A Sephardic perspective on the Portuguese Nationality Law

An Open Letter to the members of the Portuguese National Assembly

I am a Sephardic Jew. Portugal owes me nothing. Yet the Nationality Law – as irrational as it is – offers a chance of survival for Portuguese-Jewish culture which is on the verge of extinction. It also offers opportunities and advantages to Portugal. Rather than viewing us as wronged victims, perhaps it would be healthier to see us as Portugal’s first diaspora.

Who is ‘us’? The law seems not to understand who the Sephardim are. I am just one voice, and only speak for myself, but here are some thoughts.

A simplified history: Generations of persecution in Castile and Aragon ended with the forced conversion, or expulsion, of the remaining unbaptised Jewish population in 1492. Of those who left, some joined previous waves of refugees in Morocco; others headed into the Mediterranean and eventually settled in the Ottoman Empire (centred on modern Turkey, Greece and southern Balkans); a third group crossed into Portugal where they and the local Portuguese-Jewish community were forcibly converted in 1496.

So, there are three sub-groups of Iberian Sephardim: first, the Megorashim (meaning ‘exiles’ in Hebrew) of Morocco, some of whom later settled in Gibraltar. This is the origin of the modern Jewish community in Portugal. Second, the ‘Spanish Jews’ of the Ottoman Empire. This is the community that traditionally spoke Ladino, a dialect of Medieval Spanish with Turkish and Greek loan words. Thirdly, there are the descendants of those Jews who found themselves in Portugal at the end of 1492. This community self-defined as the Nação Portuguesa, or just the Nação. In Israel, where the word ‘Sephardim’ is mis-used to mean anyone with ancestry outside Germany, central and eastern Europe, the Nação has recently started calling itself ‘Portuguesi’.

There are overlaps between the three Sephardic sub-groups. For example, in the 17th Century a group of New Christians in Coimbra were caught sending money to support a community in Corfu, presumably of Portuguese origin. There were definitely members of the Nação living in Morocco and Izmir. The Venetian Empire – and later Egypt – were Jewish melting pots. ‘Spanish’ refugees from the Hapsburg-Ottoman wars settled in Amsterdam and were absorbed into the Portuguese tradition. The once Ashkenazi Morpurgo (‘from Marburg’) in Austria joined the Sephardic community in late Medieval times.  History is not black and white.

The descendants of some of the converted Jews in Portugal – the Nação, officially known as New Christians – later moved to Spain. Targeted by Inquisitions in both Portugal and Spain, Jewish identity was erased in some families, whilst others moved to tolerant cities including Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, Bordeaux, and Livorno.

The Nação communities in continental Europe – which means most of them – were virtually extinguished in the Holocaust. In the Anglosphere, over generations, most descendants were absorbed into the surrounding community. In early 19th Century England, the Jewish community leadership encouraged marriage between Sephardic and German Jews. Both groups were subsumed, and largely absorbed, by the much larger migration of east European Jew in the second half of the 19th Century. The Portuguese-Jews have partly evolved from an ethnic/cultural community to a religious one. It is now defined as much by adherence to the ‘minhag’ (religious tradition) as by DNA. The community could not function without people who have joined from other traditions. So, who should count as Sephardic? Let us set that point aside until later.

Allowing fanatics to persecute their merchant classes was not a good strategy for Portugal and Spain. The two countries then endured generations of economic decline. Meanwhile, members of the Portuguese-Jewish diaspora thrived, as did the tolerant countries that had given them a home. Yet as a community, we have declined due to assimilation and Holocaust. There has never been a better time for Portugal to reach out.

I think the history of the Nação (also known as Western Sephardim, Portuguese Jews, and Spanish & Portuguese Jews) is a patrimony of humanity. This tiny Portuguese-speaking group – perhaps never numbering more than 50,000 souls – was the world’s first globalised community. From their early trade networks across the Atlantic and Asia, we see the foundations of the modern world. Members of the community financed the Dutch Republic in its struggles to survive; pioneered modern commerce; laid the foundations of the British Empire in the Caribbean and India; provided critical help to George Washington during the American Revolution; and so on. Partly in response to the experience of Portugal and Spain, there is a moderate approach to religion that accepts science. In people like Spinoza we start to see recognisably modern thinking.

Portugal’s fame amongst the Nations rests on the Age of Discoveries. The country ranks 22nd on the “Soft Power 30” index. Soft power brings influence and income. The Instituto Camões may want to claim cultural ownership of the achievements of the first Portuguese diaspora, an empire of thought rather than territory.

If Portugal is to close the circle of its history, why not derive every possible benefit? Rather than following the Spanish model, where Jewish history ends in 1492, the Portuguese judiaria industry may prefer to focus on the Inquisition period. Hundreds of cities, towns and villages have such a history, which is a history that connects to the present.

