Portuguese Jews

Figure 1.-- This photograph shows the Ruah children with their toys. The Ruah were a wealthy Jewish family that settled in Portugal from Morocco (19th century). This was possible after the Portuguese Government finally suppressed the Inquisition (1821). At the right, another child unassociated withthe Ruah children, is looking at the scene. We don't know who he was. Hr looks like a street child. We don't know even why he is in the photo. It provides a comparison between wealthy and poor children..The photo was taken in Lisbon during the early-20th century. Readers have asked about the image. Click on the image for fuller details.

Portugal has one of the longest histories of Jewish settlement in Europe. Jewish settlement may date to the 8th century BC at the time of the first diaspora. The status of Jews has varied widely. There have been times in which Jews prospered and were honored members of society. At other times they have suffered horific persecution and were finally banished from Portugal. Many converted to Christianity. Some continued Jewish religious practices in secret. Other lost all identity as Jews. Portugal at the time of World War II had perhaps the smallest Jewish population in Europe . The country had a Jewish population of about 380 people and 650 Jewish refugees, mostly from Central Europe. The Government granted these refugees "resident" status.

Ancient History

Portugal has one of the longest histories of Jewish settlement in Europe. Historians vary as to when Jews first ppeared. Jewish settlement may date to the the time of King Solomon (10th century BC). Other historians date Jewish settlement to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and the first diaspora (6th century BC).

Roman Empire

Portugal was Christianized during the later era of the Roman Empire.

Barbarian Invasions

Portuguese Christianity was strngthened when the Visigoths conquered the Iberian Peninsula. The Visagoths wee an already Christianized Germanic tribe. They established an early Christian kingdom (6th century). Evidence of Jewish commercial and social activity exists in the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the early Visigoth kingdom after the fall of Rome.

Islamic Era

There are also historical records of Jewish community in the era of Muslim rule. The area of modern Portugal was conquered by the Moors (8th century) There were may converts to Islam. Christianity in fact was nearly extinguished in southern Portugal. Christianity remained dominant in northern Portugal. It was Christianity that provided the cultural core that molded Portugal as a destintive entity on the Iberian Peninsula and fueled the Reconquista.

Early Portuguese Kingdom (12th-13th centuries)

Christianity became the rallying cry of the Reconquista. The Roman Catholic Church predates the Portuguese nation by centuries. King Afonso Henriques (1139-85) was the first king of Portugal and the founder of Portuguese nation. Under Afonso, church and state were associated into a mutually beneficial if not always harmonious partnership.Gradually the Reconquista restored Christian rule to Portugal and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. The status of Jews varied widely in the various Christian kingdoms and over time. There have been times in which Jews prospered and were honored members of society. At other times they have suffered horific persecution and were finally banished from Portugal. The Portugues Kingom was founded during the Reconquista (12th century). At the time there was still relative benighn toleration of Jews in Portugal compared to the situation in other European countries such as Enggland, France, Germany, and Italy. This was in pat because of the spirit of toleration and learning fostered by Islam. The monarchy also found the Jews as valuable subjects. The Jewisg community was a recognized legal entity. The Crown thus appointed specific officials to adjucate Jewish cases. Affonso Henriques appointed Yahia ben Yahi III as royal tax collector and supervisor. He also became the first chief Rabbi of the Portugese Jewish community. King Sancho I (1185-1211) appointed Jose ben Yahi, Yahia ben Yahi’s grandson, High Steward of the Realm. Such appointments would have been unheard of in other Western European countries. Gradually anti-Semitism spread in the Iberian Peninsula as the Reconquista pushed Islamic kingdoms back to increasingly isolated southern kingdoms. Anti-Semitism was at first most pronounced with the lowe classess and middle classes. The clergy played a major role in promoting anti-Semitism among the lower classes. Within the middle classes there was an element of commercial competition. The Portuguese clergy pushed to have the restrictions on Jews authorized by the Lateran Council applied in Portugal. King Dinis (1279-1235) defended the Jews and refused to require them to pay tithes to the church.

