The ruling party of Portugal has stepped back from an attempt to severely limit applications for citizenship from descendants of Sephardi Jews, a threatened move that Jewish leaders and organizations had charged was anti-Semitic.
In mid-May, members of the Socialist Party submitted a draft amendment to change the 2015 law that grants citizenship to people who can prove they are descended from Jews whose families fled the Iberian Peninsula following the Inquisition, a 15th-century campaign of anti-Semitic persecution in Portugal and Spain.
Under the proposed change, beginning in 2022, only people who had lived in Portugal for two years would be eligible for citizenship. This change would have sharply restricted the number of people who could apply. Currently, there are no requirements for applicants to live in Portugal or learn the language.
Critics slammed the amendment as overly harsh and said the tone used to defend it was anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. Experts brought by the Socialist Party testified that within 100 years, a few thousand returning Jews could swell to 250,000 people and pose a demographic threat to Portugal’s identity. Dr. Jose Ruah, a board member of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, told a parliamentary hearing in June that statements about Sephardi Jews taking over Portugal or likening them to the coronavirus were “harmful and offensive.”
“I felt like I was in a room in the inquisition in Lisbon and they were asking me to prove my Judaism,” said Leon Amiras, a lawyer in Israel who works closely with the Porto Jewish community on applications for citizenship. Though he was not present at the hearing, his personal family story was mentioned. “Suddenly these two members of parliament are testing me and trying to figure out if I’m ‘Jewish enough,’ [to deserve citizenship],” he recalled.
Catarina Rocha Ferreira, a deputy in the Social Democratic Party, which is also represented in the Portuguese government, pointed out in a hearing with the Lisbon Jewish community on June 25 that no other ethnic group has the same ability to receive Portuguese citizenship, and that applicants often had no “genuine connection” with Portugal and were just looking for a European passport.
On Wednesday, the Socialist Party decided not to change the law but to adapt new regulations that would specify an “objective connection” with Portugal.
“The [Socialist Party] and the government are to be congratulated on finally coming to their senses on this issue, which must lead to a strengthening, and not the destruction, of the law,” Michael Rothwell, a board member of the Jewish Community in Porto, said in an email. He said that Jewish communities are “very satisfied” with the outcome.
The Socialist Party initiated the original nationality law in 2015 as a way to “right historic wrongs.” For this reason, many new Sephardi citizens who were able to vote by absentee ballot in the Portuguese elections in October of last year voted for the Socialist Party.
Both the Jewish community and the Portuguese government are in agreement that some aspects of the nationality law have gotten out of hand: advertisements.
Almost overnight after the law’s passage in 2015, colorful internet ads sprouted on social media promising an easy path to a Portuguese passport.
Ads promising “Instant Portuguese citizenship” with smiling young Israelis have prompted criticism as well as concerns about scammers. Facebook groups such as “Get Portuguese Citizenship” or “Easy Nationality” have thousands of members who share tips and tricks for speeding up the process.
“It’s like those kiosks at the mall,” said Amiras. “Ads like, ‘Buy something on Black Friday and get a passport!’ ‘If you love gefilte fish or couscous, you deserve a passport for Portugal!’ Or a picture of a dog with a passport in its mouth,” he said.
The Jewish community supports regulating and fining companies that falsely advertise an easy route to European citizenship, said Rothwell, and has already developed guidelines for inappropriate advertisements.
“We are in favor of the law requiring a slightly more effective connection of the applicants to Portugal, so that there can be no question of ‘passports of convenience,’” said Rothwell. “However the type of effective connection required should be something feasible, for example, people visiting the country from time to time, or contributing to charitable institutions, or being members of the Portuguese Jewish communities. Right now, our community and that of Lisbon are in talks with Parliament to try to find a solution that safeguards all parties, without jeopardizing the rights of the Sephardim.”
The nationality law allows applicants to obtain a Portuguese passport and health insurance, open a local bank account, and study, live and work anywhere in the European Union. A similar law was in effect in Spain from 2015 to 2019, but with much stricter requirements for residency and language, and with a clear end date. There is no end date for the Portuguese nationality law, though the new requirements for proving an applicant’s connection to the country could come into effect for 2022.
Since 2015, there have been more than 62,000 applications for Portuguese naturalization, with 16,750 applicants granted citizenship, said Rothwell. The first step of the application is to prove Sephardi Jewish heritage, using family trees, birth and death records, photos of tombstones in cemeteries, and wedding registries.
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. They take at least 18 to 24 months to process.
The applications have also been a financial boon for the local Jewish communities, which are responsible for verifying the initial claims of Sephardi Jewish heritage. The Porto Jewish community made a 90-minute film with a $1.2 million budget about its history.
“The growth of the national Jewish community since 2015 is huge — we estimate that there are already about 3,000-4,000 Jews in Portugal, when previously there were perhaps about 600,” said Rothwell. He said the Jewish community has opened new prayer rooms, kosher restaurants, kosher supermarkets, Jewish museums, cemeteries, and a Chabad center in Cascais, a coastal enclave near Lisbon.
Amiras, the lawyer associated with the Porto community, said it will take years to see the true economic impact of the law and Sephardi investments in the Portuguese economy, since many new businesses are still in their infancy. Medical cannabis is an especially popular area for Israelis to invest in Portugal, he said. Others are drawn to the cheap land prices and off-grid living, with hundreds of Israelis buying small farms in areas around Coimbra and the Alentejo region.
Rothwell said that while the community is heartened over the final outcome of the law, there was a lot of online vitriol that made things uncomfortable. “These unfortunate declarations have created an unfavorable environment for Jews and have greatly increased anti-Semitism on social networks,” he said. “Unfortunately there is a lot of anti-Semitism online now.”
“Portugal is a very special country, there is so much culture and history,” said Amiras. “I think my kids should live in Israel, absolutely, but what can I do? I have Sephardi blood in my veins. And I’m excited when I go there and I sit and drink a coffee in Lisbon and I see areas where Jews used to live.”