Race, “Nation,” and Identity among the Portuguese Jews

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:20 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Miriam Bodian, University of Texas at Austin
The Portuguese Jews are often regarded as the first modern Jews – understandably but misleadingly. While Portuguese Jews in the Netherlands and elsewhere were given new freedoms close to those of other subjects, they remained members of a corporate sub-society and were not pressured, as Jews would later be, to conform to a national ideal of the citizen. It is true that they were thoroughly Europeanized when they began arriving there in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century, and thus quickly picked up new currents in their environment - including some that would facilitate a new relationship to the state and to the Christian world. But at the same time, they brought with them features of identity that were anomalous, including a notion of themselves first and foremost as members of “the” nação, an Iberian sub-group defined by Jewish ancestry (referred to with terms like raza, casta, linaje, sangre). This had been an adaptation in the face of discrimination in the Iberian Peninsula against the descendants of forcibly converted Jews (conversos), in the form of “purity of blood” laws. Among the converos, bonds of solidarity were built across religious lines; the nação included sincere Catholics as well as crypto-Jews. Such a self-conception clashed with traditional rabbinic ideas of Jewish belonging, which emphasized a primary bond, through the Covenant, to the Jewish people – one that excluded apostates and included Ashkenazim. Ex-conversos in rabbinically-normative Portuguese-Jewish communities dealt with the conflicts in a variety of ways. To give but one important example, the Portuguese-Jewish apologete Isaac Cardoso, in his work Las Excelencias de los Hebreos, “rabbinized” Portuguese-Jewish racialism by transferring a notion of purity of blood from the nação to the Jewish people.