The law of naturalization of Portuguese Jews expelled during the Inquisition – Interview with José Ribeiro e Castro

After publishing a text in K. about her work as a documentary filmmaker on the issue of Jews regaining their Spanish nationality, the journalist Juliette Senik went to Lisbon to meet José Rebeiro e Castro, the policymaker behind the Law granting Portuguese nationality through naturalization to the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews. Here is an opportunity to read an interview — conducted shortly before the Law was frozen — on the place of the Jews in Europe in the long history of their persecution and the attempts of a country to rewrite it.


Stele in memory of the Portuguese Jews victims of the Inquisition, Sao Domingos street in Lisbon (c) Juliette Senik


To extend my questioning of the Law of Return in Spain, I conducted an interview with José Rebeiro e Castro, a lawyer and former parliament member of the Portuguese party CBS, who had defended the Law of naturalization of Jews of Portuguese origin in Parliament in 2012. The purpose of our meeting in his Lisbon office was to hear him articulate in his own words the rationale for such a law. 

A few days earlier, I had attended Shabbat office at the synagogue in Porto, where many young people were following the service in good spirits. At the entrance of the synagogue, a small permanent exhibition was describing the presence of Jews in Portugal before the Inquisition. In front of the synagogue, a museum visited by groups of high school students presented the history of the Shoah (they call it Holocaust there). In a space exhibiting well-known photographs of the war and featuring a “room of names,” the natural light, an active part of the place, absent at first and then bright at the end, aims to remind us that life must go on. Near the beginning of the visit, two maps of the world side by side show the numerical collapse of the Jews as a result of the Second World War. This evidence of disappearance struck Dr. José Rebeiro e Castro, who will refer to it during our meeting.

The purpose of the interview was to understand the reasons for his commitment to the advocacy of this Law, and more broadly, the reasons why a former member of parliament, and therefore a representative of the Portuguese people, wished to see the return of “their” Jews, whom they expelled several centuries earlier. The approach does not seem to arouse the same vertigo in the former MP as in me. His confidence in the legitimacy of the Jews to “return” to Portugal contrasts with my uncertainty about the meaning of the said return. José Rebeiro e Castro was even unshaken by the accusations of abuse in obtaining nationality for dubious profits, rumors that have led to a tightening of the requirements for obtaining a passport. I came to the office of this former member of the Christian Conservative Party to find proof that the whole thing is not just a gesture, but a law anchored in a country that knows what it is doing, carried by a man of good sense.

But as José Rebeiro e Castro talks about the Portuguese communities and the Jews of Portuguese origin living in Hong Kong, New York, or Curaçao, another vertigo takes hold of me: how far back in history can any citizen of the world go to claim the nationality of a country of origin? In the case of Portugal, a former empire, what is the unique status of the Jews? And since a passport is not just a matter of convenience, what does such a request mean in an era of globalization? 

This interview was conducted before the Law was frozen, a process that K. revisits in another article this week. “I think that it would be perfect for this law to remain until its natural extinction,” José Rebeiro e Castro told me during our meeting, knowing the difficulties that this piece of legislation is facing.

Juliette Senik.


Juliette Senik: What was the situation of the Jewish community in Portugal before the discussion and vote on the bill to renaturalize the Jews?

José Rebeiro e Castro: Let’s say that the situation was peaceful. But one should, of course, mention that the Jewish community was not as large as before the expulsion as forced by the edicts of our king Manuel at the end of the 16th century. At that time, 200,000 Jews represented one fifth of the total population. If we had not acted as we did, then today there could be as many as two millions Jews in Portugal. When the Inquisition ended, some families returned, mainly from Morocco, but there were very few. And then some more came through Portugal on their escape from Germany during the Second World War. The Jewish community remained small, well treated and well received. As for the origin of this law, the demand was not raised by them, for the community never came to the government or the Parliament with such a proposal.

J.S.: Why and how did the Portuguese Parliament come to pass this law?

