Lisbon the city of Tolerance

Looking at some images from my recent trip to Lisbon, made me recall a great book that I read few months before my trip called Last Kabbalist in Lisbon.  The story is a fictionalized account of the struggle of Morranos or conversos after their forced conversion and their struggle through the new Pogroms.

In 1497, King Manual of Portugal was convinced by the Dominican Friars that the Jews and Moslems of Portugal should be brought under the protection of the Catholic Church. Jews and Moslems were forcibly brought to the baptismal font and converted. Many were driven into the Tagus River where they were baptized ‘en mass.

Ten years later the  ‘New Christians’  were given twenty years to give up their customs and evil ways.  After this period the fervor of the inquisition sweeping the Iberian peninsula took over the populace of Portugal as it had done in Spain shortly before that.  The search for answers in times of plagues, landed the burden on the piousness of the Chrisitians.  And the conversos “new Jews” bore the brunt of people’s anger.  During this time  the ‘New Christians’ were massacred and/or burned alive in the central square of Lisbon over a three day period that happened to coincide with Passover. The mobs that terrorized the city were lead by Dominican monks (many who would pay with their lives, later) who seemed to have taken especial pleasure in torturing, raping and plundering these New Christian/Jews.

Again the peaceful coexistance of Jews, Christians and Muslims ended as it had in Spain shortly prior.  The jews left to the border area  between the Spanish and the Portuguese Kingdoms.  They practiced in secret and moved across the borders with the sentiment of antisemitism..

In 1960 anthropologist found Crypto-Jewish communities in northeastern Portugal. The members had managed to survive more than four centuries without being fully assimilated into the Old Christian population.  The last remaining crypto-Jewish community in Belmonte officially returned to Judaism in the 1970s.

The square where this took place now stands a placard commemorating this event. The memorial says “In memory of the thousands of Jews victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism, murdered in the massacre started on this square on the 19th of April 1506.”

São Domingos Square also has a wall with the words Lisbon the City of Tolerance written in many languages. When I initially read this, remembering the story,  I was struck by irony and hypocrisy.. In addition to the massacres of Jews, expulsion of Muslims Lisbon was also the first European capital use African slaves.  I thought it presumptious and hippocritical.  Though after spending some time in Lisbon I came to think otherwise.

There was some credence to the idea that this has become the city of tolerance .. With times moods changed.  People reflector religious fervor died down and society had changed.  Eventually it became a safe place for refugees especially during WWII, and was among the first in Europe to abolish slavery. Today it welcomes People of African descent, Brazil and Easter Europe. Even with certain socio-economic segregation, there is little tension between the groups.  And has had much less in the way of intergroup violence or tension.

I’d like to believe the words are made with the past in mind,  not a statement of arrogance or pride, but an aspiration for the society to bring out the best in the people. I understood it as a way to acknowledge the past and ensure the past is not repeated. Tolerance is a great quality to aspire to these days. The days that the world seems to be closing inward and frictions are coming to the surface.

Here’s to Lisbon the city of Tolerance


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