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Abramovich claim of Sephardic descent to get Portuguese citizenship draws scrutiny

Questions raised after Russian-Israeli billionaire uses law that repatriates descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled during the Inquisition; officials say criticism ‘unjustified’

Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match against FC Barcelona in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match against FC Barcelona in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

JTA — Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Portuguese citizenship under a 2015 law that repatriates descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled during the Inquisition has reignited debate about the piece of legislation.

Abramovich, a businessman and the prominent owner of the popular Chelsea soccer club in London, applied for citizenship by claiming an affiliation with the Jewish Community of Porto, the Israeli news site Ynet reported last week.

Unconfirmed reports have claimed that some of Abramovich’s family that today live in Belarus have Sephardic roots.

Eastern Europe had formerly been the home of many thousands of Jews with Sephardic ancestry. Sephardic immigrants in 1588 founded the Jewish community of Zamosc in eastern Poland, among other places. But Abramovich’s use of the law prompted unusual scrutiny and criticism in Portugal, which is a member of the European Union and whose citizens may reside anywhere they choose within the bloc.

Portuguese radio station TSF aired and published a statement on Tuesday by the investigative journalist Daniel Oliveira, in which he accused the Jewish Community of Porto of turning “a just law into a ‘golden visa’ by hitching a ride on our crimes from the past.”

Oliveira suggested that the ties between the Jewish Community of Porto and Abramovich are “not clear,” and said he believes that the Porto communal organization is less reliable in vetting applications than the Jewish Community of Lisbon group.

AbrilAbril, a left-leaning Portuguese news site, published an editorial on Tuesday calling for the citizenship law to be revised, and suggesting that Abramovich and other recipients of the Portuguese nationality under the law are using their influence to keep it unchanged.

The Jewish Community of Porto confirmed that it handled Abramovich’s citizenship application, for a fee of 250 euros, or about $283. The Lisbon Jewish community has had data on Abramovich’s ancestors for years, the Porto group added. It also dismissed claims that Abramovich’s naturalization was divergent in any way from the 2015 law and its procedures. The Porto community did not immediately respond to JTA’s questions on the veracity of a report by Ynet and other publications that Abramovich has funded communal projects.

A member of the Jewish Community of Porto walks at the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto, on September 2, 2016 before the Shabat celebrations. (AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL RIOPA)

The Porto organization told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it is now witnessing “an antisemitic wave” on social media following the debate about Abramovich.

A spokesperson working with Abramovich did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Last year, Portugal’s ruling Socialist party withdrew plans to limit the law amid criticism by local Jewish groups that claimed that the proposed changes were partly motivated by antisemitism. The European Jewish Congress also vocally opposed the changes.

The government has entrusted the two communal organizations in Lisbon and Porto with vetting the authenticity of citizenship applications, for which they charge hundreds of dollars in processing fees. A third community in Belmonte is attempting to also gain vetting status.

Portugal’s foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, said on Wednesday that Abramovich’s naturalization “was done according to the law” and called criticism of it “unjustified.”

Data from last year shows that at least 76,000 people have applied for a Portuguese passport through the law and 23,000 of them have been approved. Spain also has passed similar legislation.

 

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