Era of Discovery (14th-15th centuries)

Portugal is a small country located on the perifery of Europe. It has not played a major role in European history. The one exception is during a brief period in the late medieval era. The reason for this is largely geography. The expanding European economies created a growing demand for luxury goods from the East, especially China. The Arabs controlled the trade routes to the east, especially after the fall of Constaninople. This greatly added to the cost of these items which Venetian contol of the eastern Mediterreanean made even more expensive. This Europeans sought a way around the Arab/Venetian straglehold on commerce. Portugal and Spain jutting out into the Atantic were ideally situated to persue this endevor the early voyages of discovery were financed by the Portuguese. The Poruguese also were a center of learning on navigation, vessel construction, and geography. Prince Henry the Navigator played a key role in the enterprise. Portugal's Jewish community plyed an important role in Portugal’s success at this time. Estimates suggest that in the 14th century Portugal's Jewish population may have totaled 200,000 people, about 20 percent of the overall population. The Jews were separated into separate districts of the towns, but were not confined to them. The Jewish quarters hd a synagogue, slaughter house, hospital, jails, bath houses and facilities. A rabbi would be appointed with both administrative and legal authority. Scholarship florished in Portugal at the time. Here Jewish scholars were especially impprtant. In part because Jewish boys were expected to learn go read and write, while literacy was rare among the Christians. (All Jews were expected to study the holy scriptures. The Christian Church did not incourage the faithful to read the Bible. Men who tried to translate the Bible into the national languages were declared heretics and burned at the stake.) Abraham Zacuto develped key tables that proved invaluable to Portuguese navigators. Vasco Da Gama used his tables on his ground breaking voyage to India. Guedelha-Master Guedelha was a rabbi as well as a doctor and astrologer to both King Duarte and King Alfonso V. Isaac Abravanel was one of the most important merchants in Portugl and helped to finance many voyages. Jose Vizinho served as a doctor and astrologer to King Joao II. Abraham de Beja was sent by King Joao II on important voyages. Jews in large part because of their learning were among the intellectual and economic elite of the kingdom. We have named a few individuals here, but Jews were involved in all aspects of Portugal's explosion on to the world's stage at this time. They helped finance the voyages, made important scientific discoveries (especially in mathematics, medicine and cartography). Many Jews received prestigious appointments as physicians and astronomers. The degree to which they were trusted by successive monarchs is reflected in these appointments as well as appointment as royal treasurers, tax collectors and advisors. Jewss were among the richest in the kingdom. Portugal proospered as did the Jews.

Rising Anti-Semitism (14th-15th centuries)

The rampant anti-Semitism of Western Europe could not help but affect Portugal. Certainly the success of the Jews created resentment among Christians. The clergy helped fuel this sentiment. Jews fleeing persecution in Spain flocked to Portugal (1391). The large number of Jews adds to Christian intolerance. Gradually more restrictions were placed on Portugues Jews. King Joao I (1385-1432) required Jews to wear destinctive clothes to identify them. He also established a curfew by which rime they had to retire to the Jewish quarter. King Duarte (1433-1438) prohibited Jews from employing Christians. King Alfonso V had a more bebign outlook and repealed some restrictions. King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain influenced by the desire to purify the Kingdom and profit as well the Jews from Spain (1492). Over 150,000 Spanish Jews sought refuge in Portugal King Joao II did allow them to enter. He had various reasons including a desire to benefit from their weath and skills (especially weapon making). A small number of wealthy and skilled Spanish Jews were accepted as residents. The others were permitted to stay for only 8 months with a fee of 8 cruzados per adult. After 8 months those that remained were made slaves of the crown. Tghe King then seized the children, several hundred of whom were sent to Sao Tome (1493). The 500th anniversary of this tragic event was celebrated on Sao Tome by some of their descendents (1993).