JRC: The story can be summarized as follows: it was the first democratic Parliament of Portugal that, at the beginning of the 19th century, approved our first Constitution, abolished the Inquisition and adopted a decree stating: “If the Jews want to come, let them come.” Some did, some did not. But if we talk about more recent political decisions, let me tell you my personal story: I was not one of the initiators of this process. In 2010, I was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Parliament and was contacted on Facebook by a Jew from New York, a rabbi if I remember correctly. He raised the following question: Is it possible for a Jew of Sephardic descent to apply for Portuguese citizenship? I answered that according to our law, he was a member of the former Portuguese communities and was entitled to apply for naturalization under section 6, paragraph 6, of our Law. Thereafter, it is up to the government to decide. But I went to check a little bit more in detail and I submitted two questions, to the Ministry of Justice and especially to its Internal Affairs Department.

José Ribeiro e Castro (c) Instituto Francisco Sá Carneiro, Wikimedia commons.

J.S.: What was the response from the Minister of Justice?

JRC: The answer I received was a bit hesitant. It was full of “buts.” I understood that it was not a reply from the minister himself, but rather a conservative answer drafted by the Internal Affairs Department. They had a very strict interpretation of the general provision of a Law that applied not only to Sephardic descendants, but to all communities of Portuguese descent in the world, whether in Malaysia, India or elsewhere. Anyway, the Parliament was dissolved due to a political strife, a new legislature begun in 2011, and after the elections the Socialists were the ones to present an adapted bill. The person in charge of this text, Maria de Belém Roseira, was a high-profile member of the Socialist Party. And while these people were promoting that bill, I submitted a very similar one of my own. So that both bills were unanimously approved by the Parliament.

J.S.: Was there any dissension between the socialists and the CBS?

JRC: No, nor with any other party. Both draft bills were voted unanimously by CBS, PSD, the socialists, the communists and the extreme left. Afterwards, the projects went to the relevant parliamentary committee and there was a final debate on some points of detail, section by section. Within the committee, the votes were always unanimous. Finally, in 2015, the bills were passed unanimously in second and third reading. It was very moving.

J.S.: Did you have the feeling that you were living a historic moment?

JRC: It was the fulfillment of a desire to repair history. There had been a break in history, because the Jews were in Portugal before we Portuguese even existed. Some say that they came here after the demolition of the Temple in Jerusalem. Portugal was born as a country in the 12th century, but the Jews were already here. The Portuguese people were formed as a kingdom and, under the protection of the king, the population present in the territory participated in the construction of the country. We did not have a census of nationalities at that time. The Jews were part of the population despite the bias they suffered. Sometimes they lived in Spain, sometimes in Portugal. And it is important to emphasize that during the conflicts between Portugal and Spain, not one Jew betrayed or backstabbed our country,  on the contrary. I would like to mention here Yaya Ben Yaya or Yaya Ben Yaish. He was the first rabbi of Portugal and came from the Moorish world. He was a friend of our first king. His son was the second rabbi of Portugal. I would also like to add that in the history of the great Portuguese discoveries, the Jews had a very important role, because they helped to finance the journeys of scientists to develop technology, to study cosmography, etc. Were I in the situation of a Jew from Portuguese origin, I would love the country willing to see me come back five centuries later, and I would sympathize with it since it has a lot to offer. I would sympathize with that country, and even more so if it became a safe place to live in for any Jewish family, as Portugal is today. There is something that never ceases to intrigue me: What have the Jews done to humanity? Did they rape our wives? Did they torture our husbands? Did they kill our children? Did they slaughter our fathers? What have they done, where does this hate come from? It is unimaginable. And they have no land. Well, now they have Israel, but back then they didn’t have land to be safe, and they were expelled. They need a safe place. And if Portugal can be that safe place for those who are connected to it, it’s very beneficial for us.

J.S.: At the time the Law was passed, did the Portuguese population discuss this issue?

JRC: It was not a topical debate. The expulsion happened five centuries ago, so it was not a recent issue. The Shoah had nothing to do with it. Portugal helped many Jews to escape the genocide. So there wasn’t any sort of guilt about that. But still, there was a liability that had to be settled.

J.S.: Was the Portuguese population aware of this liability?

I can’t say that they felt it intensely, because the initiative did not come from the Jewish communities or from the people. However, the fact that the Law was passed unanimously, without generating a widespread public debate, means that, even if there was no clear awareness of the liability, the people felt that its settlement was a fair measure and that they should be pleased with it.

