500 years after Inquisition, 10,000 Sephardi Jews close circle with citizenships

While some apply for Portuguese and Spanish citizenship to celebrate their family’s roots, most look to economic opportunity and a future that an European passport can offer

Mordechai Ben Abir unveils a street renamed after his ancestors who were expelled from Spain in the town of Falset, Spain, at a ceremony on May 16, 2016. (Youtube screenshot)
Mordechai Ben Abir unveils a street renamed after his ancestors who were expelled from Spain in the town of Falset, Spain, at a ceremony on May 16, 2016. (Youtube screenshot)

PORTO, Portugal — Somewhere in a dusty corner of the Jewish community buildings in Porto, Portugal, there are boxes and boxes of old photographs and family trees, part of the estimated 15,000 applications for people attempting to prove Sephardi Jewish heritage in order to obtain Portuguese citizenship.

While only a small percentage of the applications actually end with the applicants receiving Portuguese passports, these boxes represent one of the unexpected side effects of the law allowing descendants of Sephardi Jews to obtain Portuguese or Spanish citizenship: a wealth of information, and renewed interest, in Sephardi family history.

Starting in 2015, Portugal and Spain announced that anyone who could prove they descended from Sephardim – Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula beginning in 1492 as a result of the Inquisition – could apply for citizenship.

The Spanish process is more complicated and involved, and after October, Spain will not accept new applications for citizenship. For this reason, most Israelis opt for the Portuguese citizenship route.

Congregants praying at the Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. (Courtesy of the Jewish Community of Porto)

Almost overnight, colorful internet ads sprouted on social media promising an easy path to a Portuguese passport. Those involved in the process say that is not an accurate description.

“It’s not like an ATM that you pay and you get a passport that immediately comes out,” said Leon Amiras, a lawyer who specializes in citizenship requests and works closely with Portugal’s Jewish community in Porto.

Since 2015, Amiras estimates that 15,000 people have sent requests to be recognized as Sephardi Jews by the Portuguese Jewish community, the first step in the process. Many people do not proceed beyond this step, stymied by the mountains of documents needed, including family trees, wedding contracts (ketubot), notarized documents, photos of gravestones, and old travel documents, all of which must be translated into Portuguese.

It’s not like an ATM that you pay and you get a passport that immediately comes out

The average application costs at least NIS 12,000 ($3,300) in lawyers’ fees and translation. Most applications end up costing much more, depending on the type of documents and translations required. It takes at least 18 to 24 months to process.

The Portuguese Interior Ministry declined to release figures on how many Israelis have successfully obtained Portuguese passports or are in the process of doing so, but Amiras said only a few thousand have progressed beyond the first step of opening a formal request for recognition with the Jewish community.

Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that between 2015 and 2018, Spain naturalized 8,365 applicants based on their Jewish ancestry, and more than 5,600 applications are still being processed. The Portuguese newspaper Lusa reported that 1,713 people with Sephardic roots were naturalized in 2017.

According to El Pais, the highest number of newly naturalized Spanish citizens between 2015 and 2018 came from Turkey and Venezuela, with 2,693 new citizens from Turkey and 1,487 from Venezuela. Israel had the third-largest group, with 860 Sephardic Jews who obtained Spanish citizenship.

This means that around the world, including countries such as Turkey, which can be hostile to Judaism, applicants are becoming de facto genealogists and historians delving deep into Sephardic history and culture. Whereas with Eastern European Jews now in Israel who often have a direct, living connection to their ancestral country, Sephardi Jews must dig much deeper to prove they descended from Jews who were expelled from Portugal or Spain. From the Iberian peninsula, these families spread out to many different corners of the world, and from there may have moved again to a third or fourth country, making the connections more difficult to uncover.

Lawyer Leon Amiras, who assists the Porto Jewish Community as well as Sephardi Jews looking to obtain Portuguese citizenship. (courtesy Leon Amiras)

“A lot of people had to go to their boydem [storage or attics] and take out old photos and make family trees,” said Amiras. “A lot of people are collecting old passports, old photos and notes. Academia should really take advantage of this.”

Currently, there aren’t any plans for showcasing or collecting this information, but that could change if academics are interested, said Amiras.

