Shared Roots: The Jewish and Portuguese people

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On June 12 1937, Portuguese Army Capt. Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, known by many as the “Portuguese Dreyfus,” was wrongly convicted by an anti-Semitic military court, and was stripped of his rank.

Barros Basto was ostracized, lost his pension, and was not allowed to wear his uniform.

His unstated crime was that, while officially Christian, he was from a family of so-called “cristãos novos,” or “New Christians,” Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century but secretly adhered to Judaism.

Barros Basto was involved in the revolution that established Portugal’s First Republic in 1910 and was the first person to raise the flag of the republic in Porto.

After the revolution, Barros Basto’s interest in a full return to Judaism grew. He began to learn Hebrew and study Jewish texts, and eventually fully returned to Judaism.

Barros Basto tirelessly built a Jewish community in Porto, largely out of other crypto-Jews, built a synagogue and a yeshiva and brought back many, not just in Porto, but all over Portugal, to their ancestral Jewish traditions.

It was probably this, more than anything else, which raised the ire of the Portuguese authorities that sought to stop his work and cast him out.

To this day, the legacy of the wrong done to Barros Basto lingers on.

However, recently, the Portuguese military has joined the parliament in calling for the government to provide Barros Basto a symbolic posthumous reintegration in the army, “by no means in a category lower than the person concerned would have been entitled to had he not been dismissed.”

The issue of Barros Basto is symbolic of the long and complex history of the Jews of Portugal, especially the dark episodes surrounding the Expulsion, Inquisition and the mass forced conversions.

Nevertheless, there were bright moments, such as the fact that an estimated million Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis during the Holocaust found refuge in Portugal.

In 1944, in Hungary, risking their lives, diplomats Carlos Sampaio Garrido and Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho, helped many Jews escape the Nazis and their Hungarian allies. In June 1940, when Germany invaded France, Portuguese consul in Bordeaux Aristides de Sousa Mendes issued visas, indiscriminately, to a Jewish population in panic, without asking for authorizations from Lisbon, as he was supposed to, saving the lives of more than 10,000 Jews.

Jews and Portugal have shared a turbulent history, with many highs and lows, and that is why the law passed by Portugal early this year granting descendants of Jews forced into exile centuries ago the right to citizenship is such an important positive and moral step.

The historic Knesset Conference for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, held recently in Jerusalem, and attended by many Portuguese citizens, including diplomats, is also part of the building blocks for brighter relations.

The Jewish and Portuguese people not only share a long history, we share the same roots and blood.

According to several genetic studies, around 20-25 percent of Portuguese people alive today have Sephardic Jewish ancestry, many the descendants of those forcibly converted centuries ago.

Furthermore, tens of millions of Latinos and Hispanics around the world, whether in North and Latin America or Europe, are also descended from Portuguese Jews.

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 in the years ahead.

This should begin with forming even closer ties between our two nations, the Portuguese Republic and the State of Israel.

We should also ensure that our shared history is taught in schools to educate about these and other historically significant events, many of which helped define and shape both nations.

There should be reciprocal academic and parliamentary meetings where our shared history is discussed and conclusions reached to encourage greater cooperation and discovery of our shared heritage.

We hope that as more Portuguese people reconnect with their Jewish ancestry, and Jews reconnect with their Portuguese ancestry, this will serve to bolster and strengthen ties between our peoples.

Ashley Perry is a former senior Israeli government adviser, director of the Knesset Caucus for Reconnection and president of Reconectar, an organization facilitating a reconnection with the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities.

Pedro Vargas David was an adviser to Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva.

Ashley Perry, Pedro Vargass