The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has fuelled an 80-fold increase in the number of British Sephardic Jews seeking Portuguese citizenship under a recent law intended to make amends for their ancestors’ expulsion from the Iberian peninsula more than 500 years ago.
Last year both Spain and Portugal brought in legislation to facilitate the return of the descendants of the thousands of Jews who were forced from the countries at the end of the 15th century.
The Spanish government said the offer of citizenship was intended to right the “historical wrong” that saw the country’s Jewish community exiled, forced to convert to Catholicism or burned at the stake. Portugal said that while there was no way to make up for what had been done, the offer of citizenship represented “an attribution of a right”.
In the wake of June’s Brexit vote, however, a rapidly increasing number of British Sephardic Jews have been applying for Portuguese citizenship as a way to deal with the uncertainty created by the leave victory.
According to the Jewish Community of Oporto – which, along with the Lisbon Jewish community, is certifying applicants – demand from the UK has soared since 23 June.
Dr Michael Rothwell, a delegate to the community, said it had received just five applications before Brexit compared with 400 in the two months following the vote.
“I think people are a bit nervous about this and therefore feel that having a European Union passport would be an advantage even if they are not necessarily planning to move to Portugal,” he said. “Having citizenship of an EU country has its benefits.”
Rothwell said the community had not been surprised by the rush for Portuguese passports, adding that the number of individuals applying was greater that 400 as many had applied in groups. Although there are no precise figures, the UK’s Sephardic population is estimated to be in the thousands.
Alison Rosen, executive director of the S&P Sephardi Community in London, said its archivists had also seen a rise in the number of people inquiring about their Sephardic ancestry.
“One hundred per cent, the minute Brexit happened, we definitely saw an increase in volume and I think it’s continuing,” she said. “In the past, we had a handful of people and it’s now a steady flow of people. In the past we might have got one a month and now it’s a couple a week or something.”
However, Spain’s Federation of Jewish Communities said it had not seen a similar rise in UK applications after Brexit, perhaps because the language tests required by the Spanish government are pushing would-be applicants to try the Portuguese route, which makes no linguistic demands on applicants. The UK does not feature among the Spanish government’s top 10 countries for applications, a list led by Argentina, Israel, Venezuela, the US and Canada.
Gillie Traeger, a 45-year-old teaching assistant from Greater London, is one of those now seeking Portuguese nationality. For her, the offer of citizenship is a matter of recognising both her Sephardic roots and asserting her wider European identity in the aftermath of Brexit.
“There’s kind of a sense of pride from coming from this very old Jewish family in England,” she said. “[But] historically, I don’t feel like I’m just English. I feel I’m European and would like to stay that way. Having the opportunity to do this is rather nice, actually.”
Another British descendant of Sephardic Jews, who did not want to give his name, said his decision to apply for Portuguese citizenship had been political and pragmatic.
“The moment that I heard about the decree in Portugal, I said to my wife: ‘If we leave the European Union, I’m going to apply for Portuguese citizenship,’” he said.
“I’m literally in mourning about Brexit. I’m a European, a cosmopolitan and I think all forms of nationalism are pretty hateful. If you look at the 19th and 20th century and see what nationalism does, it’s not a history to be particularly proud of.”
Particularly distasteful, he added, had been the rhetoric surrounding the debate with its familiar attacks on “the hated Johnny Foreigner”.
“My going for Portuguese citizenship is in part symbolic; it’s in part protest and in part the embracing of a particular cultural heritage. But it’s in part the practicality of being able to travel in Europe without having to produce a non-European passport.”
Yoram Zara, an Israeli lawyer representing Sephardic Jews from all over the world, said the reasons for the rise in applications were self-evident.
“They are used to being a part of the European Union and enjoying all the privileges and rights of European citizens,” he said. “Now there’s some uncertainty about what will happen in the coming years, so it’s safe to have it if you intend to live, work or study in the EU or to retire there. Having a Portuguese, EU passport certainly shouldn’t harm you and might give you things that a British passport will no longer allow you to have.”
Zara and Rothwell said that while applications to Portugal from the UK were on the increase, there was also strong interest from Turkey, which welcomed many Sephardic Jews following the expulsion from Spain and Portugal.
Five hundred years on, the dwindling community has found itself the target of terrorist atrocities, and many feel increasingly unwelcome in Turkey’s shifting political climate.
“This law came out at a time when precisely Turkish Jews are feeling under stress from the political changes that are taking place in Turkey,” said Rothwell.
“Five hundred years ago, Spain and Portugal expelled the Jews and the Sultan of the Ottoman empire received them very happily – it was a very good deal – and they have been living in those areas very happily for 500 years, but now the circle is kind of closing because the Turkish Jews are not feeling very safe where they are, and so you have the inverse.”
Zara said that Sephardic Jews in Turkey were now applying in their “hundreds and thousands”.
He added: “They are concerned – and I think the last few months have proved them right – because things are not stable in Turkey and maybe they will need to leave if things get worse.”
Despite the emollient words from Madrid and Lisbon, though, some of those whose ancestors were persecuted and chased from their homes are still left pondering the epic injustice of it all.
“To them it may be an offer of amends but to me it’s part of my cultural identity and heritage,” said Misty Kenney, who applied for Portuguese citizenship before the Brexit vote.
“I’m surprised they didn’t start doing this years ago. If it wasn’t for the inquisition maybe I would be in Portugal today.”
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