Gathering the documents often encourages people to start digging through their family’s history, capturing knowledge that would otherwise be lost. Amiras has had clients who flew to Morocco to take pictures of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, or traveled to London to pour over wedding contracts kept in a local archive.

“Some people come in and say, ‘I don’t know anything beyond my grandmother’s name,’ while others have original passports in black and white or a family tree that goes back seven or eight generations,” he said. “It’s really exciting. You think, how can people track so far back?”

Closing a circle

In one small Spanish town, an applicant returning to claim their family’s birthright became a cause celebré.

Dr. Mordechai Ben Abir, the uncle of Leon Amiras, caught the genealogy bug while studying for his PhD in Spanish Literature and History, which he finished at the University of Barcelona last year, at age 82.

“Age is not a limitation,” Ben Abir said of his decision to move from his home in Beersheba to the student dorms in Barcelona, Spain, for his first year of studies, when he was 75. During the course of his studies, which focused on Sephardi Jewish history, Ben Abir traced his ancestors to the town of Falset, a village two hours south of Barcelona.

When the opportunity arose to apply for a Spanish passport, Ben Abir jumped on it, even though he already has an Argentinian and Israeli passport.

“I wanted to close this circle of 600 years in the same city where my forefathers left from, specifically, where they lived their lives,” he said. “It’s very symbolic, my forefathers were forced to leave with no documents. I return with a passport. That’s the symbolism, that’s the exciting part of the story. I return in their names.”

Getting Ben Abir’s passport became a mini-festival in Falset. The mayor of Falset personally escorted him to pick up his new passport, and oversaw a ceremony renaming a street after a member of Ben Abir’s family, who was the local rabbi 600 years ago.

An engineer who emigrated from Argentina 65 years ago, Ben Abir said he can trace his family tree back hundreds of years using the name Caballero. “Abir” is the Hebrew word for knight, or Caballero in Spanish. Ben Abir’s parents came to Argentina from Turkey, where the Caballero branch of the family settled after being expelled from Spain.

Looking to the future, not the past

Ben Abir is an outlier in the Sephardi passport application pool. Most applicants are looking less towards the past, and more towards the future that an European passport can offer.

Facebook groups such as “Get Portuguese Citizenship” or “Easy Nationality” have thousands of members who share tips and tricks for speeding up the process. Ads promising “Instant Portuguese citizenship” with smiling young Israelis have prompted criticism as well as concerns about scammers.

A screenshot of a misleading internet ad for easy Portuguese nationality. In reality, the process takes thousands of shekels and years to complete. (courtesy Screenshot)

Shai Carmel, 22, of Kfar Saba, is a much more typical profile of the kind of person applying for a Portuguese passport.

“I just finished the army, and I feel like it’s not going to be better in Israel so I want something in my pocket, and this is the easiest European passport to get,” said Carmel. “It doesn’t mean that I’m going to move there, but with this passport I can go to all of Europe.”

Carmel hopes to study computer science in London. Carmel’s sister, who also obtained a Portuguese passport, is studying in London as well. Carmel first applied to the Jewish community in Porto for recognition in January. Thus far, he has spent about NIS 18,000 in fees and translations, with help from a local lawyer in Portugal.

Carmel is a Sephardic Jew from his mother’s side of the family, which is originally from Turkey. His mother and grandmother speak Ladino, though Carmel does not speak the ancient Sephardi-Jewish language himself. His father’s family is from Iran, and not considered Sephardi, because few Sephardi Jews went to Persia after the Inquisition.

To fill out the family tree, Carmel sat down with his maternal grandmother to trace back a few generations. Her family is from Ankara, Turkey, a common destination for Sephardi Jews after the inquisition. Carmel said that while the conversation was interesting, he is less interested in the history and more interested in future possibilities in Europe, where university studies are a fraction of the cost of Israeli tuition.

“For someone in their 20s, it can really open so many other opportunities for them,” he said. “If you have this passport you can work abroad, and you’re legal. Like if you work in hi-tech you can easily do a relocation to another country.”

Lawyer Amiras said that while most of the cases he handles are Israelis, there is a renewed interest from people from the United Kingdom anxious about Brexit who want to ensure they have a passport for the rest of Europe as well.

The Nationality law allows applicants to obtain a Portuguese or Spanish passport, open a local bank account, obtain health insurance, and study, live, and work anywhere in the European Union.

