The Lost Jews Of The Inquisition: We Must Not Forget …

The Lost Jews Of The Inquisition: We Must Not Forget …

In 1618, the Portuguese Inquisition was at its height with the torture, expulsion, and execution of Jews. The extreme persecution of the Jewish people by the Catholic Church spread like wildfire from Italy, to Spain, to Portugal, and eventually to the New World. With it came the unmitigated destruction and confiscation of Jewish property, synagogues, and cemeteries as well. This horror would later be repeated by the Nazis during Kristallnacht.

Over 400 years later, in March 2022, many in the Jewish community of Porto, Portugal, felt as if the Inquisition had returned when Portuguese police raided and searched the community’s main synagogue. Two weeks later, the community’s rabbi, Daniel Litvak, was arrested and suspected of granting Portuguese citizenship approvals in violation of the “Spanish Law,” a law which allowed descendants of those expelled from Spain and Portugal to obtain Portuguese citizenship.

Portugal’s second-largest city, Porto, has a growing Jewish community with around 1,000 individuals from over 30 countries, very unusual for a country with a history of persecution of Jews. But in 2015, the passing of the “Spanish law” became key in propelling the Jewish community forward and over 5000 Sephardic Jews have now become citizens of Spain or Portugal. The original idea was to bring wealthy Jews and foreign investments into the country. The law was highly successful and brought many affluent Jews to Portugal—including one who acquired the country’s largest communications company.

But with the ever-growing rise of antisemitism throughout Europe, the honeymoon in Portugal was bound to end. Gabriel Senderowicz, the head of Porto’s Jewish community, stated: “We felt as if the Inquisition had returned after the Portuguese authorities conducted a Soviet-style antisemitic attack against us. They don’t like Jewish success in Portugal. They spread fake news against the community in the Portuguese media. The truth is that they were alarmed by the return of the Jews and their success. The Jewish community in Porto represented a reality they despise. They broke into the synagogue and the homes of community leaders. The community was accused of corruption. These actions against us were based on false accusations and fake news.”

European history tells us that tens of thousands of Jews were forcibly expelled from Portugal in December of 1496 when Portugal’s King decreed that all Jews must leave the country. The King wished to completely and forever eradicate Judaism from Portugal by issuing two conflicting decrees. The initial edict of expulsion of 1496 later became an edict of forced conversion. In 1497, Portuguese Jews were prevented from leaving the country and were forcibly baptized and converted to Christianity. Over 2000 of these “new Christians”, known as “conversos”, were massacred amid the bloodshed and constant cruel hand of the Inquisition.

In 2022, the return of the Jews and their success on Portuguese soil became a reality to be despised. This return of the world’s oldest hatred has stained Portugal with the stigma of Jewish hatred and persecution.

When the scandal erupted, the Portuguese media celebrated as the police investigation became international news with a tidal wave of antisemitic hatred in social media across Europe. Not surprisingly, an ADL survey released in April 2023 showed that the deep-seated roots of antisemitism are still entrenched in Europe. One in three people surveyed harbor particularly hateful beliefs that the Jews control the monetary system and the government, with many blaming Jews for the COVID pandemic – all antisemitic tropes now being mainstreamed and normalized.

This sad news story from Portugal has been particularly heartbreaking to me. As a lover of Israel, I recently discovered that my family’s lineage could be traced back to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal. By definition, Sephardic Jews are Jews who lived for generations on the Iberian Peninsula and were forced to convert to Catholicism or face expulsion from their homes. Many who were forcibly converted were later killed as “false Christians” and heretics.

As a result of the Inquisition, over 300,000 Jews left Spain and joined Jews already in Portugal, keeping their faith a secret. Some fled into the wilderness and remained as practicing Jews in hiding. They kept their faith alive through a custom of Crypto-Judaism and endogamy. Jewish traditions were kept alive by unique candlelight ceremonies, Sabbath candles submerged in clay jars, and sausages constructed out of flour and chicken hung on their windows to prevent arousing suspicion from local authorities. This Sephardic tradition of Crypto-Judaism is unique and represented a hub of resistance against European antisemitism. In fact, a community of Jews continued to practice their faith in secret in Belmonte, a small town in the mountains of Portugal, for hundreds of years until discovered in 1917 by a Polish Jewish mining engineer named Samuel Schwartz.

In much of Latin America, there are thousands, if not millions, of people descended from “secret Jews”. Unfortunately, the story of the Crypto-Jews is unknown to many Christians. For 2,000 years, the jealousy of Ephraim must end. But the only way to end this historic jealousy and hatred is to proclaim justice to the nations of the world. I am presently in discussions with our donors to begin the development and production of PJTN’s next documentary titled The Lost Jews of the Inquisition.

It will be the untold story of these unsung heroes. It’s a story that must be told. For my Jewish ancestors…and for those that were lost.

For more info on Laurie’s work through her organization, PJTN, resource

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