Lisbon Alley (c) Juliette Senik

J.S.: As a member of a conservative party close to Christian democracy, what is the meaning of your involvement in the process? Was there any reflection on Jewish-Christian relations within this party?

It was an individual initiative on my part, although the party supported it. We have very good relations with Israel and the Jewish community. In a way, we have inherited the memory of the Shoah. There is still a malaise in Europe because of this tragedy and we carry the memory of the ignominy and injustice that it represents in a very different way that our Spanish neighbors. And also in Portugal, very differently than in Spain. Ten years ago, we were more favorable to Israel than to the Arabs, while in Spain it was the opposite. Today, because of the Palestinian question, there is a growing critical feeling towards Israel and the Jews among the population. It comes from the left, according to which Israel is carrying out genocide in Palestine. The proponents of these ideas are extremists, but they are having an impact. Despite the long-lasting conflict in Israel, in Portugal we are still more on the Jewish side. We also relate to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And I think that is right. We say that we have a country with a Judeo-Christian tradition. In Portugal, we used to look around and ask ourselves: Where are the Jews? They have disappeared since the 15th century. It’s a good thing that synagogues are coming alive…

J.S.: Have the synagogues really become more lively? I wonder if the majority of the beneficiaries of the naturalization Law have come to live in Portugal.     

JRC: The Portuguese press published many very touching stories in 2015, 2016, and 2017: a university professor from New York wants this country, five centuries after the event, to do justice to his family’s memory; a young woman went to Villaviole, a town in northern Portugal, to find out more about the lives of her ancestors… Such stories are numerous. Even though the Law does not require them to move and live here, some have come, but not very many in the end. In fact, I don’t think it’s essential that the Law requires people to come and live here. This specific Law exempts naturalization candidates from living here and speaking Portuguese. These are descendants of people who have lived very far from Portugal. So if you want to welcome them back into our nationality, you can’t require them to live here: after all, this is about doing them justice while recognizing that they have somehow lost touch with the country.

J.S.: And do you think it would be appropriate for Portugal to give its former nationals Portuguese nationality? There are many of them, and they are not all Jews…

JRC: We are a small but global country, a former colonial empire. We have been everywhere. For example, I recently listened to the story of a small community of Portuguese origin in Myanmar that has been very badly persecuted by Muslims. They have kept some customs and habits, but they do not speak Portuguese. In Indonesia, there are also small islands where one can still find descendants of Portuguese. It is a minority that has a link with its Portuguese past… Regarding the case of the Jewish community, I think it is good for Portugal in general. We have common economic, cultural and political interests. The reason why the Sephardic communities mix with the Portuguese communities in these countries is that we have a lot of migrant populations all over the world, people who have gone to work everywhere and who vote in our elections. For example, the Kadoori family gave their name to a beautiful synagogue in Porto, but they come from Hong Kong. They don’t speak a word of Portuguese, but they were members of a group called “Club Lusitano,” which was the meeting place of important people of Portuguese descent in this former British colony. And they were there many years before this Law existed. So, this historical link already exists, and I think it’s good for us to recover and reclaim it Many Portuguese consider the expulsion of the Jews not only as a tragedy from a humanitarian point of view, but also from a historical point of view, because the ties of the Jewish community with Europe could have allowed many people to benefit from their discoveries. The expulsion caused them to move to the Netherlands, to the United Kingdom, and we lost that contribution. At the end of the 16th century, the king was a Jesuit priest who opposed the Inquisition and was in favor of the “new Christians,” i.e., Jewish converts. During our war of independence, he sought diplomatic help from the Jewish community in the Netherlands and other places, and they responded. So, they always felt connected to us. And it’s a good thing for the country that we can rebuild those ties [Ribeiro emphasizes these words]. And we can benefit, not only in the country but also abroad, assuming we succeed in returning to a broad understanding of the “national community” such as the one which prevailed before the ill-fated edicts of King Manuel. This is my point of view.

J.S.: But do you think that the ultimate dream would be for these populations to actually return to Portugal and settle there?

JRC: Some of them, yes. If they want to come. They could help repopulate the central regions. If the Jewish community wants to come and bring life there, that would be great. But it’s up to them, and it’s up to us to welcome and respect them. 

