The Jewish community of Oporto’s criteria for Sephardic certification over a seven-year period

The first step of the Oporto Rabbinate, recognized by the Grand Rabbinate of Israel, was to decide in accordance with halachah—the only consensual criterion in the Jewish world—as to who is Jewish.

Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portugal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portugal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Gabriel Senderowicz

The Portuguese State would not have needed the Jewish communities had it not been for their privileged knowledge of the Jewish world. Ever since the publication of Executive Act 30-A/2015 of Feb. 27, the Jewish Community of Oporto has understood that the legislation currently under scrutiny aimed to reconnect Portugal to the approximately 1 million Jews descended from Portuguese Sephardic Jews. If the legislator’s objective were to grant nationality to 100 million descendants of so-called new Christians, there is no doubt that the certification could have been carried out by professionals attached to universities and foreign to such communities.

The preamble of the above-mentioned Executive Act approved by the PSD/CDS government, which is key to interpreting the diploma, confirmed the understanding of the Jewish Community of Oporto. The Central Registry Office has always affirmed the legality of this understanding, as has the justice minister, in the Assembly of the Republic in June 2020.

For years, groups of genealogists announced Portuguese nationality through Sephardism when, in fact, they were not seeking the ancestors of the candidates from the Jewish communities of Turkey, Tunisia or Morocco but only from Portugal, where formerly there were only Catholics.

To facilitate what is at stake, let us consider a hypothetical case. Manuel da Silva, a member of a Catholic family in Brazil for 15 generations, hired a genealogist who was able to identify an 18th-century Portuguese ancestor of his, Tiago Silva, an unfortunate victim of the Spanish Inquisition. It is a moving case, but Manuel is not Jewish in the light of any current of the Jewish world, however liberal; he is not Sephardic (the quality of the Jews who fled Sepharad), and he invokes a Catholic ancestor who was never a member of a “Sephardic community of Portuguese origin” abroad and whose Jewish matrilineal genealogy is not known (so that one cannot clearly state that he is Jewish). Furthermore, Tiago’s persecution during the Inquisition was similar in every respect to and indistinguishable from that of many old Christians. Was he, in fact, descended from a Jewish family?

Comunidade Israelita do Porto (CIP)/Comunidade Judaica do Porto (CJP) never certified that type of case. Is Manuel entitled to Portuguese nationality? Yes, but this right does not arise from Article 6 (7) of the Law of Portuguese Nationality, which is specifically addressed to descendants of Sephardic Jews, but from Article 6 (6) of that same Law, which exists for descendants of Portuguese in general.

The Jewish Sephardic or Ashkenazi world depends solely on the reliable criterion of tradition and not on the lineages of communities that were persecuted for centuries. How could such lineages even exist? Migration to Israel is itself conditioned by an opinion of the local chief rabbi (who, in turn, is connected with Orthodox rabbinates all over the world) and not by long lineages that from a Jewish point of view are merely diagrams.

Discounting rare cases of conversion, to be Jewish is not defined as practicing the Jewish religion. It is a lineage: to be the child of a Jewish mother, who is herself the child of a Jewish mother, and so on. The first step of the Oporto Rabbinate, recognized by the Grand Rabbinate of Israel, was always to decide in accordance with halachah (Jewish law)—the only consensual criterion in the Jewish world—as to who is Jewish.

As regards the certification criteria of CIP/CJP, it is important to make some legal observations on the subject, such as they have been presented to the successive governments of Portugal between 2015 and 2021.

Article 6 (7) of the Law of Portuguese Nationality establishes: “The government may grant nationality by naturalization, waiving the requirements set out in paragraph 1 sub-paragraphs b) and c) for the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews, provided they prove the tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin, based on proven objective criteria of connection to Portugal, namely surnames, family language, direct or collateral descent.”

On the other hand, Article 24-A (3)(c) of the Nationality Law Regulation states the following: “The application must be accompanied by a certificate issued by a Jewish community incorporated as a legal religious entity established in Portugal, under the terms of the law, on the date this article comes into force, attesting to the tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin, materialized in particular (exemplificative expression) in the applicant’s surname, family language, genealogy and family memory.”

The proven objective criteria of connection to Portugal should be found in the “Sephardic community of Portuguese origin,” an expression repeated many times in Article 6(7) of the Nationality Act and in Executive Act 30-A/2015 of Feb. 27, which by nature has not taken refuge on Portuguese territory, but as aptly laid out in the preamble to said Executive Act “in some regions of the Mediterranean (Gibraltar, Morocco, Southern France, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algiers), northern Europe (London, Nantes, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam), Brazil, Antilles and the U.S., among others.”

In accordance with Article 6(7) of the Nationality Act and Article 24-A (2),(3)(c), (4) and (5)(b) of the Nationality Act Regulation, references to the “tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin” or “based on the Sephardic community of Portuguese origin” are always linked to “the proven objective criteria of connection to Portugal,” which under the exemplificative and repeated words “in particular,” emanate from factors such as “family surnames,” “family language,” “family memory,” “genealogy,” “synagogue records,” “Jewish cemetery records,” “residence permits,” “property titles,” “wills” and others.

A bilingual Hebrew and English book published in March 2017—The Jewish Sephardic Diaspora, Through the Archives of the Jewish Community of Oporto—was distributed to libraries in capital cities around the world as an early response by CIP/CJP in its own defense. It contains several lists of surnames of (some) Jews of Sephardic communities of Portuguese origin, as well as a list of (some) surnames of Jews who lived in Portugal before the Edict of King D. Manuel. The last list shows that the surnames were generally Hebrew (Portuguese at the time). The question of the surnames is not simple, nor is the question of the family language.

