Portugal tightens naturalization requirements for Sephardic Jews

In Portugal, descendants of Portuguese Jews expelled from the territory more than 500 years ago can obtain citizenship. But scandals have led to tougher conditions. A law to this effect was passed on Friday 4 January.

A member of Porto's Jewish community in front of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue in 2016, before Shabbat celebrations. AFP - MIGUEL RIOPA

By: Marie-Line Darcy


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In 2013, Portugal passed a law that made it easier for Sephardic Jews to obtain Portuguese nationality. The Sephardim were the Jews who had been present in Iberian territory since Roman times, and were forced to leave Spain and Portugal by edicts of expulsion. First in 1492 by the kings of Spain, then by the edict of 1496 by the Portuguese king Manuel I, who had welcomed many fugitives from Spain into his territory.

Diplomatic, alliance, and royal marriages had dictated the Lusitanian king's conduct. Many Jews went into exile, some stayed and converted to Christianity, while still others chose to live their faith and culture clandestinely.

When, in 2013, Portugal adopted its law granting naturalization to Sephardic descendants, the prevailing spirit was that of forgiveness requested, of reparation for the harm resulting from these expulsions ordered 532 years ago.

Former President Mario Soares, in a famous speech delivered in 1989, was the first to ask "forgiveness from the Jews for the persecution of which they were victims on our territory". This speech was a historic turning point. But it will take 24 years for a law to see the light of day, and another two years before it is implemented. The text drafted by Ribeiro e Castro, a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic party CDS, and Maria de Belém, a member of parliament for the Socialist Party, is consensual, at least in principle.

Naturalization scandals

This law granting naturalization granted the Jewish communities of Porto and Lisbon the right to study applications for nationality. These files, once accepted, were sent to the notarial register. This is how the Jewish Community of Porto (CIP) - which over time received most of these requests - found itself at the heart of the scandal.

The president of the CIP, who lives in Israel, and his lawyer who represents him in Portugal – the latter is none other than the nephew of MK Maria de Belém, co-author of the law – have been charged with illicit enrichment. The naturalisation file costs €250 paid to the CIP (and an additional €250 to the notarial register). This in itself is a good deal considering the thousands of applications filed. But suspicions hung over the allocation of generous donations in return for advancing the request. These suspicions were fuelled by the sudden prosperity of the community of Porto, which had been very modest until then.

Above all, it was the Abramovich affair that scandalized public opinion. The wealthy Russian businessman, once close to Putin and former chairman of Chelsea Football Club, was granted Portuguese citizenship in 2021. But the circumstances are more than dubious: the law stipulates that Portuguese ancestry must be proved, and the ancestors found by Abramovich seem never to have existed. These suspicions of corruption are still under investigation in Portugal.

A change in the law

Still, these scandals and the exponential increase in applications for naturalization (50,000 to 70,000 per year) have pushed the government, which considers that the "pardon" has largely been granted, to consider ending the law - it had already tightened the conditions for obtaining it by decree. But many have pointed to the economic interest, especially in tourism, of Jews now living in Morocco, Turkey, Holland, Brazil and the United States, and who come to visit and invest in Portugal. The government has therefore opted for a new, much more restrictive law.

From now on, the Jewish communities will be mere members of a commission of specialists under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice. In addition, anyone who is subject to sanctions by the UN or the European Union will be excluded from the process. We will have to wait for the implementing decrees to know all the twists and turns of this new text. This will no doubt take time: a new National Assembly will be created next March.

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