The Jerusalem Post
With its marble floors, ornate furniture, and rare artwork, Lisbon’s Belem Palace could easily compete with some of Europe’s finest museums. Although not a cultural institution per se, the palace does serve a central function in the life of Portugal: It is home to the president of the republic, Dr. Jorge Sampaio.
Sampaio has served as president since 1996, having been re-elected to a second five-year term in 2001. Unlike in Israel, the presidency in Portugal is more than just a ceremonial post. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has the power to dissolve parliament and call for national elections.
Sampaio would have little difficulty being counted for a minyan: His maternal grandmother was from a Moroccan Jewish family. His cousin is president of the Lisbon Jewish community, and Sampaio has several distant relatives living in Israel.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Sampaio discussed the rising tide of European anti-Semitism, Portuguese-Israeli relations, and his Jewish ancestry.
Mr. President, anti-Semitism is on the rise across Europe. Why does much of the continent seem unable to cure itself of this prejudice?
I have constantly denounced all forms of discrimination and xenophobia, be it of religious, ethnic, cultural, sexual, or any other nature. I obviously condemn any form of anti-Semitism…. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe is a fact – although it is not a pattern – and must also be seen in the framework of the resurgence of other forms of xenophobia and racial hatred. These manifestations do exist and we must fight all of them with the same energy, attacking their causes, and prosecuting those that sow hatred and violence.
Anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiments in Europe often seem to be a cover for expressing anti-Semitic feelings under the guise of political opposition to Israeli policies. Why is Europe so critical of Israel? Is anti-Semitism a factor?
I believe that we must be careful with our assertions. I am ready to admit that some criticism of Israel might have some anti-Semitic motivations. But I absolutely reject that all criticism of Israeli policies has such motivations. In fact, many people who criticize such policies have the security of Israel and the well-being of the Israeli people at the core of their motivations, I for one. I do believe that Europe’s position has strived to be fair and balanced, even if, sometimes, we have not managed to make our position sufficiently clear.
The Portuguese Embassy in Israel sits in Tel Aviv, even though Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Why won’t Portugal recognize Israel’s sovereign right to determine its own capital?
I know how important and sensitive this issue is for Israelis and most Jews. You know the historical context of this situation. We are bound in this matter by the collective decisions of the European Union. But I also want to tell you that my sincere wish would be for our embassy to move to Jerusalem as soon as possible, for that would mean that peace would finally be at hand.
Portugal was once home to a thriving Jewish community, which was cruelly persecuted and forced to convert in 1497. Has Portugal come to terms with what was done to the Jewish people on its soil?
We have come to terms with our own history, with its more brilliant and with its more shady aspects. The difference now is that all periods of our history are being studied and that we have today a much better knowledge of them. The ceremonies which took place on the 500th anniversary of the Decree of Expulsion, over which I presided with the then- speaker of the Knesset are proof of all this.
Five centuries ago, the Catholic Church and the Portuguese monarchy confiscated Jewish property, including synagogues and other communal structures. Shouldn’t they be returned to the Jewish people as an act of historical justice?
We cannot rewrite or relive history. We cannot go back centuries. We cannot today, after 500 years, redress a situation in material terms. I think we have redressed it in an historical perspective, and I think that all Portuguese, including Portuguese citizens that are Jewish, feel comfortable about it.
A growing number of Portuguese descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition have recently begun to return to Judaism. What do you think of this phenomenon?
We are proud of our history and of our humanistic values, of the multicultural fabric of our society. If people adopt or return to Judaism, it is entirely a personal issue that enriches our cultural dynamics.
I understand that you have Jewish ancestry in your family. What is your personal connection to the Jewish people? Do you consider yourself to be a Jew?
My grandmother belonged to a Jewish family that came from Morocco in the beginning of the 19th century. She married a non-Jewish naval officer who later was Foreign Affairs minister. I am naturally very proud of this ancestry and of all those that I call my “favorite Jewish cousins,” one of whom is the president of the Lisbon Jewish Community, as I am proud of the ancestry on my non-Jewish father’s side. Personally, I am agnostic, and I do not consider myself a Jew; but I am proud, as I said, of my ancestors.
Has your Jewish background ever been an issue for you in politics?
The answer is no. Portugal, as I have said, is a democratic lay state. Issues of religion, culture, or race are not and should not be an issue in the political arena.
You visited Israel twice as mayor of Lisbon, but have yet to do so as the president of Portugal. Do you have any plans to visit Israel soon?
I would very much like to visit Israel again. I have very strong and enriching memories of my previous two visits. I follow closely developments in your country and in the region. The present situation saddens me very much indeed. And my sincere hope is that, amid all the present difficulties, Israelis and Palestinians can find a way by which to build peace and to end this tragedy and all the suffering it has entailed for both peoples.