Monday 25 February 2008

Campaign to rehabilitate Captain Barros Basto, the 'Portuguese Dreyfus'

Help restore the posthumous reputation of Portuguese Jewish army officer Artur Carlos Barros Basto (1887-1961) by signing the petition created by the Oporto Jewish Congregation and written by Jorge Neves:

Cry justice for the 'Portuguese Dreyfus', by Michael Freund (2003)

A few months ago, in the northern Portuguese village of Amarante, I stood before the simple and unadorned grave of a largely forgotten Jewish hero of the 20th century, Captain Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto.
His name might not be familiar to you, but his story is worth recounting, nonetheless, because it is one of heartbreak and heroism, and its final chapter remains to be written.
Historians such as the late Cecil Roth labeled him the 'Portuguese Dreyfus' after French General Staff officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges in 1894 and drummed out of the military.
But in one important respect Barros Basto's story is even more compelling, because, unlike his French counterpart, he has yet to receive the exoneration and acclaim he so richly deserves.
This year marks six decades since the Portuguese armed forces summarily decided to expel Barros Basto from their ranks, citing unspecified reasons of "good and welfare" for its decision.
The truth of the incident is far more troubling.
Captain Barros Basto was one of the Anousim, a descendant of Jews whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Catholicism during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. According to his biographers, Dr. Elvira Mea and journalist Inacio Steinhardt, Barros Basto was a decorated soldier who commanded a Portuguese infantry company in World War I, fought in the trenches of Flanders, and took part in the allied offensive to liberate Belgium.
After returning home from the war he decided to embrace the faith of his forefathers, and underwent a formal return to Judaism before a rabbinical court in Spanish Morocco in December 1920.
Based in the northern Portuguese city of Oporto, Barros Basto launched a public campaign to convince other Anousim to emerge from centuries of hiding and rejoin their people. This dashing war hero traveled among the villages and towns of the area, bedecked in his military uniform, holding Jewish services and seeking to inspire others to follow his example.
He succeeded in building the beautiful Mekor Haim synagogue, which still stands in Oporto, and opened a yeshiva that operated for nine years, teaching young Anousim about their heritage. Singlehandedly he produced a Jewish newspaper and was responsible for the publication of numerous books on Jewish history, law and lore in Portuguese.
But his open profession of Judaism, and the thousands of people whom historians say he inspired, did not sit well with the government, or the Church authorities of the time. They sought to quell his nascent movement by bringing false charges of moral debauchery against him.
Though the local prosecutor filed charges against Barros Basto, the case was dropped after two years, in 1937, for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, in 1943, Portugal's Ministry of Defense expelled him from the army, unjustly humiliating him and bringing about an end to his efforts to reawaken Portugal's Anousim.
He died in 1961, a broken man.
And so, whereas Dreyfus was eventually pardoned in 1899 and restored to the French army in 1906 with full honors, Barros Basto went to the grave without justice ever being served.
When I first learned of his story on a visit to Portugal last fall, I was livid with rage. How could it be that so many years have passed without the injustice done to this valiant, heroic figure being rectified? And so, earlier this year I launched a public campaign under the auspices of Amishav, the organization I direct in Jerusalem, seeking to persuade the Portuguese government to clear Capt. Barros Basto's name.
In a meeting with the Portuguese ambassador to Tel Aviv I asked that his government acknowledge Barros Basto's innocence and apologize for the hurt this chapter has caused to both his family and the Jewish people. Similar appeals were sent to the Portuguese government and its representatives abroad.
American Jewish organizations such as the Conference of Presidents, the Orthodox Union and the Religious Zionists of America have all joined the campaign, writing to the Portuguese ambassador to Washington about the Barros Basto case.
And US Congressman Gary Ackerman, a member of the House International Relations Committee, has also spoken out, urging the Portuguese to resolve the matter.
Thus far, however, there has not been any progress. The stain on this noble man's name has yet to be removed.
In a time when Israel finds itself targeted by terror it may seem incongruous to be concerning ourselves with such a symbolic cause. But symbols still have meaning, and it is incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to right this historical wrong.
Barros Basto was a courageous figure who stood up for the Jewish people, defying the powers that be to help his brethren. When anti-Semitism victimizes such a person, be it in 1943 or 2003, how can we possibly remain silent?
More pressure must be brought to bear on the Portuguese government to address this matter, and so the issue may be laid to rest once and for all. Contact your local Portuguese embassy or write to Portugal's Ministry of Foreign Affairs at: and ask them why they have not yet resolved this important case.
Captain Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto risked his career and reputation on behalf of his people, the Jewish people. The least we can do in return is see that the dignity so unjustly taken away from him is restored.

1 comment:

Enzo said...

I love your well-researched and well-written articles.
Thank you for bringing this petition and this story to light.