Portugal has a rich Jewish history. That history is not one of Ashkenazi stars of David, violins, and straggly beards, or of musicologists dressed like gypsy fortune-tellers and slaughtering Ottoman songs in a Spanish dialect unknown in Portugal. In under-selling us, you under-sell yourselves.

It is to Portugal’s credit that it takes an interest in, and supports, its international diaspora. Due to historic religious chauvinism, one diaspora is forgotten. Portuguese continued as the language of my congregation in London until around 1840. That is in the lifetime of people known by my grandfather. Some Portuguese continues to be used in religious services to this day.

There is no need for Portugal to ask for forgiveness of the Jews. These events happened a long time ago. Anyway, I cannot forgive someone for crimes not committed against me. However, if they want to address history, it seems to me that they have two choices: they can make an empty statement or they can try to turn a negative into a positive. Whilst the nationality law is poorly framed, it is an unambiguous statement of goodwill, and should be built upon.

Some in the Portuguese media say it was ‘Sephardim’ who requested the nationality law. I do not think this is accurate, but I may be mistaken. I know there was dialogue between Portuguese authorities and the Jewish communities in Portugal, and I am confident that everyone acted in good faith, but this was a group of Catholics speaking to a group of Ashkenazim and Megorashim. Where was the Nação in this conversation? Historical misunderstandings and errors written into the law may suggest that the drafters did not have a thorough understanding of the subject, which is a complicated one.

So, what about the Nationality Law? I think it is entirely a matter for the Portuguese people, through their elected representatives, to decide who should be offered the privilege of Portuguese citizenship, and who should not. A member of my family was burnt alive in Lisbon in 1731, while family members in Spanish Inquisition documents are referred to being “of Portuguese origin”. I did not discover this until fifteen years ago. It is not a rational basis to offer me citizenship. Yet I have applied. The law is a kindly gesture, and I can see how everyone can benefit.

Why are people applying for Portuguese and Spanish citizenship under the Sephardic laws? I think there are several reasons. The first is safety. The Jewish community is realising that the historically low levels of antisemitism from 1945 to 2008 was an exception, not the new normal. It makes little difference to me – at the receiving end – if the given reason for antisemitism is Christ-killing, anti-Zionism, or neo-fascism. A blow to the head is a blow to the head. Having a second passport may at some point be the difference between life and death.

The second is to obtain an EU passport. The motives seem to be two-fold, either to ensure that they or their children can work in the EU, normally meaning a northern European country, or to ‘virtue signal’. I do not know if that phrase translates into Portuguese. I am thinking of wealthy Americans and Brits wishing to advertise their moral purity in opposing Trump and Brexit respectively.

I know that some members of the National Assembly are concerned that this represents an abuse of the intention of the law. If you search online for Portuguese Passport, Citizenship or Nationality you will encounter dozens of lawyers offering their services to obtain a passport. It makes me uncomfortable. The opening for an antisemitic backlash is obvious. Also, I think it is disrespectful towards an act of goodwill. I think that most of these applicants have no meaningful connection with the Western Sephardic community (if they did, they would know a lawyer is unnecessary), yet they meet the requirements of the law. If a certain type of lawyer seeks to exploit the situation for their own financial benefit, and is acting within the law, then who is responsible for the exploitation? The lawyers? The applicants? Or, perhaps, those who drafted the law in the first place?

The third reason is that some of us involved with what remains of the Portuguese-Jewish tradition see a re-connection with Portugal as a means of rebuilding a community on the verge of extinction. If something is not done, I expect it to cease to exist – or morph into something different – in my lifetime. This, of course, is not the goal of the law, but possibly should have been.

May I offer some suggestions?

  1. In debating the law, the National Assembly needs to clarify whether the offer of citizenship applies to those of proven Portuguese-Jewish origin (probably a minority of applicants) as it says in some parts of the law, or to all Iberian-Jewish origins as it implies in others.
  2. The decision on which applicants qualify as Sephardic under the law should be removed from the Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto and passed to the Portuguese Diaspora Council or – better – a small new unit in a government department. Religious organisations should not be involved in political decisions, especially on something as emotive as nationality. The possibilities for an antisemitic backlash are obvious. I assume the synagogues were drafted in because the National Assembly could not themselves define terms. A further consequence has been that overseas synagogues – often small charities run by volunteers – have been compelled to serve the needs of the Portuguese government in issuing letters confirming a candidate’s Portuguese ancestry, causing them disruption and cost. No guidance or instruction was offered. The law references the nonsense of “Sephardic surnames”, invented circa 1998 by a now defunct website, leading some synagogues to rely on so-called “surname reports”. There is no common standard used by overseas synagogues or, as far as I know, between those in Lisbon and Porto. Some overseas synagogues (for example the London Spanish & Portuguese) demand a high standard of evidence, whilst others may have no quality control whatsoever. And why do we believe that a synagogue that may have no historical connection with the Nação should be able to express an expert opinion on the Nação’s genealogy? They make no claim to be anything other than religious institutions.
  3. That a meaningful connection to the Portuguese-Jewish tradition should be clearly defined in law. Under the regular Portuguese nationality law, I believe a foreigner must have at least one grandparent who was a Portuguese citizen. Countries like Greece and Italy have more relaxed definitions. Countries like the UK are far stricter. It seems to me that those involved in the lives of Portuguese-Jewish communities who have no Portuguese origins are more legitimate claimants that someone who has just discovered a single Sephardic eight-times-great-grandmother. Of course, Portugal has laws that ban discrimination based on religion, so the Jewish definition of ‘Sephardi’ – someone who has a Jewish mother and a Sephardic father – will not work.

