New Christians and Jews in Brazil: Migrations and Antisemitism

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New Christians and Jews in Brazil: Migrations and Antisemitism

This article reviews academic production about antisemitism in Brazil under colonialism and during contemporary times. It identifies the issues found in the literature and argues for the need to advance further in studies of the topic, above all on the influence that antisemitism may have had on Brazilian sociability.

Two periods of migrations and antisemitism can be identified in Brazil. During the first, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony, there existed an intensive migration movement of Portuguese New Christians (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism along with their descendants) to the diverse regions that comprised colonial territory. It is customary to attribute these migrations to the possibilities offered by the New World, far away from Inquisitorial activities, even though one recognizes an antisemitism in force at the time in the colony, be it through the sporadic action of the Holy Office's Tribunal or the importation to Brazil of Portuguese standards and customs. During the second period, the migration was caused by the heightening in authoritarian and totalitarian thinking as well as to the increase of antisemitic acts which took place in contemporary Europe with the rise of Nazism. In general, recent Brazilian historiography confirms that the 1930s constituted a landmark decade, because of both the increase in the number of immigrant Jews and the Brazilian State's antisemitic actions.

The objective of this article is to analyze these two periods, above all by attempting to earmark historical variables and current perspectives about Jewish migration and anti-Judaic prejudice in Brazil. We believe it is of utmost importance to underscore the challenges emanating from these themes by using an approach which is neither reductionist nor atemporal; such a method will lead, beyond the historical and sociological implications for minorities (New Christian or Judaic), to the understanding of complex societies.

New Christians During the Colonization of Brazil

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Portugal had begun its overseas expansion which made it, during the sixteenth century, the most powerful Empire in the Western world. At that time thousands of Sephardic Jews lived in the small Iberian kingdom, comprising a large part of the population, especially after the arrival of groups coming from Spain.(1) This concentration of Jews was due to the relatively stable conditions established by the Portuguese Kings, if compared to the politics of other European regions whose intolerance resulted in constant anti-Judaic manifestations.(2) This scenario would be overturned during the reign of King Manuel (1469-1521) who, after prohibiting Jewish religious practices in 1496, issued, following the example of his Spanish precursors, an Edict of Expulsion. King Manuel cleverly required those who wished to leave Portugal to depart only from the port of Lisbon. Thousands of Jews remained in the vicinity, and, in an unexpected change of attitude, some bishops forcibly baptized them, converting them to Catholicism. In this way the phenomenon known as New Christian began in Portugal.(3)

Historiography harbors no debate about the strategy of the King, for he recognized the economic importance of these vassals and did not want to lose them. The succession to the throne and the conflation of interests between the crown, the clergy, and the Old Christians, on the one hand (avid to maintain their positions of power and prestige), and the New Christians, on the other (who were rapidly gaining high positions within the socio-economic structure), made the former exert pressure on the Papacy so that finally, on October 22, 1536, the Inquisition was established in Portugal.(4) During its almost three centuries of existence, the Portuguese Inquisition specialized primarily in the persecution of Jewish conversos as well as their descendants, the New Christians, chiefly accused of heresy, not only within the Portuguese Kingdom, but also within the entire expanse of the Portuguese Maritime Empire. …