Sephardic Jews – Over 37,000 foreigners asked for Portuguese passport

Turkey and Israel lead the requests of 37,731 Jews who in four years have applied for Portuguese nationality. In 2015, the law began to grant nationality to the descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula 500 years ago.

David Mendoza speaks “bad Portuguese with a Brazilian accent”. “It is a Portuguese learned mostly from reading the Inquisition documents, “explains this 56-year-old Briton who lives and works in London as a genealogist specializing in the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian late 15th century and early 16th century. Since, in March 2015, the law conferring the right to Portuguese nationality by naturalization of the descendants of those Jews started to work, the requests do not stop to arrive. By June, 7819 Jewish descendants had obtained Portuguese passports by this means. But these are only a small portion (20.7%) of the 37,731 applications submitted to the Office of Registries and the Notary (IRN) and whose proceedings are still ongoing.

Applications come mainly from Israel and Turkey, but also from Brazil, Argentina, the United States of America, and more recently from the United Kingdom, among other countries. “The overwhelming majority of applicants are between 20 and 45 years old. They are a young generation, in full working life, with a constituted family,” said Michael Rothwell, the member of the board of the Israeli Community of Porto, who is responsible for certifying these processes, namely for the validation of the documentation attesting to the belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin, was characterized by the PUBLIC. Note that in the IRN only enter the requirements already duly founded and documented, leaving behind all those who bump into the impossibility to prove the offspring.

The ride of this phenomenon, guarantees, “the Jewish community has grown throughout the country, notably in desertified zones”. But because “migratory phenomena have generated hostile movements in Europe”, he refuses to point out concrete examples, claiming that “in general, people chose Portugal to live in peace”, and many retain “traumatic memories gathered in other latitudes and not are really interested in being known. “

Asked about the motivations behind what he calls a “21st Century Return to Sepharad,” Rothwell points out “sentimental reasons and the intention to reside in the country or to have a second address there.”

It is thus a kind of silent return, which, but beyond obtaining nationality (which in some cases leads to the decision to buy a house in Portugal, or to extend its business to the country, namely in the field of real estate rehabilitation), assumes manifestations visible to the naked eye, if not because it led to the creation of a tourist itinerary specifically aimed at this “niche market”.

Jewish tourism

In April, TAP opened a daily flight between Lisbon and Tel Aviv. And according to data provided to the PUBLIC by the National Institute of Statistics, last year Portuguese hotels welcomed 119,799 Israeli guests (17,865 in 2008). Similarly, tourists from Turkey increased from 8,340 in 2008 to 39,453, ten years later. It is impossible to determine to what extent this increase derives from the demand for Portuguese nationality and the increase in Jewish tourism, but the signs that Portugal has been affirming its Jewish heritage on the international scene is, for example, the fact that the Hotel da Música, in Porto, recently bet on a restaurant whose clientele is “980/0 or 99% made up of Jews”, as João guarantees. Duarte, responsible for the hotel’s kosher project, where he also opened a grocery store for Jewish food.

“It was a project launched five years ago to respond to the growing demand we were feeling,” he says, explaining that at the restaurant, “employees are aware that a Jew does not eat shellfish or fish with scales and does not mix meat with milk.” and ensuring that “cutlery for kosher customers is not mixed with others”. Similarly, during the Shabatt (religious rest period extending from Friday at sunset to Saturday night), “the staff know they have to open their doors because Jews don’t use anything electronic, they don’t walk around. elevator, nor tear anything, so toilet paper is replaced by tissues “.

Even more than in large cities, the reinforcement of the Jewish presence has assumed visible expression in areas such as Trancoso, Belmonte, which preserves very strong signs of the Jewish presence, and Castelo de Vide, among others. In this Alentejo municipality, the mayor, António Pita, guarantees that the bet on what he calls “tourism of emotions” led to the fact that in 2017, the Israelites were already the second foreign nationality to visit the medieval synagogue of the municipality, following the Spanish. In the same logic of promoting the Jewish heritage of the municipality, the municipality invested one million euros in a project called the House of Inquisition, which is scheduled to open in early 2020. “From the Holy Office Rules we will show what were the procedures followed by inquisitors, from jail to self-defense”, he explains.