J.S.: Does this Law entitle non-Jewish Brazilians of Portuguese origin to apply for naturalization?

JRC: Under the law in force before 2013, the government could grant naturalization to Portuguese-speaking applicants who had been living in Portugal for at least six years. As you recall, I told you that I questioned on this point the Ministry of Justice, and they were very cautious. Actually, paragraph 7 of the latest version of the Law applying to Sephardic Jews [Ribeiro points to a section that was added last on a photocopy of the text of the Law] reads: “The government may grant naturalization with an exemption from the requirements of living in Portugal for six years and speaking Portuguese, to descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews, demonstrating the tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin, based on proven objective requirements for the link with Portugal, namely family names, family language, direct or collateral descent.” That’s good. All those who have had Portuguese nationality in the past, those who prove that they are descendants of Portuguese and members of communities of Portuguese descent, whoever they are, can apply for it. So, the purpose of the Law was to make it clear that Sephardim could do so.

File of a Polish Jewish refugee exhibited in the “Holocaust Museum” of Porto (c) Juliette Senik

J.S.: But what about the Brazilians, what evidence do they have to submit in order to acquire the Portuguese citizenship?

JRC: Brazilians have nothing to prove since they obviously became citizens of their own country when it became independent. That’s why in 1975, under pressure from the Brazilian government, we passed very stringent laws. The said government wanted its nationals to lose their double nationality. This type of legislation can therefore generate a number of problems…

J.S.: Is this also the case for Muslims?

JRC: No, they can apply, but they do so under paragraph 6, with the obligation to speak Portuguese and to live in Portugal. For the Moors, the story is not the same as for the Jews, because they arrived in Portugal as a result of an invasion. Some stayed after the expulsion. But those who were expelled went to Morocco, Mauritania or Algeria.

J.S.: What were the differences between the legal process in Spain and Portugal?

JRC: In Spain they were stricter in their requirements, and they set a time limit for applications. In Portugal, we did not want a time limit. I personally influenced the Law in that direction. Another difference: there is no requirement to speak Portuguese. I don’t ask Mr. Kadoori in Hong Kong, an English speaker, to speak Portuguese. Of course, we would like him to learn to speak Portuguese, but it is not essential. We have Portuguese people in the United States whose descendants do not speak Portuguese, it can happen. And they never lost the nationality, from great-grandson to grandson, but they study in English, they work in English, so they have very little knowledge of Portuguese.

J.S.: What is the average time for an application for citizenship to receive a positive response?

JRC: The flood of applications makes it very difficult to respond in a timely fashion. I know of cases that took five years.

J.S.: The Law, after an enthusiastic start and the reception of many applications, has become somewhat controversial, can you tell us why?

JRC: Let me draw your attention to one point here. The Law has now become very controversial because when we passed it, we thought we would receive 5,000 to 10,000 applications. We never imagined that it would be such a success. And there have been cases of manipulation of lawyers — in Israel and other places — who encouraged biased applications. This has given the Law a very bad name, so much so that we now have to promote an anti-defamation campaign. 

J.S.: Two years ago, a MP launched a campaign against the Law based on the excessive number of applications prompted by Internet advertising or commercial interests.

JRC: I think that we should prohibit any form of advertising of that Law and enforce that prohibition scrupulously. I think that Portuguese citizenship, like any citizenship, is the most precious, the most vital capital of a country, and I refuse to advertise it as if it were Coca Cola or potato chips. I would never say that I grant you Portuguese nationality because it gives you access to the Schengen area and so on… We must now restore confidence in this Law, in accordance with its rightful objectives. We must restore the wonderful unanimity that prevailed at the time of the vote.

J.S.: It is especially the candidacies coming not from Israel, but from Venezuela or Colombia, that pose a problem?