Two categories might be defined:

  1. Someone who is a member of one of the twenty or so synagogues around the world that follows the Portuguese-Jewish tradition, or has a parent or grandparent who was born to parents belonging to one of those communities (or who belonged to a community that then followed the tradition, such as the extinct community of Hamburg) and can show they have some Iberian-Jewish ancestry to the reasonable satisfaction of nominated experts. Compliance with Portuguese Law means that the applicant themselves need not be Jewish. If there is any doubt about which synagogues count as ‘Portuguese’, the relevant Portuguese authority can seek the advice of the Sephardi Beth Din (religious court) of London, the last surviving Western Sephardic religious authority. But the decision itself must rest with the Portuguese authorities. Maybe they will make a decision that seems absurd to the Nação, but it is their country and their law. Just as legal hucksters flocked to make money from the current law, so too may religious hucksters seek to benefit from the proposed amendment.
  1. Any Jew of any other origin who has belonged to or attended one of these congregations for at least twenty years and has shown a commitment to the preservation of the Portuguese-Jewish tradition, including through regular attendance and/or playing a leadership role in the life of the congregation. Practically, this may mean that – from the UK, for example – a couple of hundred Jews of Iraqi origin may become eligible. Iraqi Jews are gorgeous, often obscenely successful (think Gulbenkian x2) and cook like angels. Whilst it is not Portugal’s concern or responsibility, such a step would increase the cohesion of Portuguese-Jewish congregations and better ensure their survival. My logic is that modern European countries do not base their citizenship on ethnic or religious requirements. I have Iberian Y-DNA, but am a British citizen. A black person or a Protestant may be a Portuguese citizen. In the same way, perhaps someone who has joined the Nação in ‘exile’ might be considered to have joined the larger Portuguese tribe. Specifying a period of twenty years and significant communal involvement should exclude those with the wrong motives.

I suspect these ideas are very different from those currently being considered. They are based on knowledge of the community, experience as a genealogist and as an applicant for Portuguese citizenship. The National Assembly is sovereign and must do what they believe is in the best interests of the Portuguese people, but hopefully in full knowledge of the situation.

Whilst eccentric, the law has already nudged what remains of the Nação into a more Luso-centric orbit. Perhaps for the first time in a hundred years, Portuguese greetings can be heard again in our synagogues. My synagogue even had some Portuguese language classes and there is a new energy amongst those of us wanting to carry the tradition forward.

Spain completely messed up their nationality law. Offering something to people, then taking it away just as they become interested is not a strategy to win friends.

Should Portugal decide to place a deadline on the current law, may I suggest that they do so by asking the overseas synagogues to cease providing letters confirming Sephardic ancestry on a certain date, and then setting a final end date for submission of applications to the Portuguese authorities eighteen months or two years after that. The advantage of this, rather than imposing a cut-off date in Lisbon, is that there will be no mad rush or bottlenecks as happened in Spain. People who have already – in good faith – spent three or six months researching their family history before asking an overseas synagogue for a letter, will not suddenly be left high and dry. We are discussing relatively small numbers of people, almost all of whom have no prior experience of this type of paperwork. It is more a matter of optics than demographics.

I hope the Law – appropriately clarified or amended – is not an end but a start of something new and positive. The Nação were always a tiny group of people. In the 17th and early 18th Centuries they were the fuel in Portugal’s engine. The world has changed enormously since then. Portugal recognising her orphan diaspora is both an act of kindness and self-interest. It is a relationship that can be made to benefit both sides of the family.

The Portuguese nationality law will be discussed in the online Sephardic World meeting at 7pm Lisbon/London time on Sunday 5 July 2020. If any member of the Portuguese National Assembly wishes to participate in the discussion, please contact me directly. Else, watch online or join the mailing list on the Sephardic Genealogy page on Facebook.

About the Author
David Mendoza is a genealogist living in London. His principal focus is Sephardic genealogy and history. His background is in tech, including developing statistical models of global markets for products and services. He also has experience in the voluntary sector. David co-hosts Sephardic World, a weekly Zoom broadcast focused on the culture, history and genealogy of the Western Sephardim, the Nação Portuguesa. You can join the mailing list through the link on the Sephardic Genealogy Facebook page.
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