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Sefarad’s Lands: Bragança 2017 and the Judaic Heritage

Written by Paulo Mendes Pinto
August 3, 2017

From the 15th to the 18th of June, in Bragança, the intention was to reconnect with our memory, searching for and rediscovering an identity that has been stolen from us as a collective identity.
We could reference our thoughts back to the year 1536, the year the Inquisition was established in Portugal. But we could even go further back to 1532, the year Portugal was shaken by another earthquake, an event understood as supernatural and which provided the last breath, the last enforcement to the desire to settle in Portugal this religious court. Paraphrasing Rui Zink, this cataclysm had come to “Settle the Fear”, in a framework where fear had been raging for more than two centuries.  Now it was set up as a way of managing everyday life.
In fact, I do not know how to make or trace a fear genealogy in Portugal. Just like today it escapes all rationalities. We have exceptional security conditions, an exceptional society, but we live secluded inside some tabloid newspaper which creates for us a world full of rapes, homicides, parents who molest daughters, among many other barbarities, causing our older generation or those who are more susceptible to perceive a world where this narrative becomes true even though reality attests the opposite.
So much so now, as it was in 1532. The Jews were the regular scapegoat, a prevalent undertone in a culture where the popular, in its most negative sense, was commonplace. Previously, in 1506, a friar’s inflamed preaching had led to the death of 4000 people in Lisbon. In 1532 the number of deaths was larger through various cities where the hordes, inflamed by radical preaching, went out on the streets killing whoever was considered as new-Christian or as crypto-Jew. Logic was the most pre-cartesian we can conceive, without rational justification or simple humanistic meaning, without any criterion for criticism.
And the following 300 years went by with this mental perspective, a form of living that was affirmed as form of being, where slander became social intelligence, where malicious denunciation was assumed as an instrument of survival, where accusations leading to the death were trivial as a tool to get even.
The new-Christians, the crypto-Jews, were the great target of this unhealthy type of community, and such unhealthy type is not destroyed by the various requests for forgiveness. Indeed, Mário Soares had the noble and worthy gesture of presenting an apology for the persecution of the Jews. Lisbon’s Patriarch followed in his footsteps. But popular culture, the framework of mentalities, has remained and thrives in this crucible of pre-established fears and truths creating a reality of fake news while part of our population lives estranged from the real problems of their world.
From the 15th to the 18th of June, in Bragança, the intention of Sefarad’s Land(s) was to reconnect with our memory, searching for and rediscovering an identity that has been stolen from us as collective identity – a right to an inheritance that was hidden, obliterated, concealed, and which, today, we perceive to be an immense reality to which we cannot and must not flee from.
At the height of Renaissance, with the astonishing impulse of the Discoveries, we managed first to deny the right to religious freedom to the Portuguese Jews then, to convert them by force to Christianity and, finally, to persecute those who, unwilling to be Christians, were still accused of being “Judaizers”.  Of these, many died, others hid, and a great majority fled.
They were Portuguese who had only the distinctive mark of having another religion. And “just” because they were the most educated, the most literate, the most knowledgeable in the fields of the various sciences of the time. It was these, our best ones, which we persecuted, defining an averageness, which is a mediocrity that still persecutes us today in school success rates and in cultural levels.
To be able to return to Sephardic themes, after these centuries, in one of the most emblematic cities for this theme, is an image of immense courage and of an even greater vision of the Bragança municipality.
Today there are practically no Jews in Bragança. At the onset of the 20th century, during the First Republic, it was set up a community of citizens from the city who, in freedom, returned to the faith of their ancestors who had to keep it hidden within the walls of privacy.
But whether by what the DNA studies have shown us, whether by culture or by the cosmopolitanism that marks the Sephardic Jewish culture, today we are all Sephardic Land(s). We are all that heritage, connected to the innovation, the growth, the pursuit of the culture and the quality that marked the Jewish Portuguese communities.
We live in remarkable times when religious freedom allows us, in conscience, to look back and see how the past can help us in the citizenship of the future. Not only should dialogue and respect be increasingly the norm, but also difference/diversity should be valued as an heritage and a wealth of us all, both Jews, Christians or atheists, as well as many others who, today, as people of good will, seek the tools for a conscious citizenship.

Author: PAULO MENDES PINTO (SCIENCE OF RELIGIONS) Coordinator of the Science of Religions area at the Lusófona University. World Parliament of Religions Ambassador and founder of the European Academy of Religions. He specializes in History of Ancient Religions (mythology and comparative literature) but devotes part of his work to issues related to the relationship between the State and religions. In the area of Science of Religions he is responsible for several research projects, especially about the relationship between religions and school, as well as about the development of a culture about religions as a component of citizenship. He is also a researcher at the “Alberto Benveniste” Chair of Sephardic Studies at the University of Lisbon. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the History Teachers Association. He is director of the Science of Religions Lusophone Journal. He was awarded the Gold Medal of Academic Merit of the Lusófona University, in 2013.