JRC: I can understand that Jews, who have been expelled all over the world, need this country as a safe place. And we can be proud that they see Portugal as a potential refuge. The regulation might have been too flexible and it also harms the relationship between the state and the Jewish communities, because the press attacks the latter and especially the one in Porto. They say that some members of the Porto community are involved in deals with Israel and with dishonest lawyers. Some Portuguese speak of abuse of the Law, and of making money for the Jewish people. This is a problem that must be solved so that the Law is not killed. The success of the latter can only be built on mutual trust between the Portuguese State, the administration and the Jewish communities. The intervention of these communities is essential to ensure that the applicants can prove their history. How can they actually do this? With Christians, when we have to prove the existence of an ancestor in Portugal, we go to the churches to look for the baptismal certificate. But Jews are not Christians. Hence, we can go to the archives of the Inquisition, and try to find the name of the people who were persecuted. But many of them simply vanished. In such a case, the Jewish community may help in tracing the lineage of the families. Some went to Hamburg, then to The Hague, then to Amsterdam, then to Curaçao, then to the United States. Others went to Morocco. The participation of the Jewish community is therefore pivotal to the operation. Many Venezuelans probably come from Dutch colonies, from Curaçao. I don’t open to Venezuelans or Brazilians. I do open to the descendants of Portuguese fathers. And I know that many of them went to South America. But we have to check.

Another controversy arose as a result of the war in Ukraine: Portuguese lawmakers demanded the withdrawal of the Portuguese citizenship of the oligarch Roman Abramovich, who had received it a few months ago. Does the Law provide for this possibility? Is it being discussed? Do you think it would be a good thing?

JRC: According to section 9 of the Law, a person can be stripped of the Portuguese nationality if he or she has obtained it fraudulently. The said person can then challenge this measure before a court. But the Law was not made for or against Abramovich. The issue is not whether he is the president of Chelsea, or a friend of Putin, or a millionaire, or rich, but whether the process may have been tainted by fraud. It is up to him to prove the authenticity of the documents he submitted in support of his application and an investigation has been opened in this regard. 

Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue of Porto (c) Wikimedia commons.

As someone who is committed to this Law, what issues are arising today?

JRC: A MP has asked that candidates be required to live in Portugal for two years. It wouldn’t make sense for the Law to exempt the candidate from living in Portugal on one hand and then ask for a two-year residency in the other end. In fact, if this condition were imposed, I am sure that many real estate companies would appear to set up a residence scheme for two years, and then the press would say: “Lawyers are linked to real estate speculators”… I think there are ways to fight this kind of demand, because the Law states in paragraph 7 that it applies to the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who can show the tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin, and this on the basis of objective requirements that prove the link with Portugal [José Ribeiro hammers the desk with a pen to support his words]. So, if we can give a concrete character to the applications that fulfill these requirements, the idea of dirty tricks will vanish.

What are you thinking about?

JRC: I had a very simple idea, unusual to say the least, but I think it might work. We could ask each applicant to write his or her story on a piece of paper. Why do you feel Portuguese? Public opinion was very sensitive to the stories that appeared in the press. And some of them were very naive and sympathetic. That was the purpose of the Law. Its purpose was to serve those who feel that they belong to this history, who feel [Ribeiro emphasizes the word] that they are the descendants of those who were here in the 15th century and were expelled. Some of the stories impressed me, like the one about a man who still holds the key to his family’s small village that had been passed down through generations. This fact does not suffice to fulfill the legal requirements, but it’s something that helps to assess the veracity of the story. So we need to clarify in the Law the modalities for transcribing the conditions into reality. We could also reduce the number of cases we can adjudicate per year, because the services are inundated with thousands of applications and do not have the capacity to process them. You have already asked me: how long does it take? It is not acceptable that some cases could require five years! A nationalization process should not take more than one year. So I think the government could adopt a service organization standard — saying that under paragraph 7, we decide on a maximum of 10,000 cases per year — and introduce a little more discipline in their handling. The quid pro quo is that anyway our Law has no expiration date. But we may reach a point where it becomes too confrontational. I would be very sad, because I think it’s incredibly important to bring peace to this process and get back to the unanimous support that existed in the first place for the purpose of the Law.

How do you see the future of this Law?

JRC: I think the best-case scenario would be for this Law to remain in force until its natural extinction. And my dream will be fulfilled when the Portuguese community in New York includes the local Sephardic Portuguese community, or when the Portuguese community in Brazil also includes its Sephardic component.

Interview by Juliette Senik

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