A Sephardic perspective on the Portuguese Nationality Law – The Times of Israel

Posted By on July 5, 2020

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 Portugals 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 Nao Portuguesa, or just the Nao. In Israel, where the word Sephardim is mis-used to mean anyone with ancestry outside Germany, central and eastern Europe, the Nao 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 Nao 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 Nao, 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 Nao 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 Nao (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 worlds 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.

Portugals 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 Cames 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 Portugals 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 Nao 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?

Two categories might be defined:

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 Nao 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 Nao were always a tiny group of people. In the 17th and early 18th Centuries they were the fuel in Portugals 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.


A Sephardic perspective on the Portuguese Nationality Law - The Times of Israel

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