2 Jewish museums opened in Portugal amid opposition to 3rd one in Lisbon

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Two municipalities in Portugal opened museums about their Jewish heritage amid protests by residents of the capital Lisbon against the ongoing construction of a third and larger one in the neighborhood of Alfama.

In the northeastern city of Braganca, the municipality last week opened a two-story Sephardi Interpretive Center which focuses on the life of Jews under persecution in 15th and 16th centuries. And on Thursday, a smaller Jewish Memorial Center opened in the town of Vila Cova à Coelheira east of the northern city of Porto.

Separately, the Association for Heritage and Population in Alfama organized a press conference Wednesday to express their opposition to the ongoing construction of the four-story Jewish museum being built in the neighborhood.

The building, whose design features a façade with a large Star of David, “breaks with the neighborhood’s tradition,” a spokesperson for the residents association, Maria de Lurdes Pinheiro, was quoted by the Public newspaper as saying in an article about the opposition published Wednesday.

She also said residents were not consulted about the plan to erect the Jewish Museum of Lisbon in Alfama, whose signing in 2016 ended decades of lobbying on the part of Portuguese Jews for the construction of a Jewish museum in Lisbon – one of the few capital cities in Western Europe without such an institution.

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She insisted she does not oppose plans to erect a museum about Jews as such. “Jewish museum, sure. But not in Sao Miguel Square,” she said in reference to the intended area where the museum is being built. She also said the planned museum does not fit the “atmosphere” of the neighborhood, which is one of Lisbon’s oldest and is considered a tourist attraction for its narrow hillside alleyways, with their many boutique restaurants, leading to the Sao Jorge Castle overlooking the Tejo River.

But Ester Mucznik, the former vice president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, in 2016 said Alfama and Sao Miguel Square were “symbolic” choices for a Jewish museum because of their proximity to Lisbon’s historical Jewish neighborhood.

The opening last week of the Sephardi Interpretive Center of Braganca was less controversial. Focusing on the history of so-called New Christians – people who were forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity under duress during the Portuguese Inquisition, which began in 1536 – the building’s opening was attended by the mayor and leaders of Portugal’s Jewish community of roughly 1,000 people.

Many of Portugal’s “New Christians” were refugees from Spain, where the authorities and the Catholic Church began the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The persecution led to the dispossession and exile of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Many of those who remained for centuries continued to worship according to the Jewish faith in secret. In Hebrew, those who practiced in secret are called anumsim – forced ones.

The two-story museum in Braganca features works of art about the anusim and large monument in the shape of an olive tree, whose branches are emblazoned with the names of locales that had anusim communities.

Jaime Ayash, the vice president of the Jewish community of Lisbon, said the center’s opening was the latest demonstration of modern Portugal’s immunity to rising anti-Semitism elsewhere in Western Europe.

“Jewish culture is popular in Portugal and that’s significant in a world experiencing a wave of anti-Semitic hate,” he said, according to an article published on the website of the TSF radio station.

Separately, the mayor of the town of Vila Cova à Coelheira, where a small Jewish memorial museum opened Thursday, highlighted the touristic value of the new establishment in his address at the opening, according to the news site Aveiro.

In Spain, meanwhile, the mayor of the town of Catsrillo Mota de Judios last month presented to leader of the Jewish communities of Madrid his town’s plans to open a museum on its Jewish heritage by 2019.

In 2015, Catsrillo Mota de Judios, which means Castrillo Jewish Hill, change its name from of Catsrillo Mata Judios, which means Castrillo Kill Jews. Historians believe the name remained from Medieval times.