Celebrating the Portuguese nationality act for Sephardic Jews

The nationality law is more than righting a historic injustice; it is about bringing our people closer together again. It is about acknowledging our historic connection and encouraging the writing of a new chapter.

The Jewish community of Porto, Portugal, celebrates Shabbat 2020 at the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portugal. Credit: Jewish Community of Porto.
The Jewish community of Porto, Portugal, celebrates Shabbat 2020 at the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portugal. Credit: Jewish Community of Porto.
Ashley Perry
Ashley Perry is an adviser to the Middle East Forum’s Israel office. He served as an adviser to Israel’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2009 to 2015. He is president of Reconectar, an organization dedicated to relinking the more than 200 million descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Israel and Jewish life. Originally from the United Kingdom, he moved to Israel in 2001.

March 1 will mark seven years since the enactment of the law that allows Jews of Sephardic origin to acquire Portuguese nationality.

This important law sought to close a more than 500-year gap, prior to which and until the modern era, witnessed the last large, openly Jewish community allowed in Portugal; it ended as a result of mass forced conversions, harassment and violence.

The Portuguese and Jewish peoples have a long and rich history notable for some extraordinary figures who enriched the lives of both. These include astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, who created the astronomical tables and maritime charts used by Vasco da Gama on his voyages, and philosopher and statesman Don Isaac Abarbanel.

Throughout the millennia and until today, the Jewish people have made significant contributions to Portuguese culture, literature, academics, economics, and social and political identity.

As President of the Portuguese Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said in 2016, Portugal should recognize and cherish its Jewish heritage while emphasizing its role in shaping Portuguese national identity.

“We must recognize it and cherish it because we know how much we lost for not doing it in the past,” he said.

The Jewish people were enriched from their sojourn in Portugal, and Portuguese identity, history and culture were enhanced thanks to the role of many Jews.

The nationality law is thus more than righting a historic injustice; it is about bringing our peoples closer together again. It is about acknowledging our historic connection and encouraging the writing of a new chapter that is a significant gain for all.

So far, the Portuguese Republic has granted citizenship to 56,685 descendants of Sephardic Jews, with 80,102 pending applications. This means that so far there have been 137,087 applications.

Since the law went into effect, there has been an investment of billions of euros by Jews in Portugal; the Jewish communities of Porto and Lisbon have grown exponentially; and the number of Jews in Portugal has increased tenfold. Jewish life is blooming, with synagogues, kosher restaurants, new cemeteries and museums.

Among the population of Portugal, there is a greater awareness of Jewish history, culture and tradition, including the shared roots of the Jewish and Portuguese people around the country.

These roots were broken but not destroyed at the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century,

My own family traces its heritage to that time, escaping the Iberian Peninsula that had been our home for more than a millennium, fleeing north through Hamburg, Amsterdam and then London.

Each of these communities maintained its Portuguese-Jewish heritage, and the Portuguese language is used in our synagogue services and liturgy until today.

During The Netherlands’ Golden Age, when Amsterdam was the center of global commerce, Sephardic Jews, known locally as the “Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation,” played an extremely prominent role. These Portuguese Jews established the historic Jewish communities in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

They were loyal to the countries where they lived and to those who led them.

It is little known that the umbrella organization of Anglo Jewry, the Board of Deputies, dates to 1760 when a Sephardic committee of deputados presented a “loyal address” to King George III.

If we look at some of the more illustrious names of global Portuguese Jews, we will find such figures as intellectual Gracia Mendes Nasi; Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” the sonnet that adorns the Statue of Liberty; philosopher Uriel da Costa; philosopher and physician Isaac Orobio de Castro; and Ethics author Benedict de Spinoza.

Wherever the Portuguese Jews went, they enriched their surroundings economically, intellectually, culturally and socially, and now they proudly do so again in Portugal.

The citizenship law has ensured that the 21st century is a type of homecoming when the Jews of Portuguese ancestry will have had the opportunity to reconnect with their former home.

Unfortunately, however, the law is not without its detractors.

Since the beginning, there have been critics, mostly extremists, who have allowed historic bigotry and anti-Semitism to cloud their judgment. They have invoked all manner of bizarre conspiracy theories involving Jews enriching themselves at Portugal’s expense, and even some type of shadowy connection to the Freemasons.

Sadly, as anti-Semitism has grown around the world in recent years, these voices have become louder and see an opportunity to try and stifle the law, or at least have it rendered largely ineffective, by introducing increasingly difficult amendments and stipulations.

Nonetheless, we know and hope that the Portuguese government and people see this law as an act of fraternity and fairness.

Portugal’s reputation around the world has been enhanced by this act of historic magnanimity, which has been embraced by Sephardic Jews.

As Rebelo de Sousa said, Jews “kept the hope of returning to Portuguese lands alive, a hope which has been passed on from generation to generation.”

The current generation has finally been witness to the realization of this dream, and this is certainly a cause to celebrate.

The writer is an adviser to the Jewish community of Porto and president of Reconectar.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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