Righting a historical wrong

Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a thriving and illustrious Jewish community on the Iberian peninsula, which numbered around a quarter of a million at its height. The majority of the Jews lived in Spain, but thousands lived in Portugal as well. In both places, they often ran businesses and became an integral part of the urban elite.

In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain implemented the Inquisition, meant to declare once and for all Spain’s Catholic identity by expelling or converting all non-Catholics. The majority of Spain’s Jews who refused to convert or hide their Jewish identity left the country. Thousands crossed the border to Portugal where existing Jewish communities absorbed them, explained Dr. Or Hasson, a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Hebrew University. This sudden influx tripled Portugal’s Jewish community.

Members of the Jewish Community of Porto stand in the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto, on September 2, 2016. (AFP/Miguel Riopa)

In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal married Isabella, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (Isabella was also married to the previous king of Portugal, King Afonso, who died in 1491 in a riding accident.) One of Isabella’s conditions for the royal marriage was that Portugal carry out their own inquisition of Jews and non-Catholics. But the Portuguese Jewish community was well regarded and deeply entrenched in the business and cultural life of Portugal. Authorities performed a half-hearted “mass-conversion” for the Jewish community and largely left them in peace, Hasson said.

It wasn’t until 1536 that the Portuguese authorities began cracking down on Jewish communal life, prompting a mass exodus, mostly to North Africa, but also to other parts of Europe.

From there, Sephardi Jews spread to far-flung corners of the world, including India, Turkey, Argentina, and across North Africa.

Applicants are not required to visit Portugal in order to obtain Portuguese citizenship, although applicants for Spanish citizenship are required to visit Spain and pass a Spanish language and history test.

The Kadoorie Synagogue in Porto, the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula. (Wikipedia/Bricking/CC BY-SA)

Amiras said some of his clients start the process with the hope of obtaining a European passport, but end up building a real connection with the country. Some Israelis even seriously consider living part time in Portugal.

Despite the interest in Portuguese citizenship, the Nationality Law hasn’t had much of an effect on the local Jewish community, said local leaders, although they appreciate the gesture towards righting a historical wrong.

“The Portuguese state’s Nationality Law was an act of justice towards Sephardic Jews,” said Michael Rothwell, a board member of the Jewish community of Porto. He said in an email that the community finds it “gratifying” to see how many Jews around the world are interested in reconnecting with their Portuguese roots.

“There is a strong bond of friendship between the peoples of Portugal and Israel,” Rothwell added. “This is seen in the enormous growth in tourism between these countries.”

Israeli tourism to Portugal increased by almost 15% between 2016 and 2017, for a total of 120,218 Israeli tourists to Portugal in 2017, according to the Portugal Tourism Ministry. That number dipped slightly in 2018, following an overall slow-down in tourism to Portugal that year, but is on track to increase in 2019, according to preliminary statistics from the Tourism Ministry.

The picturesque northern city of Porto hosts more than 10,000 Jewish visitors each year at their two synagogues for Shabbats and festivals, said Rothwell. In the past few years they are seeing an uptick in visitors who live in Portugal or have recently obtained Portuguese citizenship and are just stopping by to say hello, but they haven’t become a major part of the existing Jewish community.

Obviously not all newly arriving Jews are willing to travel hundreds of kilometers to join our services

“Although we have two synagogues, two rabbis, religious services and festive celebrations, obviously not all newly arriving Jews are willing to travel hundreds of kilometers to join our services,” Rothwell said. “They already had all this in Israel!”

Ben Abir noted that few people applying for the passport today are doing so purely for historical or religious reasons.

“I’m sure if you ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 different answers,” he said. “Young people are thinking that having a foreign passport will bring them opportunities they won’t find in Israel.”

Amiras said that he hopes that young people who are applying take a moment to appreciate the search for old documents or the conversations with elderly relatives.

“We were born in a generation that we have the state of Israel, that’s our home, and we have no state except this one,” Amiras said.

Yes, it can be great for travel and work opportunities, he said.

“But if someone feels connected to this world of Sephardi Jewry, getting this citizenship builds on that, it is a substantial and emotional connection,” to the history of Sephardi Jews, Amiras said, one that rights a 500-year-old injustice.

“It’s an opportunity that they didn’t have,” he said. “But we have it now.”

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