Manuel I (1494- ) had more favorable attitudes toward the Jews and restored their freedom. He did not have a strong grip on the throne. He sought tp strengthen his position by marrying Princess Isabel. As the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, this would greatly strengthen his dynastic position. Isabel was ardently Catholic and just as ardently anti-Semitic. She demanded that he expel the Jews as her prents had done. Manuel was no anxious to expel Portugal's Jews, but signed the marriage contract (November 30, 1496). Only 5days later he issued a decree requiring all Jews to leave Portugal by October 1497. Manuel understood the economic importance of Portugal's Jews. While he issued the decree he tried to impede their departure. He insisted that they could only leave through the port of Lisbon. He attempted to convert the Jews before the deadline. The King ordered Jews to bring their children (ages 4-14 years) to Lisbon (March 19, 1497). The first day of Passover was specifically chosen. When they arrived, the authorities moved to separated the children from their parents to be given to good Catholic paents who would raise them as good Catholics. Some of the Jewish parents resisted and killed themselves and their children. Some relienquished their children. Other accepted baptism so they could keep their children. Finally about 20,000 Jews arrived in Lisbon preparing to embark for new homes (October 1947). Aothorities forced them into the courtyard of Os estaos palace. There priests haranged them in an effort to convert them. Some accepted conversion. Other resisted. They were then told that they would be made slaves. Most finally gave in the demands. They were then hurriedly baptised and made "New Christians."


What was the impact of the expullsion? It is no accident that Portugal and Spain before the wave of anti-Semtism and anti-Islamic fervor was one of the leading centers of learning in Europe. That learning made the voyages of discovery possible. After the expullsion, the economic and political trajectory of both Spain and Portugal was downward. Even with the wealth of the Indies Portugues and Spanish power declined. Within only a few years, the growing technological sophistication of England and help from the weather defeated the Great Armada. The 16th century saw the beginning of the scientific discoveries that were to transform Europe. While Spain and Portugal had once been a center of learing, none of the new discoveries came from the Iberian Peninsula. Of course the loss of the Jews was just one factor. The corrisive impact of the Inquisition on thought and inquiry was another major factor. Of course the two are interlinked. The Jews were some of the most learnerd and educated people in the two kingdoms. Spain and Portugal which once shown so bright were destened to become backwaters of Europe. Almost hermit-like kingdoms which did not really rejoin Europe until the deaths of Salazar and Franco.


Many Portugese Jews had been forcibly converted to Catholicism and allowed to remain in Portugal as Conversos. Many attempted to remain secretly Jewish. The Inquisition was well aware of this and kept track of them. There were individual arrests, Then 3,000 "New Christians" were massacred in Lisbon (1509).


Many converted to Christianity. Some continued Jewish religious practices in secret, but this given the reach of the Inquisition, this was difficult over time. Eventually the Nre Christians who survived lost all identity as Jews.

The Holocaust

Portugal was a major gateway to saftey for Jews and Europeans who had opposed the NAZIs. Portugal itself had perhaps the smallest Jewish population in Europe at the time of World war II. The country had a Jewish population of about 380 people and 650 Jewish refugees, mostly from Central Europe. The Government granted these refugees "resident" status. Prime Minister Salazar was in a difficult position. Portugal was a traditional British ally. After the fall of France (June 1940), Portugal adopted a liberal visa policy allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to enter the country, however, those of Russian origin or birth because they might be Communists were excluded. Portugal came under increasing pressure from the NAZIs. Salazar has some breathing space because Franco refused to enter the War or allow German armies to transit Spain to seize Gibraltar. Even so, Salzar had to tread the Germans with care as he could not be sure that Germany might not invade Spain. Unlike Spain, Portugal did not close its border, but refugees had to get accros the French-Spanish border which was closed. The danger posed by the NAZIs caused Salazar to issue more stringent immigration restrictions (late-1940). Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat in Vichy France, ignored Government directives and issued large numbers of visas allowing Jews in France to travel to Portugal. The Portuguese Government dismissed him as a result. Portugal as the War turned against Germany felt safe to begin granting more entry visas. The Government cooperated in various rescue efforts. The Government granted the visas with the condition that Portugal would be a transit point and that other countries would accept them. Portugal like other neutral countries attempted to save Hungarian Jews. An estimated 100,000 Jews and other refuges fleeling NAZI opression managed to reach safty through Portugal. All the Jews who managed to reach Portugal survived the War.


Weiner, Rebecca. The Virtual Jewish History Tour Portugal.


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Created: 11:48 PM 11/1/2005
Last updated: 1:26 AM 12/1/2017