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The new Jews of Porto: How the Portuguese city built a Jewish community from scratch

PORTO, Portugal (JTA) — In an apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, 95-year-old Marilyn Flitterman habitually sits at her piano to play tunes by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin — long ago committed to memory — while looking back at the past 50 years of her life in Porto.

Born in Brooklyn, she moved to the city on Portugal’s northwest coast with her husband and children in 1970, following a work opportunity her husband found as a textile designer. Coming from a Jewish family in a “Jewish town,” she figured she would drop by Porto’s Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue. The quick visit convinced her to give up on synagogue attendance.

“There was nobody there — two or three people,” Flitterman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Porto, the country’s second-largest city, whose cobblestone streets and twinkling Douro riverbank hum with tourists, was home to about 40 Jews in 2012. They couldn’t scrape together enough cash to hire a rabbi or seal a leak in the historic synagogue’s ceiling.

But over the past decade, a community of roughly 1,000 Jews has materialized in Porto, thanks to a law that since 2015 has allowed the return of people whose ancestors were expelled during the Portuguese Inquisition. Jewish locals organized a campaign of expansive outreach online and in news advertisements around the world, and an entire community of immigrants heeded the call.

Funding reaped from new residents has enabled the building of a rapid succession of institutions and Jewish tourism attractions — including a Jewish Museum opened in 2019, a Holocaust Museum in 2021 and a cemetery in 2023. The Holocaust Museum has drawn over 50,000 visitors a year since it opened, most of them Portuguese schoolchildren, said Michael Rothwell, the British-born director of the city’s Jewish museums.

“We started to reach out with any means at our disposal to the world of Jews, telling them: Look at Sepharad [Hebrew word for the Iberian Peninsula], this is where Sephardic Jews come from, come and see where it all started,” said Rothwell. “And it worked — we started having quite a few visitors, and some decided to live here.”

The community features young Jews and families from across the globe. Gabriel Senderowicz, the president of Porto’s Jewish communal board, arrived from Brazil in 2017.

“We have about 30 nationalities here — people from Israel, Mexico, Brazil, Tunisia, Turkey, France,” he said. “All continents are represented here.”

Flitterman was inspired to return to synagogue when David Garrett, a member of the Jewish board who has led the community’s revitalization, became her upstairs neighbor. Now the oldest member of a young community, Flitterman pulls up to synagogue every week in a convertible she insists on driving herself, notwithstanding her children’s reminders that she is pushing 100. During an event celebrating European Jewish culture in September, she saw 600 people fill Kadoorie’s seats to watch its choir — in a community that 10 years ago was too small to gather a minyan, or prayer quorum of 10 men.

Marilyn Flitterman poses in her apartment with her daughter Dara. (Shira Li Bartov)

By the end of 2022, about 75,000 people were granted Portuguese citizenship through the Sephardic nationality law. But the future of Jewish migration to Portugal may be determined by the country’s next government.

Portugal will hold a snap election on March 10, following Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s resignation amid charges of corruption. The recently-dissolved parliament advanced a bill to end the law for descendants of Sephardic Jews — partially because of a scandal that rocked the local and international Jewish community last year — and the measure is frozen until the new government takes shape. In Spain, a similar law of return that gave 36,000 applicants citizenship ended in 2019.

An international scandal

In March 2022, federal police raided the Kadoorie synagogue and arrested Rabbi Daniel Litvak on suspicion of influence peddling, document forgery and money laundering in the process of awarding Sephardic citizenship.

To apply for naturalization through the law of return, descendants must obtain certificates vouching for their lineage from Jewish community authorities in Porto or Lisbon. Porto’s authorities were accused of flouting the rules and privileging wealthy applicants in exchange for cash.

One man who received Portuguese citizenship after being certified in Porto made a particular splash across global headlines: Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Jewish billionaire alleged to have close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue is the largest Jewish house of worship in the Iberian Peninsula. (Shira Li Bartov)

Although Abramovich was approved by Porto authorities in 2020 and received citizenship the following year, his membership in the European Union spurred controversy only in 2022 — when it became apparent, as Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border, that he could live in Europe despite the EU sanctions being imposed on Russian oligarchs.

Judges in Lisbon found no evidence of bribery or fraud in Abramovich’s approval. A SWIFT payment receipt seen by JTA shows that Abramovich paid 250 euros to the Jewish Community of Porto, the standard fee paid by all applicants. Local officials told JTA that Abramovich fulfilled the same criteria as everyone else who received certification in Porto.

