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Bahia, Brazil

BAHIA, the first region to be colonized in *Brazil and today a state within the federal republic situated in the northeast of the country. In 2005 the general population was 13,085,769, and the Jewish population about 800.

Colonial Period

The presence of Portuguese *New Christians began with the discovery, conquest, and colonization of Brazil, then inhabited by dozens of groups of indigenous peoples. When the tribunal of the *Inquisition was established in Portugal (1536; operating until 1821), and after the first auto-de-fé (1540), the immigration of New Christians to the Brazilian colony grew, and many of them arrived in Bahia with the first governors. Some sources maintain that one New Christian, Gaspar da Gama, was part of Pedro Álvares Cabral's fleet, in 1500. There were a significant number of Jews involved in sciences and the art of navigation in Portugal during the period of overseas expansion in the early 1400s. The Tribunal do Santo Ofício da Inquisição, created in Portugal, did not settle permanently in colonial Brazil. As of 1591, the Tribunal do Santo Ofício made several visits to Brazil, powers were delegated to some bishops, like for instance the bishop of Bahia, and clergymen would indict people for Jewish practices directly in Lisbon.

In the second half of the 16th century, Bahia absorbed New Christians who contributed to the establishment of the first villages, to the mercantilist state, and to the Church struggle against the Indians, to the finance of and participation in the expeditions to the interior, and to cultivation of the land and of sugar cane in particular. Production and trade in sugar cane became the chief source of wealth of Brazil in the second half of the 16th and the 17th centuries. Besides sugarmill lords, New Christians were slave merchants, farmers, and craftsmen, among other occupations. They ascended socially and economically, but they were faced with the restrictions of belonging to religious orders or political spheres, such as the Irmandades de Misericórdia and Câmaras Municipais.

News about the New Christian prosperity, their increasing numbers, and slight attachment to Catholicism led the inquisitors to set up a board of inquiry in Bahia to locate judaizers. Their sessions, known as Visitações (visitations), were held initially in 1591–95 and in 1618 aiming at judaizers, condemned sexual practices, witchcraft, and Holy Church slanderers. Between 1618 and 1619 a total of 134 people were indicted, of whom 90 were accused of being judaizers. Most of them were not taken to court and many fled from Brazil to other regions colonized by the Spaniards.

Between 1624 and 1625 the Dutch Colonial Empire conquered Bahia. Then religious tolerance was established, although just a few New Christians were in the region and a few Jews came to Bahia with the Dutch expeditionary forces.

An important investigation, known as the 1646 Inquiry, was carried out in Bahia in the 17th century, at the Jesuit seminary. With the aid of various testimonies, this inquiry revealed the role that the Portuguese of Jewish descent played in the political, economic, and administrative life in Bahia. In the 18th century many members of Brazilian families were still prevented from assuming public office because they were descendants of those denounced in 1646.

The New Christians continued to hold important positions in Bahian society until the end of the 18th century. In 1773, during the liberal government of Marques de Pombal, general governor of Brazil, the differentiation between new Christians and old Christians was abolished and the inquisitional procedures came to an end. Consequently the New Christians were then totally integrated into society at large, their descendants being among the prominent and ancient families of Bahia.

The Inquisition in Brazil was less systematic and more infrequent then its Portuguese counterpart, probably owing to the difficult control of the colony, the fact that a permanent tribunal was never established, and the greater permeability within the social and religious relations established in the Portuguese New World.

According to Wiznitzer, around 25,000 people were brought to court by the Portuguese Inquisition, out of whom 1,500 were condemned to capital punishment. In Brazil, approximately 400 judaizers were sued, most of them condemned to imprisonment, and 18 New Christians were condemned to death in Lisbon.

The presence of New Christians in colonial Bahia and Brazil has always been a controversial issue in both Brazilian and Portuguese historiography. More studies on Jewish history have been published in Brazil with regard to the colonial period than about modern times, which shows the broad interest aroused by the theme of the New Christians and the Inquisition in Brazil. Some historians believe that the interventions of the Inquisition Tribunal in Brazil, supported by the nobility and the Catholic clergy, aimed at expropriating the New Christians' possessions and impeding the social ascension of a group with bourgeois aspirations. Therefore, the Inquisition created a myth regarding origin and purity of blood which discriminated against those with "infected blood" according to the Statutes on Blood Purity. Other historians see strictly religious and political reasons related to the history of the Portuguese Catholic Church and Portuguese Empire.

Meanwhile, some historians maintain that Judaism or Crypto-Judaism was "fabricated" during the inquisitional processes (that is, by means of intimidating, indicting, menacing, and torturing, the inquisition "created" such Judaism ito justify its own existence and legitimacy); some others argue that New Christians deliberately and furtively professed Judaic or Crypto-Judaic elements inherited from their ancestors. According to Anita Novinsky, the New Christian was a "split human being," socially and existentially, with a differentiated identity in the Portuguese-Brazilian colonial world.

The antisemitism found in the Inquisition's procedures did not lead to the spread of antisemitism among the population in Bahia or Brazil, although the mental hold of the Inquisition and the terror it possessed can hardly be assessed. There are no apparent connections between the history of the New Christians and contemporary 20th-century Jewish history in Bahia. Nevertheless, the remote (and secret) Jewish origin of many traditional Catholic Portuguese families is quite well known, as a memory of the Jewish community and the Bahian population at large, specially among its elites.

Contemporary Period

The Jewish community in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, consisted of approximately 200 families with an active cultural and political life, which reached its peak between the 1930s and 1950s. Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe started settling in Salvador in the 1920s.

Records show that small groups of Jewish immigrants also settled in Ilhéus and Itabuna, in the region where a local economy based on cocoa flourished, and in Bonfim, Petrolina, Juazeiro, and Jacobina, along the banks of the São Francisco River (the most important in the State). In Salvador, a synagogue started to function at a private household in 1924, in 1925 the Jewish Jacob Dinenzon school was created. During the 1930s, a second school was founded, Ber Borochov, with Zionist leanings, differing from the Jacob Dinenzon school in its progressive and Yiddishist orientation. The new school operated slightly over a decade, after which the community favored the older school. In 1970, there were 120 students registered at the latter, which closed down in 1978 because many families had immigrated to other cities. In addition, the Jewish community in Salvador opened a cemetery and ran the Sociedade Beneficente. Zionist women's organizations emerged, such as WIZO and Naamat-Pioneiras, and the Jewish minority organized itself around the Sociedade Israelita da Bahia, founded in 1947. In 1968 the Hebraica Club of Salvador was founded. In politics, Mário Kertesz was mayor of the capital and Boris Tabacof was finance secretary of the State of Bahia. In 2004, those who remained organized themselves around the synagogue.


Documents of the Arquivo Histórico Judaico Brasileiro; A. Wiznitzer, Os judeus no Brasil colonial (1960); A. Novinsky, Cristãos-Novos na Bahia (1972); E. Lipiner, Os judaizantes nas capitanias de cima. São Paulo – estudos sobre os Cristãos-Novos do Brasil nos séculos XVI e XVII (1969); A.J. Saraiva, Inquisição e Cristãos-Novos (1969); M.C. Maio and C. Calaça. "Um balanço da bibliografia sobre anti-semitismo no Brasil," in: BIBRevista Brasileira de Informação Bibliográfica em Ciências Sociais, no. 49 (2000) 15–50; Os judeus na Bahia, Special Supplement, in: Shalom, no. 296, n/d.

[Roney Cytrynowicz (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.