New citizenship in hand, Israelis vote from abroad in Portuguese elections

Thousands of recently naturalized Jews of Sephardic descent were able to cast absentee ballots ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary poll — even if they had never lived in Portugal

A cyclist passes by signs for Portuguese political parties during national elections in Porto, Portugal, on October 6, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A cyclist passes by signs for Portuguese political parties during national elections in Porto, Portugal, on October 6, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

PORTO, PORTUGAL — Thousands of Israelis who recently received Portuguese citizenship were eligible to vote in Sunday’s Portuguese national elections for the first time — even those who have never lived in the European nation.

Ten million Portuguese were heading to the polls to select 230 members of parliament. Portugal allows citizens to vote via absentee ballot, which Portuguese citizens living abroad received in the mail earlier in September.

The ruling Socialist Party, led by António Costa, is expected to maintain its majority in Sunday’s election, buoyed by four years of relative economic stability. However, it is unlikely that the Socialists will be able to receive an absolute majority, forcing them into a coalition with some of the more than 20 parties running in the election. For the past four years, the Socialists were in a coalition with left-leaning parties, bucking the European trend of right-wing coalitions.

Israelis make up a large portion of the about 33,000 Jews who have applied for Portuguese citizenship in the past four years. Portugal has approved about a third of the applications, and those new citizens can vote in the election, even if they have never visited Portugal.

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 Spain is no longer accepting new applications for citizenship. For this reason, most Israelis opt for the Portuguese citizenship route.

Other countries with large numbers of requests for Portuguese citizenship from descendants of Sephardic Jews include Turkey, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Daphna Gafni, who got her citizenship about a year ago, voted by absentee ballot in Sunday’s election and said she had been surprised to open her mailbox last month to find a Portuguese ballot inside. Gafni is a seventh-generation Israeli, and her grandmother’s maiden name was de la Reina. Gafni believes her family probably came straight to Safed and Tiberias after the 1492 expulsion.

A few days after Gafni received her ballot in the mail, the company that assisted her in getting her Portuguese citizenship sent an email explaining the different parties and the voting process.

Mordehai Shabi, founder of the Easy Nationality company that assists Israelis with the application process for Portuguese citizenship, provided information for first-time voters on his Hebrew-language Portugal News website, which is meant to be a resource for Israelis in Portugal or considering moving to Portugal.

Shabi noted that the absentee voting process is not perfect, and that some people who wanted to vote from Israel were unable to do so because of errors in their addresses, or did not receive their ballots on time. Israeli-Portuguese citizens can also vote in the Portuguese embassy in Israel.

“I didn’t know I would get the chance to vote, it was really a surprise,” said Gafni. “But it was a nice surprise, because I’m not familiar with [absentee voting] in Israel. They even sent it with a prepaid envelope so I didn’t need to go to the post office.”

Gafni said that while she hadn’t expected to receive the right to vote from abroad, she very much appreciated it. “It makes you feel like it’s your country,” she said.

Gafni said her family is considering relocating or spending more time in Portugal in a few years, perhaps after her youngest daughter finishes her army service. She added that while she doubts that Israeli policy will change any time soon with regards to absentee voting, she wishes the Israeli government would consider it.

“We Israelis love to wander,” she said. “When you’re abroad and you can’t vote, it weighs on you. I know a lot of Israelis abroad and I think if they could vote while living abroad, they would feel like they have more ability to control and influence what’s happening in Israel, and maybe they’ll want to come back.”

Adam Yadid, a lawyer who helps Sephardi Jews obtain Spanish or Portuguese citizenship, also voted in the election for the first time.

“Voting isn’t just a right, it’s also very important,” he said. “You can see this in countries where the percentage of people voting goes down, the conversation becomes a conversation between extremists. The influence of international voters in Europe, in all the countries and not just Portugal, is usually a moderating influence, because international citizens add a different aspect, a global perspective, to the vote.”

“As Israelis, the fact that we are voting could influence not just what happens in Portugal, but also how Portuguese politicians act toward Israel and in the eyes of the world, since they know there is an electorate here,” Yadid added.

Two days before the election, Paulo Tomaz, a 32-year-old lawyer and activist with the Socialist party, was canvassing for last-minute votes on the promenade in Espinho, a suburb of the northern city of Porto with an expansive wooden boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean. He said he was glad to hear that some new Israeli-Portuguese citizens are exercising their right to vote in Portugal for the first time.

“With the ‘Sepharditos,’ we are trying to correct a historic mistake, a big error. I believe these descendants must be considered Portuguese citizens; I am happy they are voting as I consider them Portuguese,” he said, as red and white flags of the Socialist party fluttered from cars with megaphones nearby. “We can’t remake history, but we can remake the future.”

Tomaz added that approximately 2 million Portuguese citizens living abroad can vote via absentee ballot, and that he thinks they should maintain the ability to vote in national elections, even if they aren’t experiencing day-to-day life in Portugal.

“They are one more community with specific desires and needs,” he said. As for the Israelis voting for the first time, they had to submit their absentee ballots by the end of September, but Tomaz was hopeful they voted for his party.

“If they want a progressive Portugal, they should vote for the Socialists,” he said. “After all, remember which party got them this citizenship.”

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