While only about 1,000 Jews live in Portugal today, some 26,000 people claiming Portuguese heritage have applied for citizenship.
Portugal’s decision to grant citizenship to the descendants of Sephardi Jews exiled in the 15th century serves to “connect the country’s past with the present and future,” according to the Portuguese Secretary of State for Tourism.
“History is always part of us, both the good and bad moments – and it’s important to remember that in the 15th century, 20% of Portugal’s population was Jewish,” Ana Mendes Godinho told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday during a three-day visit to Israel.
“Today, every Portuguese citizen believes there was someone Jewish in their family and we feel this Jewish heritage as part of our history,” she added, citing the discovery of Brazil by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500. “The most important moments of Portuguese history are associated with the presence of Jewish communities.”
“A very interesting part of our history is associated with crypto-Judaism,” added Mendes Godinho, who has dedicated considerable time to visiting and building bridges with Jewish communities all over the world, including in the United States, Brazil and Canada.
“For example, it’s amazing to see that one of our most traditional dishes, alheira, is a result of crypto-Judaism, and the Jews needing to hide and prove that they had converted,” Mendes Godinho said. “Today, it’s one of our favorite national dishes, and represents another link between the past and the present.”
Mendes Godinho’s visit, timed to coincide with the International Mediterranean Tourism Market exhibition in Tel Aviv, follows the launch of direct El Al flights between Tel Aviv and Lisbon last year. Portuguese national carrier TAP will launch daily flights between the cities starting April 1.
Tourism, Mendes Godinho said, played an important role in assisting Portugal’s recovery from the economic crisis that struck earlier this decade. The country has sought in recent years to diversify the origins of its tourism market, with an emphasis on sustainable and year-round tourism.
“One of the things we invested in heavily is to attract new flight routes and airlines. In the last three years alone, we have established 500 new airline operations, including with Israel. Now we have the air connection, it’s time to promote Portugal in Israel,” she said.
In addition to promoting tourism between the countries, Mendes Godinho’s visit has also focused on furthering collaboration between Portuguese and Israeli hi-tech and start-ups, encouraging greater Israeli investment in Portugal.
“Portugal was considered by Ernst & Young as the best destination to invest in tourism and real estate, and also for investors who want to put their eggs in different baskets,” she said. “We have also been organizing a meeting of leaders of the international Sephardi communities in Portugal in May, with the cooperation of the Jerusalem-based World Sephardi Federation.”
Of course, a final area of mutual interest between the countries, Mendes Godinho explained, lies in the hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest. Israel will host the competition in May after Israel’s Netta Barzilai emerged victorious at the 2018 contest held in Lisbon.
“By coincidence, I invited the president of Lisbon’s Jewish community to attend Eurovision with me, and Israel won! I celebrated the victory in Lisbon with the Israeli flag in the pavilion. It was an amazing moment,” she said.