On the couch with Yoram Zara, who has a law firm that handles Portuguese passports and citizenships for Jews in Israel, Britain and the United States.
First, greetings on your Portuguese passport.
How did you get what many Israelis would want now in their pockets?
See, I am of the same origin as the expellees. As soon as the law came into effect in 2015, I took care of the citizenship for my family in Israel and in Turkey.
Did you say Turkey?
Yes, The Jewish community in Turkey was the quickest to file applications. They were the first to recognize the opportunity. These are Jews who are there in Istanbul because their economic situation is good, but they are troubled by the problems in the regime. So, they still do not leave but are very interested in having an additional citizenship.
So, before the Israelis there were all the Turks …
The Spanish law had existed since the beginning of the century, but it was a dead law and a law without criteria and timetables. The only people who have used it in the past decade were Turkish Jews. Israelis were not willing to pay thousands of Euros to lawyers for a request that lasts 7-8 years.
Who from your family still lives in Turkey?
Everyone. Except for my parents who immigrated to Israel, they all stayed there.
And after your family received their passports with your help, you decide to offer the same service to private customers?
Exactly. After taking care of my family, I started to offer my services to clients in Israel and in the Unites States and Britain.
Why only these three countries?
One of the critical documents for the success of the process is the birth certificate. Countries like Morocco, for example, have a problem issuing birth certificates, especially if the birth occurred in some remote village. Moreover, clients born there usually immigrated elsewhere and changed their name with no official paper trail.
And the Portuguese are not flexible about this?
Absolutely not. The citizenship process has two stages. The first is to get the approval from the Jewish community, a certificate that says you are a descendant of the expellees. It is a quick step and much simpler than you might think. The more difficult and more problematic stage is the second stage with the government.
With the government you mean the Portuguese embassy?
No, I do not recommend submitting the applications at the embassy. We submit the applications through a Portuguese immigration lawyer. The application is submitted in Lisbon and the body that receives the applications is the Conservatoria at the Ministry of Justice. This stage takes much longer, and what may be critical is issues of name changes throughout life or stays abroad and the need to issue criminal records.
Can you explain a little more?
People who were born abroad often changed their name since birth without having an official record, and the Portuguese do not accept that. We understood that it would be better for us to focus in places where it is easy to go to the relevant entity and fix issues in your passport and birth certificate, if there is a detail to fix.
How many of your customers are Israeli?
Overall, two-thirds of Israelis and one-third of American and British. The demand in Britain strengthened after Brexit.
How does the process begin, in terms of the client?
Our form of work is this – We conduct a free eligibility evaluation. This is a very strict examination. I check the birth certificate and passport and the name changes from start, because the client’s goal is not that certificate from the Jewish Community, the goal is the Portuguese citizenship. If the client gets stuck after the first stage he will be an unhappy client. First, with the free eligibility evaluation we see if there are problems and if there are any corrections we recommend performing before the start of the procedure. After submitting the paperwork poorly, it cannot be pulled off and it becomes a lost request.
Can you give us some actual examples?
For example, Turkey born Moiz tries to explain that he is Moses from Israel, or someone who was in Goa for eight months and was asked to issue a criminal record from India. How will he get it now? If he had dealt with this before submitting his application for citizenship, the problem would not have arisen.
According to the buzz in Israel, it seems that many Israelis managed to get the passport, despite all the difficulties.
I do not know. I have Portuguese citizenship, I can show it. Many lawyers tell stories about hundreds of people who have received citizenship. In fact, the official figures show that 200 to 250 Israelis received citizenship. From the whole world 800 received, and the majority, by the way, were Turkish Jews. So, there are many stories but people who can show their passport I see less.
But you probably see the rush for the Portuguese passport.
Yes, by the queue. In 2015, 50 applications were submitted per month, today it is 500 requests each month. That is why we are submitting the requests that come through us as soon as possible to the Portuguese government. We do not stretch proceedings over a year. If the client flows instructions, within three months the application is submitted to the government. We know that the queue will be longer as time goes by. The requests of 2015 took eight months to finalize, today it is around a year and a half.
I’m going back to your relatives in Turkey. When was the last time you visited them?
Last time, a year and a half ago at a wedding. I admit that now I am reluctant to go.
Where do you meet?
In Portugal. I travel there five times a year. I have an office there too.
Are you thinking to move to Portugal yourself some day?
My brother lives in Portugal.
Thanks to a passport that you arranged for him?
No, it is a coincidence. He married a Portuguese girl. Today he is a tour guide in Lisbon. I think every Israeli who visited the city in the last year knows him. In fact, it is he who is helping me. He sends me clients.
Tell us a little about Portugal.
It is a very pleasant and comfortable country, and the temperament of the people is very calm. It is very different from Israel. I told you now about my brother, they have a two-year-old girl and she is in kindergarten. When I am in Lisbon I stay at their home. Now, my children are big now, but I remember how it was. In Israel, you bring the child to kindergarten, throw him into the hands of the kindergarten teacher at 07:30 AM, and go to work. In Portugal, they turn over in bed from one side to the other around 9:00 AM, and only at 10:00 AM does the child go to the kindergarten. At 08:00 AM there are no people on the street.
This is also the claim against the Portuguese or at least the Portuguese economy. That nothing moves there.
