westwards to the New World where they founded communities and were known as “Portuguese” or “The Nation”.
Some even became buccaneers led by Moses Cohen Henriques who founded a pirate colony in Brazil and joined forces with the Dutch West Indies Company to plunder the Spanish treasure convoys!
Other Ladino speaking Sephardim chose to go eastwards to Italy and the Ottoman Empire where they were welcomed because of their culture and business acumen. Their communities in the Balkans flourished until the annihilations of WWII when their intellectual and commercial assets of centuries were destroyed by the Nazis.
It would be as well to consider at this point the mystery of Jewish identity. In simple terms, a Jew is anyone who is born of a Jewish mother or who has undergone conversion in accordance with Halacha – the code of Judaic Law.
But the same law also states that, unlike other faiths, once you are in “the club”, you cannot get out by becoming an atheist or converting to another religion. So, the children of a female convert to Judaism who reverts to her former religion will still be considered as being Jewish.
Conversely, someone who is not born as a Jew may hold all of the beliefs and scrupulously keep all of the laws and practices of the faith without being accepted as a Jew by rabbinical authority.
So, it seems that the definition of “Jewishness” cannot be made to fit into the separate boxes of ethnic, tribal and religious identity. An example of this confusion is that of Hugh William Montefiore, born of an illustrious and very wealthy Sephardic family, which had been an influential member of the English establishment for several centuries. While at Rugby school, he converted to Anglicanism and rose to be a Bishop, first of Kingston and later of Birmingham.
With his non-Jewish wife, he fathered three daughters all of whom are entitled to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return, but Halachic Law would not allow them to marry or otherwise participate in the Jewish life of that country.
It is this confusion which makes the present process of claiming Portuguese citizenship by proving a bloodline of Sephardic descent so banal and fraught with the wickedness of fraud.
The Law on Nationality as amended in 2013 was intended to be a gesture of redemption to the descendants of the Sephardim who had suffered persecution at the hands of the State.
Inequitably, it did not apply to Muslims, Roma, Lutherans and Anglicans. At first, the number of claimants was small and came almost entirely from Sephardic communities which, despite the immense destructions of family records in WWII, were able to piece together sufficient circumstantial evidence to justify the applications (Bishop Montefiore’s non-Jewish children would have had no difficulty!)
But the trickle became a deluge with the realisation that here was a mode of entry to all the benefits of EU citizenship at little cost. Applications were and still are being received from reportedly over 100,000 claimants, many of whom have no knowledge of or connection to Portuguese culture. history and national identity.
To become Portuguese merits the dignified presentation of proven good character and a demonstration that the grant of nationality will bring honour and honest ability to this country without any tinge of criminality, perversity or other affronts to humanity.
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Roberto Cavaleiro first came to Portugal in 1982, acting as advisor to international investors. Current interests include animal welfare and writing opinion articles, especially with reference to environmental issues.