Behind the Headlines the Situation in Portugal
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Behind the Headlines the Situation in Portugal

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The election last week of Mario Soares as the President of Portugal has been greeted enthusiastically not only by his political supporters but by all those who see in the election of the first civilian President of Portugal in the last 60 years, a positive and important step in the history of that country.

Jews in Portugal recall that it was during Soares’ tenure as Prime Minister from 1976 to 1978 that Israel appointed Ephraim Eldar, Israel’s former Consul General in Lisbon, as its first Ambassador to Portugal. The Soares government had agreed to extend diplomatic relations to Israel by raising the status of the Consulate in Lisbon to that of an Embassy. (In 1979, an Arab splinter group attempted to assassinate Eldar. His Portuguese bodyguard was killed but the Ambassador escaped, though he was wounded.)


In succeeding years, the general jubilation in 1977 engendered by the appointment of Eldar as Ambassador was found to have been premature. Portugal to this day has neither named an Ambassador nor opened an Embassy in Israel. Asserting that Portugal is a poor country, the Portuguese claimed there were one or two other countries with whom they have diplomatic relations but no Embassy.

They further assert that to open an Embassy now would mean to do so in Jerusalem, and this would incur the anger of Arab countries with whom they have close relations. Soares is an old friend of Shimon Peres and both are members of the Socialist International. It was hoped, therefore, that when Peres became Premier of Israel this would have some effect in terms of opening an Embassy in Israel.

In 1984, Peres received personal assurances from then-Prime Minister Soares that the commitment he had given Peres earlier to open an Embassy in Israel would be honored in the near future.


Portugal and Israel have had cordial relations in the past and several agreements have been concluded between the two countries.

July 1959: A bilateral trade agreement was reached regulating schedules and methods of payments.

1977: An agreement was reached whereby Israel made available agricultural and developmental technology to Portugal. New protocols were signed from time to time, the last in 1982.

October 1984: An agreement was reached between EI AI and Portuguese National Airlines. The accord was between two national companies, not between two governments.

Jewish communities have existed in Portugal for over 1,000 years, but by the beginning of the 19th century, because of forced conversions to Catholicism. Since the Inquisition period, most Jews had left. Later, a few Jews coming from Gibraltar settled in Lisbon. They were followed by a small number of Jews from Tangiers and Morocco.

In 1892, the Jewish community was granted official recognition by the Crown. After World War II, the Jewish population stood at about 1,200. A significant number were refugees escaping from Hitler, who had found their way to Spain and then into neutral Portugal.

In 1974, when the military junta took power, many Jews left the country for Israel, Brazil and Canada, because of their fear that the country would become authoritarian dominated. There was also resistance to having their young men drafted to fight in Angola in the early 1970’s.

In 1979, the assassination attempt against the Ambassador of Israel created a great deal of unease in the small Jewish community. Today, the community numbers about 600, half of whom live in Lisbon, the capital city.


The community today comprises both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. There is no organized anti-Semitism, but there have been individual instances occurring against Jews and stories appearing in the media, ostensibly anti-Israel but spilling over into anti-Semitism. The community maintains communication with the World Jewish Congress, the World Sephardi Federation, as well as with the State of Israel.

While acknowledging their peaceful existence and economic well-being, the community is concerned about the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation. This is partly caused by the fact that most of the Jews in Lisbon are members of an extended family or at least a number of families, and many of the younger people look outside of the community for a marriage partner.

In addition, only a small minority of the non-Jewish partners has converted to Judaism. Knowledgeable and realistic community leaders feel that the community does not have much of a future.


There are a number of extremist leftwing groups in Portugal. One is the Partido Communista Internacional Espartaco, a Trotskyist group known for extreme anti-Zionist views. The PCI has close ties to Palestinian terrorist groups led by George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh.

Another group is called Federacion Iberica Grupos Anarquistas, a Lisbon branch of the Spanish Anarchist group which has declared its support for violent tactics.

A third group is FP-25 (Popular Forces of April 25). Emerging from a former extremist group called Forca de Unidade Popular, FP-25 began its operations in April 1980. It has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in which policemen, industrialists, businessmen and innocent bystanders were murdered or wounded.

In June 1984, FP-25 was the target of a security crackdown. There were a number of arrests. Despite the setback, FP-25 continues. In October, 1984, they claimed to have attacked the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon. In November, 1984 the U.S. Embassy was shelled by mortar bombs, and in December a NATO headquarters in Lisbon was also shelled. Second on their hate list are “U.S.-Zionist power bases.”

A fourth group, the Azores Liberation Army, is virulently anti-American and anti-Israel. Its anti-Israel rhetoric increased after the Yom Kippur War when U.S. bases in the Azores were used by the U.S. airlift to Israel.

On the extreme right, there are a number of organizations operating in Portugal. One of them, the Ordem Nova, founded in 1980, is ideologically a mixture of fascism of earlier groups with a strong influence of extreme nationalism. In fact, of the larger rightwing groups, Ordem Nova is the most extreme.

Other rightist organizations include Centro Dos Estudiantes Nacionalistas; Movimento Nacional Revolucionario; and Movimento Nacionalista. It is alleged that war criminal Valerian Trifa is receiving support from these groups.

In August 1984, Trifa, who led the Rumanian fascist Iron Guard in a pogrom against Jews in 1941, was deported by the United States. He went to Portugal where he continues to live with no apparent strong effort being made to deport him.

Portugal’s small Jewish community, under the leadership of Dr. Joshua Ruah, has criticized the government for its handling of the whole issue and its procrastination. In the meantime, according to Ruah, Trifa’s stay in the country has evoked much interest on the part of underground neo-Nazi groups who support him.

Meanwhile, there are other concerns of the Jewish community. Relations between the Arab world and Portugal remain cordial and Jews in Lisbon are anxious about the fact that the PLO maintains an office in that city.

In addition, some 2,000 to 3,000 Moslems have now settled in Portugal, especially since the loss of its colonies, and they were awarded territory in Lisbon to build a mosque.

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