Portugal's Jewish Law of Return Moves from Facebook to Statute Book

Social Media Launched Powerful Political Force

Coming Home: Descendants of Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition are returning to Portugal.
Coming Home: Descendants of Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition are returning to Portugal.

By JTA

Published July 12, 2013.
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Until 2009, right-wing Portuguese politician Jose Ribeiro e Castro didn’t have much interest in the expulsion of his country’s Jewish community in the 16th century. That changed once Ribeiro e Castro opened a Facebook account.

Online, the 60-year-old lawmaker and journalist connected to several Sephardic Jews, descendants of a once robust Jewish community numbering in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom were forced into exile in 1536 during the Portuguese Inquisition. Eventually the encounters morphed into a commitment to rectify a historic injustice.

A Jewish man enters the Sinagogue Bet Eliahu of Belmonte, north of Lisbon.
Getty Images
A Jewish man enters the Sinagogue Bet Eliahu of Belmonte, north of Lisbon.

For Ribeiro e Castro, correcting the injustice meant spearheading a bill to naturalize the Jewish descendants of expelled Jews, a measure that unanimously passed the Portuguese parliament in April and went on the books last week.

“The law is a commendable initiative,” said Nuno Wahnon Martins, the Lisbon-born director of European affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “It has economic considerations as well, which do not subtract from parliament’s worthy decision.”

Portugal’s initiative comes as countries across Europe continue to invest millions to develop Jewish heritage sites – an effort they say is rooted in their belated recognition of the continent’s vibrant Jewish history, but often is also an acknowledged attempt to attract tourist dollars at a time of economic stagnation.

Last year, Spain announced a similar repatriation plan to Portugal’s, though the effort has yet to advance. And the country boasts a network of nearly two dozen cities and towns, known as Red de Juderias, aimed at preserving Spain’s Jewish cultural history in an effort to attract tourists.

Later this month, Portugal will open a $1.5 million learning center in Trancoso, a town once home to many Jews. The prime minister is slated to attend the July 19 opening of the center, which will be aimed at the area’s anusim, descendants of Jews forcibly converted during the Inquisition.


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