Portugal: the end of the return of Sephardic Jews

In the interview that documentary filmmaker Juliette Senik conducted for K. in the summer of 2022, Jose Rebeiro e Castro, the main initiator of the Law granting Portuguese nationality through naturalization to the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews (often referred to as “the Law of Return”), the latter outlined his motives for doing so at that time. He also deplored the controversy caused by the alleged misuse of the Law of Return and the difficulties associated with the processing of an incredible number of applications. It appears that his fears were well founded since the law was frozen a few months later, at the end of a process described here by journalist Elie Petit.



The law’s impressive success

Seven years after the Law was passed unanimously by the Portuguese National Assembly in front of deputies clapping their hands, the exercise by descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews of their right of return was de facto frozen. Similar in spirit, a Spanish law also authorized the naturalization of Jews of Sephardic origin by virtue of this right of return, but subjected the applicants to strict criteria, including a mastery of the language, a minimum period of residence and, above all, a deadline — set for September 1,2019 — for the submission of applications.

Before the enactment in March 2022 of a decree-law toughening the Law of Return to the point of putting it on hold, in an interview with a local newspaper, the Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Porto, Daniel Litvak, was still pleased with the results. “The national Jewish community has registered a growth of 1,000% and many families are still preparing their return. We see filled synagogues, busy museums, a Portuguese Jewish school, the largest Chabad center in Europe, Jewish newspapers, kosher restaurants and many international events. To date, the state has granted approximately 50,000 naturalization certificates to Jews of Sephardic origin.” In fact, nearly 1,800 descendants of Sephardic Jews had acquired Portuguese citizenship by 2017. As of July 2019, there were roughly 33,000 applications, of which about one third have already been approved after a lengthy verification process. This number increased again in November 2020, with 23,000 naturalized, or about 30% of the approximately 76,000 applications submitted since 2015. At the end of January 2022, the total was equivalent to 56,685 nationalities granted and 80,102 pending files. In January 2023, the backlog was reported to be over 300,000 (source Wikipedia). Ultimately, more than 56,000 Jews of Sephardic origin (December 2022 figure) have been naturalized as a result of this historic gesture that Jose Rebeiro e Castro talks about in the interview we publish this week, with a definite inflation of applications year after year.

The controversies and the investigation

As early as 2022, cases of falsification, abuse or obviously ill-proven origin were reported, sometimes anonymously, prompting the Portuguese government to implement a decree-law in March to strengthen the scrutiny of applications. Emblematic cases such as the naturalization of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovitch (obtained in a six-month period and validated in April 2021, relying on a study on the applicant’s Sephardic ancestry by Rabbi Alexander Boroda of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia – FCJR, whose board of directors is headed by the oligarch) and the more obvious possibility of naturalization of the head of the Altice group, Patrick Drahi, were notably cited in the public debate, without the possibility of forfeiture of acquired nationality being provided for by the legislation even in case of a proven fraud. The Jewish community in Porto, which was singled out for criticism, initially welcomed the possibility of an investigation that would “demolish unfounded theories.” One of the accusations against Abramovich was raised by Alexei Navalny in a series of tweets dated December 23, 2021, in which this Russian dissident accused the Portuguese authorities of “carrying suitcases of money.”

On March 11, 2022, an investigation was launched by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on the basis of denunciations. It led to searches of the Porto synagogue and its Jewish Museum, as well as the confiscation of Litvak’s passport — in order to prevent the Rabbi from leaving the country — on suspicion of forgery of documents, influence peddling, active corruption, money laundering and criminal conspiracy in connection with alleged illegality in the granting of citizenship under the Law of Return for descendants of Sephardic Jews. Two days after these raids aimed at recovering the “suitcases of money,” the board of directors of the Jewish Community of Porto [Communidade Israelita do Porto or CIP], while rejecting the accusations, announced that it “no longer had any interest in collaborating with the State for the certification of Sephardic Jews.” The CIP also filed a criminal complaint with the Attorney General of the Republic for “offenses of slanderous accusations and journalistic corruption,” as indicated in another statement.

