In December 2021, a controversy blew up in Portugal, when the media reported that the Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich had obtained Portuguese citizenship following donations to the Jewish community of Porto. Putin’s war tanks were on the border of Ukraine and the moment was seized by those who wanted to repeal the Portuguese law that granted citizenship to descendants of Portuguese Jews.
Roman Abramovich, from whom the community has always claimed to have received only 250 euros (US$273), had become a scorned symbol of the Portuguese law of return that for seven years granted citizenship to more than 60,000 people, mainly Israelis from traditional North African families and from the former Ottoman Empire.
In March of 2022, the police arrested the rabbi of Porto and a few days later the government published a decree that repealed the law in practical terms. However, on September 27th, the court of appeals declared that the case was based on “nothing” and the community raised the tone of its protests against what it called “Soviet-style antisemitism” and a “campaign of intimidation” based on the myths of the rich Jew, and portrayals of the “Orthodox rabbi” seen as a Zionist agent.
I had access to the dossier attesting to the Sephardic origins of Roman Abramovich, that the community recently sent to the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. It is an interesting record, telling the story of a family of forced migrants. Abramovich’s paternal grandparents were from wealthy Lithuanian families, with Sephardic names and origins. They were victims of Stalin, who exiled them to Siberia in the 1940s, after robbing them of everything they had including hotels, real estate and merchant ships.
Abramovich’s family has names of Sephardic origin such as Rosa, Leiva, and Leon that are specifically mentioned in the Portuguese law of 2015. They have family memories that were confirmed by Russian and Israeli rabbis who have known the family for 30 years and who know the history of Sephardi families.
Lithuania itself has a place in the dossier – the country grants citizenship to the children and grandchildren of Lithuanians and the billionaire’s own children are Lithuanian – and so does Chabad-Lubavich. Chabad, founded by the grandson of Baruch Portugali, a rabbi of Sephardic origin – has always been a beneficiary of financial support from the Russian, Israeli, and now Portuguese billionaire.
The dossier actually goes further. When the Jewish Community of Porto confirmed Roman Abramovich’s Sephardic origins, it informed the government about the possibility of him making investments in Portugal and asked for expedited recognition of his citizenship for reasons of national interest. In April 2021, the billionaire became a Portuguese citizen and continued to travel in Europe using his Israeli passport. The matter seemed to be in hand, but all was not well.
At the time, the Portuguese press reported the case in distorted terms, ignoring the Jewish community in Porto, provoking a wave of antisemitism in Portugal. The Jewish community’s museum in Porto has an exhibit showing the persecution that erupted at the time. Old antisemitic songs about the “rich Jew” causing the housing crisis and the high cost of living were once again whispered behind closed doors.
This writer has lived in Israel during three wars, witnessed Thailand’s military coup, and observed Myanmar’s democratic elections under military rule. In all those places, my family never experienced the hostility we faced in Porto. My own daughter was dubbed an “Israeli terrorist” in 2020. In 2021, my house was smeared with red paint, defacing the mezuzah.
The debate around the Abramovich case reveals the complexity of Sephardic heritage and citizenship in Portugal. Each individual involved has hundreds of ancestors going back 19 generations from the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. On top of this, the question of Jewish ancestry is loaded with personal, historical, political, and geostrategic implications.
Portugal tried to correct the sins of its past by receiving descendants of Sephardic Jews who were unjustly expelled. Seven years later, the same country that once hunted its Sephardi Jews, has now been targeting non-Sephardi Jews.