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Porto Jewish community denounces citizenship probe as a ‘Holocaust against families’

Head of community rails at Portuguese authorities over investigation into its role in vetting Roman Abramovich, others for Sephardic ancestry

Congregants praying at the Kadoorie Synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. (Courtesy of the Jewish community of Porto/JTA)
Congregants praying at the Kadoorie Synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. (Courtesy of the Jewish community of Porto/JTA)

JTA — The head of the Jewish Community of Porto, Portugal, has said that a criminal investigation stemming from the organization’s role in vetting Jews with Sephardic ancestry for Portuguese citizenship amounts to antisemitic persecution by officials.

In an unusually harsh letter to lawmakers last week, Gabriel Senderowicz said the probe was perpetrating a “Holocaust against families.”

And in a sign of splits among the country’s Jews, a former leader of the Jewish community of Lisbon dismissed Senderowicz’s allegations as baseless and “absurd.”

Senderowicz’s letter to lawmakers was the latest development in a scandal that erupted in February over the community’s vetting of applications for citizenship by applicants identifying as descendants of Sephardic Jews.

In March, authorities briefly detained the rabbi of the Porto community, Daniel Litvak, on suspicion of fraud in connection with such applications.

The previous month it became known that Roman Abramovich, a Russian-Israeli billionaire who is under sanctions in multiple countries for his alleged connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin, became a Portuguese citizen as per the Porto community’s recommendation.

The vetting of Abramovich, who has a distinctly Ashkenazi last name and many Ashkenazi ancestors, was widely seen as suspicious. Neither he nor the Jewish Community of Porto have released a family tree demonstrating his Sephardic ancestry, though the Porto community has defended its authorization of his application as compliant with the law.

Roman Abramovich sits in his box before Chelsea’s English Premier League soccer match against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, on December 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

The Portuguese government in 2016 entrusted the Jewish Community of Porto and that of Lisbon — official bodies that represent those cities’ Jews — with vetting applications for naturalization under a law that parliament passed in 2013. The law guaranteed Portuguese citizenship to anyone who is able to show that their ancestors were Sephardic Jews.

The Portuguese state is now considering changing the law, possibly limiting its application to people with property in Portugal.

On Wednesday, Senderowicz, wrote to the president of the Portuguese parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Issues, Rights, Liberties and Guarantees, describing the investigation as “the greatest attack against a Jewish community in Europe in the 21st century,” adding that it is being “carried out against the strongest Jewish community in Europe today.”

Unnamed people whom Senderowicz described as “agents of the state” used journalists and influencers to “advance antisemitic libel.” Week after week, he added, “we saw a Holocaust against Jewish families, exposed in newspaper.” In a statement, the community accused of antisemitism “the Portuguese state” as a whole.

Esther Mucznik, a former vice president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, called Senderowicz’s allegations “absurd, without any basis in reality.” In reality, “authorities are looking into alleged criminal actions and we will know what they come up when their investigation is over.”

Jose Oulman Carp, the president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, declined to comment on the allegations by his counterpart from Porto.

Prior to the investigations, leaders of Porto’s Jewish community celebrated their city and country as a safe haven from antisemitism.

Michael Rothwell, a board member of the Jewish community of Porto, was among many Jews who celebrated the law, which the government said was to atone for the persecution of Jews during the Inquisition.

Last year he called it an “act of justice” and encouraged Jews to come to settle in his city, which he described as “an environment of tolerance, little antisemitism, and an active and welcoming community.”

More than 50,000 people have acquired Portuguese citizenship under Portugal’s law of return for the Sephardim.

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