Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Portugal, the Jews and Israel - a difficult relationship

“Von dem Christeliche / Streyt, kürtzlich geschehe / jm. M.CCCCC.vj Jar zu Lissbona / ein haubt stat in Portigal zwischen en christen und newen chri / sten oder juden , von wegen des gecreutzigisten got.” - German contemporary engraving depicting the 1506 massacre in Lisbon.

1506 – A massacre
In April 1506, Lisbon was the scene of a spate of horrific religious acts of violence which left over one thousand ‘New Christians’ - converted Jews - dead. The violence erupted in a Dominican convent chapel where a worshipper saw golden stars emanating from a wooden crucifix, and when two days later a ‘New Christian’ questioned the miracle. He was beaten, dragged out of the chapel and killed on the spot. The same fate awaited his brother who tried to rescue him. Mobs, led by Domincan priests, went on a three-day killing spree. Men, women and children were murdered and burnt at the stake, babies skulls were smashed against walls. When all the Jews were dead, those who were thought to look Jewish were chased.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese inquisition incarcerated, robbed, tormented, tortured, and burnt at the stake thousands of converted Jews on charges of heresy. The tentacles of suspicion reached everywhere. The country was obsessed by the idea of ‘purity of blood’: Jewish blood was held to be ‘infected’ and ‘members of the Nation’ were guilty of corrupting society and Christianity.

Commenting in 1882 on the 16th century massacre, Portuguese historian Oliveira Martins argued that Jews had been persecuted in such a cowardly manner because they were pariahs with no king or land and that nobody would dare treat Moors the same way for fear of retaliation by their rulers. Oliveira Martins was right. Jews needed a country of their own. 500 hundred years later, they were still stateless and dependent on the goodwill of Christians: six million were murdered – one million of which were children.

1975 – Zionism equated with racism
Oblivious of the past, Portugal was the only Western European country to vote in 1975 in favour of the infamous United Nations Resolution 3379 (revoked in 1991) which equated Zionism – the self-determination of the Jewish people - with racism. It is ironic that such malevolence came after the holocaust and in the aftermath of the revolution which enabled the Portuguese people to shed four decades of a harsh dictatorial regime. Having regained freedom and dignity, the progressive regime in place riding on the anti-Zionist tide turned against Jews and their democratic State.

In 1989, in a gesture which brought him respect and gratitude, Socialist President Mário Soares made a public apology for the past persecution of Jews. He spoke for people who had been dead for many years. But no apology was offered on behalf of those who were still alive and who 14 years earlier had equated Zionism with racism.

2004 - Arafat died a hero and a martyr
Then, on Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, President Mário Soares wrote an embarrassing article extolling the virtues of Arafat who he found moderate, bright, subtle and pleasant. He declared that Arafat had died as “a hero and a martyr”, and accused Israel of practising large-scale terrorism: “His opponents and enemies accuse him of being a terrorist. Israeli leader and former Prime Minister Menahem Begin also stands accused of having been a terrorist during the English [sic] occupation(1). Let’s not forget that the State of Israel practises terrorism on a large scale.” But the most astonishing revelation was that, as a Latin, he and his team had found in Palestinian Arafat, who they met in Beirut in 1982, a kindred spirit: “The conversation lasted over three hours. Arafat, almost always gave double meaning replies to our questions so that the Soviet general, who was silent, would not understand. Curiously, this type of conversation unnerved my Nordic comrades. Whereas we, Latins, understood perfectly well the message that Arafat wanted to convey. And it was simple: he wanted to negotiate peace with Israel and was ready to make important concessions.” What seems to have totally escaped Dr. Soares was that Arafat was famous for his double meaning, or rather multi-meaning, talk, which so many like him were only too willing to take at face value.
(1) In the article Mário Soares bizarrely refers to ‘a Jewish warship’ (‘um navio de guerra judeu’).

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