The Garcia de Orta interpretation center, another descendant of Sephardic Jews who was born in Castelo de Vida after his parents were expelled from Spain, is another of the planned projects. On the private side, two four- and five-star hotels are under construction for Jewish tourism, at a time when Castelo de Vide already has some Jews among its residents. “The county has appeared in newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times and this has helped us to receive more descendants of these expelled Jews who are interested in redeeming this time. “

The president of the Trás-os-Montes Jewish Studies Center, Ruth Calvão, is more than used to pointing the direction of Jerusalem to the Jews visiting Portugal in this attempt to reconstruct the path of their ancestors. “They call me a lot asking for help to start the process of obtaining nationality. And it’s funny because when they come here to visit the country they talk a lot about the feeling that they have to be at home,” he describes, adding new motivations to those already pointed out by Michael. Rothwell said: “A Portuguese passport makes it easier for you to enter Europe. Many ask you to focus on your children so that they can come to study in Europe, others for emotional reasons, as if seeking justice. One day a Jew living in Zurich, Switzerland, who does not need, for financial or business reasons, to have Portuguese nationality, told me that when he called his parents living in Israel to say that he already had the Portuguese passport , the father was very moved because he felt that the ancestors had been done justice who had fled to what is today Turkey. “

From Turkey comes, together with Israel, the largest number of nationality applications. Of the 466 requests entered in 2015, about 45% came from Turkey (212 requests) and of the remaining 32% came from Israel (149 requests). The following year, orders rose to 5100, of which 41% from Turkey (2103) and 41.5% from Israel (2021). In 2017, of the 7044 new orders, 21.4% (1511) came from Turkey and 57% (3999) from Israel. This preponderance is due, on the one hand, to the greater ease that Jews who have settled in Turkey and Israel have to prove their membership of a community of Portuguese origin. “There are communities that have been destroyed, as well as their synagogues, which has led to much of this documentation being lost,”reminds Ruth Calvão.

Security and business

In the case of Turkey, says the president of the Jewish Studies Center, it weighs mainly on the political instability of the country. “People no longer feel safe as Jews. If there is an opportunity to get another nationality, for more European, take advantage of it,” he says. In the case of Israel, the search for a second nationality will have to do with these symbolic reasons, as well as new investment and business opportunities.

Initially residual, orders from Brazil have increased (1022 in 2018) as well as from the United Kingdom. These went from seven orders in 2016 to 130 last year. In the first six months of this year, 74 requests had already arrived from the United Kingdom. It is an increase that has been interpreted as a reaction to Brexit and the search for a passport that guarantees free movement within the Union’s borders.

European David Mendoza does not corroborate this thesis: “Honestly, I think curiosity is the biggest reason.” Based on the requests of the descendants who ask him to help them reconstruct the Sephardic origins, he concludes that what the law did was to increase the “interest in the knowledge of Portuguese origins”. But it admits to know cases where the application for nationality contains the intention of living in Portugal or doing business here, besides the security that can come from a European passport. “Some of these people who apply have been refugees at certain times in their lives and want to play it safe.”

The process of granting nationality can be slow. In his case, Mendoza had no particular difficulty in attesting to Sephardic ancestry, not least because the Jewish community to which he belongs is organized around the Bevis Marks synagogue, built in London in 1702 by the first Sephardic from Spain and Portugal. “My ancestors never spoke rogue, but Portuguese. And our traditions are Portuguese, and there are several services that are advertised in old Portuguese,” reports the PUBLIC, claiming to be able to go back until 1650 in the records of their ancestors. One of his ancestors, Miguel de Mendonça, was burned alive in Lisbon in 1731 while some of his brothers moved from Amsterdam to London. “I’ve been to Portugal a few times and it’s funny because whenever I go out in Lisbon or the Algarve, I always meet someone who looks like my father or grandfather,” he jokes.

When asked what he intends to do with the Portuguese passport, David hesitates: “I don’t think I will do much with him, like most people, but honestly, I don’t know,” he answers point-blank. Later, by email, adds a handful of reasons for the request. “London is prohibitively expensive and, as I want to start a new business in the area of ​​technologies, I will be able to take advantage of Portugal’s skilled labor force in this area,” he lists. And, amid allusions to the desire to improve his Portuguese, he assumes that the fear of seeing anti-Semitism worsen in England also weighed on the decision: “Especially in a scenario of government led by [Jeremy] Corbyn.”

Translated from the original found here.

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