Initially, the Portuguese government gave community leaders significant discretion to determine Sephardic ancestry. But Lisbon and Porto interpreted the law differently. In Lisbon, applicants underwent a genealogical study and did not have to identify as Sephardic Jews themselves, so long as they could prove lineage. Porto took a route that made the process faster and easier for Jews who wanted Portuguese nationality: They needed only to show the etymology of a family surname and an attestation from their local rabbi, both of which Abramovich provided.

After the scandal, Portugal radically strengthened its law’s requirements. Applicants must now prove they inherited property from Portugal or have visited the country regularly throughout their lives. The new criteria changed the proposed purpose of the law, originally presented as a form of reparation for descendants who had lost inherited assets and were unable to return.

The unproven allegations left a scar on members of Porto’s Jewish community, many of whom still grimace at the memory. Some view the incident as a smear campaign driven by bone-deep, generational antisemitism going back to the Inquisition. The city’s Jewish authority recently sued the state for 10 million euros in compensation for its reputational harm and “political aggression” against Porto’s Jews.

“We represented everything that the society of Portugal didn’t like,” said Garrett, who has lived in Porto his entire life. “They don’t like Jewish tradition, they don’t like the Shoah museum with all the children there, they don’t like Jewish success. We were nothing, and then we were growing, and we were totally destroyed. We will never forgive this.”

Rafael Galhano de Almeida, an immigration lawyer in Lisbon, said that some Portuguese people have correlated the nationality law with antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world. However, he also noted that some critics who are not antisemitic have raised legitimate questions.

“The community that is issuing the certificate proving you are a descendant of Sephardic Jews is the Jewish community,” said Almeida. “So for some people in Portugal, there is a conflict of interest, because you are issuing the certificate when you are the interested party.”

The law’s reverberations

Porto’s new businesses hold up a mirror to its blossoming Jewish community and surge of Jewish tourism. Recent years have seen the opening of four Jewish restaurants, a kosher hotel and a kosher grocery store.

Esther Boudara and Camelia Totan, who run the popular Iberia Sababa Kosher Restaurant, both have Sephardic roots. Boudara was born in France to parents of Turkish and Tunisian origin, while Totan comes from Morocco.

The partners moved to Porto in 2019, with husbands and children in tow, after Boudara read an article promoting its Jewish community in a French newspaper.

“This article said there are a few families coming from all around the world, they speak English, Portuguese, Hebrew — and the city of Porto is asking new Jewish families to come to settle,” said Boudara. “What city in the world asks something like this?”

Boudara and Totan set out to defy the bland stereotypes of kosher food with a diverse, cross-border Sephardic menu. On any Shabbat evening, Iberia’s tables teem with groups wolfing down Moroccan lamb, Tunisian fish and Israeli salads.

Esther Boudara, left, and Camelia Totan serve a cross-border Sephardic menu at Sababa. (Shira Li Bartov)

Other Jews, like Vivian Groisman, flocked to Porto for its quality of life. Groisman grew up in Brazil and arrived seven years ago with a student visa, then obtained citizenship through the Sephardic nationality law.

“If I get pregnant, I want my kids to walk in the street and go to the park and have a calm life, with doctors and schools nearby,” she said. “In Brazil, it takes an hour or two to go to work — you don’t have this way of life where you can go walking and be somewhere in 10 minutes. It’s so expensive to have a life there.”

However, some Jewish newcomers have felt a chafing response from Portuguese natives, driven sometimes by antisemitism and sometimes by resentment over the country’s economic stratification.

The Sephardic nationality law passed in 2013, while Portugal was gripped by a severe financial crisis. During the same period, the government passed other incentives for foreign investors to infuse money in the country, such as the “golden visa” scheme that offered a Portuguese passport in exchange for a minimum investment of 250,000 euros in the country.

Property investments helped end the debt crisis, but they also fueled a two-tiered system in which wealthy foreigners have bought up entire buildings while locals, whose wages are low, struggle to keep up with soaring rents.

Some Portuguese criticize these paths to citizenship as auctions selling off their nationality to the highest bidders. They point out that many people who were naturalized through the golden visa and the law of return enjoy the benefits of an EU passport without actually living in Portugal, learning its language or integrating into its culture.

But Almeida said that no matter what Sephardic Jewish descendants choose to do, as long as the law survives, simply owning nationality is their right.

“The law was created as a reparation law,” he said. “The goal was not to send people here, it was to give them the possibility of having a citizenship that was the citizenship of their ancestors.”

The post The new Jews of Porto: How the Portuguese city built a Jewish community from scratch appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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