As reported in an article published in Le Monde on February 28, 2023, by journalist Raphaëlle Rérolle, Portuguese civil registry officials were surprised by the queues in August 2022. “Equipped with folding chairs, thermos flasks or snacks, applicants settled in around 7 p.m. and stayed until the morning to be sure to be the first in line at the opening. By 9 a.m., they would enter to file an application, then return to the queue to file another, and another, and another, up to 20 on a good day. All of them were lawyers and all of them were lining up with a specific goal in mind: to obtain a Portuguese passport for clients scattered all over the world,” she says. As Dr. Rebeiro pointed out in our interview, several law firms saw this law as a financial opportunity, promoting it online and proposing to fill out online application forms, thereby creating an influx of applications.

In September 2022 after a heavy campaign of accusations against the Jewish community, the three magistrates in charge of the investigation, Paulo Barreto, Alda Tomé Casimiro and Anabela Simões Cardoso dropped the charges, calling them “unfounded.” The ruling also challenged the fact that sums may have been collected by Daniel Litvak for the issuance of nationality certificates in the context of the activity of the Comunidade Israelita do Porto (CIP). However, the Prosecutor’s Office maintained that the case of the Russian billionaire was still under investigation by the Public Ministry. 

Counterproductive effects on Portuguese Jews

Although the Law was never a request from the Portuguese Jewish community, as the interview with MP Jose Rebeiro e Castro, one of its initiators and spearheads, attests, the heavy responsibility of certifying the Sephardic origins of the applicants fell to them. The communities of Porto and Lisbon were responsible for processing the applications and verifying the evidence provided, including the family trees, before sending the applications to the Nationality Registry. 

While the Lisbon Community does not comment on the accusations and continues to cooperate with the authorities, This episode of suspicion has left immense scars in the Jewish community of Porto. “We will never forgive the antisemites who set up this disgraceful police operation to destroy the so-called Sephardic Law,” declared the president of the Community, Gabriel Senderowicz. “The Chief Rabbi was arrested without any evidence, and the synagogue trampled on as if it were a brothel. No religious temple has been treated like this in Portugal in the last 500 years.” In a 131-page document addressed to the European Public Prosecutor’s office and titled “The First Major Antisemitic Conspiracy of the 21st Century,” the Jewish community of Porto described the campaign as “Soviet-style” antisemitism and denounced a plot to prevent Patrick Drahi from owning a Portuguese telecommunications group. The Portuguese State did not open any procedure against the process of Mr Drahi.

The document, which states that “the Portuguese state is not antisemitic,” aimed to demonstrate that a vast machination had been at work and led to a campaign of denigration.

To mark its centenary in January 2023, the Jewish community of Porto has published and widely distributed another document. Entitled “Two millennia of the Jewish community of Oporto – Chronology 1923-2023,” the book concludes its chronological presentation with these words: 

Considering the economic irrelevance of the country in whose language the word ‘judiaria’ (Jewish), qualifying an act, means evil, the anti-Jewish events already reported and the challenges typical of a time that rejects spirituality, the Jewish Community of Oporto, like its national counterparts, will probably never have a bright future, nor will it attract a large number of brothers-in-faith, safer, integrated and comfortable elsewhere. It will get by, perhaps for a long time, with rare periods of joy and greatness, quickly repressed by the public authorities. It has always been so. Some newly arrived families have already started to leave. It is really a sadness.

Sooner or later, a time will come when the Community’s prayer rooms, of which today there are three, will be empty, and the museums, which are full today, will die. The sound of Jewish rituals now sung in unison by hundreds of people and the friendly and free welcome of thousands of school classes will have sunk into oblivion. The population throughout the country will continue to point to the large Kadoorie Synagogue building as a symbol of materialism, money and bad feelings.”

Already in May 2020, Dr. Jose Rebeiro e Castro, foreseeing the perils his law was facing (the former Minister of Interior Constança Urbano de Sousa, an academic specialist in the law of nationalities, had proposed the inclusion of a condition of residence), concluded with these words an article denouncing the modifications brought to the Law of Return by the Portuguese Socialist Party [Partido Socialista or PS]: “There is only one sure way not to be accused of antisemitism: not to discriminate against Jews, especially when it comes to undermining a law repairing an historical wrong. ”Between denunciations of abuses and an antisemitic campaign, the dream of Dr. Jose Rebeiro e Castro, as it is explained in the interview he gave us shortly before these recent events, has turned into a nightmare for the Jewish community of Porto.

Elie Petit

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