When my husband Jim and I decided to visit Portugal this summer, we didn’t know we would join large numbers of tourists vacationing there. We also learned later that many of the people flocking to Portugal are planning to stay.
Thousands of Jews are applying for Portuguese citizenship, centuries after their ancestors were forced to leave. Since 2015, Portugal has been accepting applications under a 2013 law establishing the “right of return” for descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1497. The expulsion had been a condition of the marriage between the daughter of Isabella of Spain to King Manuel of Portugal. Until then, Portugal had its own population of Jews dating back well over 1,400 years, and also harbored those who had previously been forced out of Spain. In 2014, Spain passed a similar right of return law.
One step toward citizenship under the law is to apply to join the Jewish community in Porto, a city we visited. The impact was felt almost immediately, as reported in The Times of Israel in 2016:
[In 2011], this city’s tiny Jewish community was so strapped for cash it couldn’t afford to fix the deep cracks in its synagogue’s moldy ceiling.
The Jewish Community of Porto was also too poor to hire a full-time rabbi because of its small size (50 members) and the paucity of donors in a country gripped by a financial crisis.
By 2016, one year after the right of return law went into effect, Porto had a new kosher hotel, a newly renovated synagogue, a “Jewish museum and mikvah ritual bath, and plans to build a kosher shop, Jewish kindergarten and school.” A celebration that year drew hundreds of guests from all over the world.
Some of the program’s popularity, unfortunately, has been attributed to the rise of antisemitism in Europe. A young French university student in Porto told the The Times of Israel, “I no longer feel comfortable in France… I would never wear a kippah on the street. Here people sometimes tell me they are happy to see the Jews return.”
I found a local connection when I talked to neighbor Margery Elfin about our trip and Portugal’s pull for Jews from around the world. She dug up an article that she and her late husband Mel Elfin had written about their trip to Portugal in 1958 for a 1960 issue of National Jewish Monthly.
Just as many Jews today see Porto and Lisbon as a safe harbor from antisemitism, the Elfins described Portugal as a temporary safe harbor for Jewish refugees fleeing France when it fell to the Germans during World War II. They could come if they were passing through to other destinations.
“In many cases it was the Portuguese consular officials in France, who opened the gates of mercy to them (French Jews),” the Elfins wrote. “Liberally interpreting the diplomatic rules in an effort to save as many lives as they could, they gave visas to almost all.”
The “swarm of refugees” was estimated to have been at least 50,000 strong, and required the resources of the Lisbon Red Cross and Lisbon Jews “who threw themselves into the rescue operations with all the energy, influence and finances at their command… The hordes left as quickly as they came and by 1944 there were only 400 waiting for safe passage.”
According to the BBC, Portugal has received about 30,000 applications for “right of return” and about 7,000 applicants have been granted Portuguese nationality. The largest groups are from Israel, followed by Turkey and Brazil. As the Jews are welcomed back to Portugal, perhaps this time they will be able to remain.
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