A video of someone who has learned a little Ladino today but does not descend from Sephardic Jews from Sepharad is of little value. Likewise, a Benveniste from Turkey may not speak a word of Ladino, but it is inevitable (and not a matter of opinion) that as far as his family is concerned, Ladino was for centuries the “family language.” Ladino in its many forms, including Haketia from North Africa, is almost dead as a language, fallen into disuse and spoken only by the grandparents’ generation.

Another important criterion enshrined by the law is that of family memory. In principle, all applicants invoke a family memory of belonging to a Jewish community of Portuguese origin. Memory alone is not sufficient in itself. It must be proven by credible testimony, generally by the local chief rabbinate with halachic credibility in the Jewish world and before the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

In the light of this materiality, the CIP/CJP certificates of Sephardism set out that they are issued “based on evidence provided by the applicant—regarding among others his known lineage, the territories where their ancestors settled and the names, memories and traditions of the family—critically articulated with our knowledge and understanding of the reality, culture, religious law and Jewish communities in general and with other materiality investigated during the evaluation process, having made use of the work tools at our disposal.”

Having worked for seven years on the process of certifying Jews descended from Sephardic Jews of Portuguese origin, all the certificates of Sephardism issued by CIP/CJP (with very few exceptions) were granted to traditional Sephardic families who lived for centuries in countries in the Balkans—Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia—and in Arab or Muslim countries—Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya—where marriages between Jews of Portuguese origin and Jews of Spanish origin were common.

Let us suppose that the Central Registry Office stated that the former president of the Republic, Dr. Jorge Sampaio, was descended from Moroccan Bedouins with no Portuguese origin; in this case, the Jewish community could do nothing except invoke Jewish tradition. The Registry Office might reject that argument. The government might refuse to grant nationality. The community would stand by its opinion, and this could not be labeled as fraud.

For three months, disparaging remarks were made concerning the certificate of Sephardic origin of Roman Abramovich, as if that certificate had been issued under false intellectual pretenses by the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Oporto. The fact is that the certificate is based on the family memory of the applicant, his family surnames, the opinions of informed persons within the Jewish world, the financial support provided for decades to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Portuguese origin and the applicant’s lack of any material need, for he is entitled to Lithuanian nationality.

What is false about this certification process for which an emolument of €250 (about $275) was charged and which was conveyed to the government and to the Central Registry Office long before the applicant obtained Portuguese nationality?

The law is clear. The government has the power to grant or deny nationality to a candidate. The Registry Office must verify the documents regarding his Sephardism. The Jewish Community’s mission is to issue a certificate based on legal criteria, and its knowledge of the Jewish world and its traditions. It is almost a question of an expert opinion, but not of attributing nationality, which is granted at the government’s discretion.

The Jewish Community of Oporto believes that it produced good work during the seven years it operated the certification process—an overwhelming task undertaken in good faith. The chief rabbi satisfied a huge universe of candidates, seriously jeopardizing his family, his studies, his rest. He was paid for this. The Jewish Community of Oporto paid his fees transparently, year after year, through bank transfers to an account in Portugal against receipts issued from Israel, his place of residence, his tax home. Stating that there is a large bank account with money from illegal deeds is unacceptable and is the start of a stream of unending charges.

Considering the size of the Jewish community at the time of King D. Manuel—in the region of 10% of the population—if the 2013-15 legislation were to continue indefinitely, then approximately 1 million Jews of Sephardic origin could have been certified. The lawmaker considered otherwise. In April 2020, the law was set to end in early 2022. It was considered a transitory period. And the intention continues.

On Dec. 6, 2021, addressing the justice ministry, which was drawing up a very restrictive draft law, the Jewish Community of Oporto explained that there was full justification for an online platform so that the Registry Office could monitor the certification process in real-time. Three reasons were given:

1: In Portugal, there are many false anonymous claims made leading to useless criminal proceedings that are front-page news, and destroy the good name of people and institutions. The president of the Council for the Oversight of the Intelligence System of the Portuguese Republic complained of a “Dreyfus case” created by an anonymous denunciation; immediately, this was printed in the press, stating that the members of that council had breached state secrets, were corrupt and had influenced traffickers. Such charges cast intolerable suspicions on the honesty of the members of a body that must be above all suspicion to be able to comply fully with its duties. (Expresso, Nov. 6, 2020).

2: The former president of the Supreme Court of Justice declared that a huge lawsuit—known as the “Case of the Golden Visas”—constituted an example of “manipulation of a criminal investigation used as a concealed weapon to influence, condition or reverse society’s political tendencies, in the manner best suited to those who use, or make use of, it.” (Público, Oct. 22, 2020).

3: In Lviv, Kharkiv, Chernivtsi, Babruysk, Smolensk and hundreds of other cities in the Soviet Union, synagogues-communities did not all close at the same time, but one by one, and always followed the same pattern: (i) the use of the press and slanderers to associate synagogues with business dealings; (ii) describing such business dealings as being immoral or illegal; (iii) negative reactions from certain quarters of public opinion and straw Jews; and (iv) total destruction of the respectability of synagogues and corresponding Jewish organizations that promote Jewish life.

Anonymous claims, anonymous sources and other backstage games marked the end of the legislation granting Portuguese nationality to Jews descended from Portuguese Sephardim. It is a pity that it all had to end this way. Meanwhile, the law’s positive effects in terms of Jewish culture, religion and the rise in numbers of the Portuguese Jewish community are undeniable, however much they may have been silenced. They will not be described here. Anyone interested in this matter will no doubt find a way of finding them.

Gabriel Senderowicz is a board member of the Oporto Jewish community.

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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