Portugal says nearly 21,000 Israelis applied for citizenship last year

Israel leads as country with most applicants for 2nd year running, after Portuguese government began allowing descendants of Sephardic Jews to seek passports

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

JTA — Portuguese authorities said Israelis applied for citizenship in Portugal more than any other foreign group, even though few choose to actually live in the country.

The number of Israelis seeking a Portuguese passport through a 2015 law passed for the descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition reached 20,975 in 2022, according to statistics from the Portuguese Immigration and Border Service (SEF).

That exceeded the 18,591 applicants from Brazil, whose population is over 20 times larger than Israel’s and has longstanding cultural ties to Portugal, including a shared language.

Israelis were also the largest group in 2021, when 21,263 people applied.

The surge of Israeli applicants began after Portugal passed its “law of return” in 2015, allowing the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were affected by the 16th-century Inquisition to apply for nationality. The Portuguese government has announced plans to end this policy in December 2023, saying its purpose of reparation will be “fulfilled.”

The policy was plagued by scandal last year amid allegations of fraud and corruption in the Jewish Community of Porto, one of two Jewish authorities — alongside Lisbon’s community — that was certified to vet applications. The Porto community came under fire for approving the citizenship of Roman Abramovich, a Russian-Jewish billionaire who made his fortune in Russia’s energy sector and has been called a close ally of Vladimir Putin, although he has denied being part of the Russian president’s inner circle.

Abramovich’s naturalization came to light shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, when it became apparent that he could live in Western Europe and challenge the European sanctions being imposed on Russian oligarchs. His case triggered a criminal probe into Porto’s vetting process, leading to the detainment of community rabbi Daniel Litvak and a bitter rift in Portugal’s Jewish communities.

A view of the Kadoorie Synagogue in Porto, Portugal on May 16, 2023. (Eli Mandelbaum/EJA)

Portuguese citizenship has wide-ranging appeal for Israelis, including the freedom of movement that comes with a European Union passport. Portugal has lower taxes and a lower cost of living than Israel, although its income levels are also proportionately lower. Some Israelis are attracted to the more relaxed acceptance rates at public universities in Europe and lower attendance costs for EU nationals.

There are likely also political motivations. Liberal-leaning Israelis have expressed growing interest in moving abroad as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government pushes to undercut the judiciary’s power and independence. Others are galvanized by the fear and stress that come with living in a country continuously locked in deadly conflict with its neighbors.

But despite their spiking interest in nationality, most of the Israelis who applied have not moved to Portugal. While 60,000 Israelis had Portuguese citizenship in 2022, only 569 were residents, according to SEF data. In comparison, 239,744 Brazilians lived in Portugal last year.

Many Israelis, a country full of citizens who have endured past migrations, may be driven by the desire for a “plan B.” Amikam, an Israeli healthcare professional who did not provide his last name, told The Portugal News that he applied for nationality in 2017 even though he has no plans of emigrating.

“It’s always good to have a plan B in case things in Israel turn for the worst,” he said.

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