Yes, it is a static nation. I traveled a lot in Portugal. Interurban roads are empty. When you walk in the streets of Porto and Lisbon, you see a lot of real estate signs. The country is recovering a bit, but in crisis, they have the lowest birth rate in Europe and the highest percentage of young people leaving the country.
Where are the refugees from the Middle East when you need them?
Two years ago, there was the story about the refugees from Syria. There were refugee camps in Central Europe and the Portuguese agreed to take 10,000 refugees. They even opened a marketing stand in one of the camps. Do you know what happened? They could nor fill the quota. Salaries in Portugal are low and there is unemployment. The refugees want to go to Sweden or Germany. On the other hand, if your income source is not Portugal, you can live comfortably.
I do not know if many Israelis will read your last answer as a missed opportunity or an opportunity. There is a traditional fear among Israelis about the entry of a large Muslim population.
Because of the economic situation there are almost no Muslims in Portugal. I also heard that this is the country with the lowest anti-Semitism on the continent. In Porto, I saw it in the synagogue area. There is no problem going around with Jewish symbols. By the way, those who did discover the potential of Portugal are the Israelis who love nature. There are quite a lot of natural or wild areas where you can buy a piece of land and a house and live close to the ground. I recognize a trend of spiritual Israelis. They can feel like in India, yet in a Western country. They can be connected to nature at a low cost in a modern country.
Do they have a good health system in Portugal?
The Portuguese do not trust the public system. Everything is private, but not expensive. Another advantage of Lisbon, is that it is surprisingly small. There was a month that I was in Lisbon and then in London. If in Lisbon I traveled from end to end in thirty-five minutes during traffic, in London it was another story. The reason my brother does hiking in Lisbon is because the city allows it. True, it is on hills and there are ups and downs but it is not too big. The people are nice and can speak English.
In Berlin, there is a lot of competition between companies that offer tours in Hebrew. What is the situation with your brother?
The number of Israelis in Portugal is very small. The Jews here, too, are a small group. It is not Berlin, so my brother still has no competition.
Is it harder to get to Portugal?
There are not enough flights from Israel. Usually there is a need for connection flights. This makes the arrival less comfortable.
Let’s go back to the passports issue. We talked a lot about the Portuguese passport, you did not mention the Spanish option that was the first one that Israelis spoke about a lot.
Look, the Spanish law is unbearable. Apart from the part that it is expected to expire next year, it is a law that requires, for example, a test in Spanish.
How come the Portuguese law makes life easy and the Spanish makes it so difficult?
The Spanish law attracted much more attention when it came out. I remember morning shows, front page news, google search results – that told you about the possibility of receiving Spanish citizenship tomorrow. There was a feeling that soon two million Israelis were going to receive Spanish citizenship.
One of the law firms involved in this field reports that there are three million Israelis in the potential to receive the passport.
Let me tell you. While the law was not yet finalized, I was on in a conference at the Cervantes Institute. Even then there was a lot of noise coming from Israel, and what people do not know is that the feedback arrived in Spain. I met a person who was involved in the legislative process. I asked him, ‘Say, why are the criteria of the law so harsh?’, He confessed that it was because all the noise in Israel. The Spaniards were frightened. They thought that ships will be starting to arrive with Israeli descendants of Spanish expellees, and as a result, they became more and more difficult until it became almost an empty group.
What difficulties did they add, for example?
First, the law created a window of opportunity for only three years, of which two years have passed. Another thing was the need to pass a test in Spanish, but there were no rooms for exams. Or, for example, it is required to arrive in Spain for an interview or the fact that there was only one translator in Israel whom was authorized to translate from Hebrew to Spanish. They have expressly invented difficulty on difficulty. If there are five Israelis who have received a passport now, I will be surprised. Those who received it did so during the previous law, until 2015.
People who have citizenship from a country that Spanish is their mother tongue, like Venezuela or Argentina. They are exempt from some of the exams, so those countries have several requests that succeeded. The Spanish legislator has made it easier for citizens over the age of seventy, but how many of them want to change the country at their age? The only place where Spain has an advantage is with minors. Minors can apply under Spanish law and there is no need for language exams and general knowledge.
Are they also exempted from the interview in Spain?
Depends on their age. Anyway, their parents will have to go to an interview in Spain.
So where is the Spanish advantage, only about tests?
In Portugal, the minor can apply for citizenship only after the parent has received citizenship. At least that’s how it was at the beginning. Now there seems to be some flexibility. I am doing a pilot on one of my daughters and applied in February for her. Let’s see how it goes.
The fact that the Portuguese law did not make a buzz in Israel is what you think allowed it to pass without restrictions and to be more relevant?
There was an amazing silence while the law was proposed in Portugal. It certainly helped.
It is fortunate that the researchers of morning programs in Israel sometimes relax.
You said it.
Assuming there were no difficulties on the way, how does this whole process end, the Portuguese sent the passport home?
Most of the offices in the field finish their service by issuing a Portuguese birth certificate. This means that the client deals alone with the issuance of the identity card and the passport. In the current state, this means another six months of dealing with the Portuguese embassy.
What is the solution?
Our office in Lisbon offers a service in for four days in the city, with close escort and at the end the client receives his ID card and passport.
Well done. Thank you, Yoram.
This is a translation from an interview in Hebrew published here