What does new citizenship law mean for Portuguese and world Jewry?

What does new citizenship law mean for Portuguese and world Jewry?

The Bet Eliahu synagogue in Portugal, where a law has been approved for citizenship to those who demonstrate “a traditional connection” to Portuguese Shephardic Jews. (Photo provided by Bricking via Wikimedia Commons)
The Bet Eliahu synagogue in Portugal, where a law has been approved for citizenship to those who demonstrate “a traditional connection” to Portuguese Shephardic Jews. (Photo provided by Bricking via Wikimedia Commons)

Five hundred years after thousands of Jews were burned at the stake or forcefully converted, and many others expelled due to the Inquisition, the Portuguese Cabinet has decided to grant citizenship to the descendants of those Jews as reparation for that persecution.

“There is no possibility to amend what was done,” said Portuguese Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz, the Associated Press reported. “I would say it is the attribution of a right.”

Two weeks ago, Portugal approved a law that mirrors a similar measure passed in Spain last year. The law will allow people who can demonstrate “a traditional connection” to Portuguese Sephardic Jews — for example, ones with “family names, family language and direct or collateral ancestry” — to receive Portuguese citizenship. Sephardic Jews can apply for the citizenship directly from where they currently reside and will be vetted by Portuguese Jewish institutions and government agencies.

Despite the gesture of this law’s passage, there remains cause for concern for Portugal’s Jewish community. In a time of rising anti-Semitism across Europe, 21 percent of adult Portuguese citizens surveyed as part of last year’s ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism survey answered “probably true” to six or more of 11 negative stereotypes about Jews, including questions about Jewish power, dual loyalty, money and behavior. Fifty-six percent of Portuguese respondents said they believe that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries they live in,” and 45 percent agreed that “Jews have too much power in the business world.”

Actual incidents of anti-Semitic harassment or violence, however, do not appear to be very common in Portugal when compared with the current situation in other European countries. But while the 21 percent figure on anti-Semitic stereotypes, referred to as an Index Score, is lower than the 29 percent recorded for Spain in the ADL survey, or the 37 percent for French respondents, the Portuguese number is far higher than the 8 percent found in the United Kingdom, where rising anti-Semitism has received much more publicity than it has in Portugal.

According to a national estimate by ADL based on Portugal’s total adult population and the country’s Index Score, some 1.8 million Portuguese people harbor some anti-Semitic attitudes. At the same time, the actual Jewish community of Portugal is tiny—between 600 and 1,000 people, representing just 0.01 percent of the country’s total population, according to figures from the Jewish Virtual Library and National Public Radio.

Another notable statistic from the Pew Research Center reveals that in 2010, there were only 65,000 Muslims living in Portugal, representing 0.6 percent of the total population, as compared with 4.7 million Muslims living in France and 2.9 million living in the U.K. Portugal’s Muslim population is also expected to remain steady by 2030, based on a projection by Pew, whereas in the U.K. that population is projected to nearly double.

In France and the U.K. — judging by incidents such as the recent terror attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris — anti-Semitism tends to be attributed to Islamic extremism, but the same cannot necessarily be assumed for Portugal, where anti-Semitic views might be rooted more in ancient Christian anti-Semitic attitudes.

A February 2014 editorial by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot on the similar Jewish citizenship law in Spain argued that such laws are remnants of the “classic anti-Semitic perception that the Jews are strong and control the world, certainly the global economy, and so we should try to get some of them back to save Spain and Portugal’s collapsing economies.”

That argument can be traced to the history leading up to the Inquisition in Portugal. In the early 1400s, Portuguese monarchs were motivated to protect their Jewish subjects by the desire to maintain that source of tax revenue and labor. The monarchs also took in about 80,000 Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, charging them a tax in exchange for shelter.

But later, Portugal changed its tune and gave Jews the option to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Many Jews who tried to flee the country were then apprehended and forcibly converted to Catholicism. In 1506, more than 2,000 Jews were massacred during Easter by their Christian neighbors. By 1536, the Inquisition was firmly established in Portugal, leading to the torturing and killing of tens of thousands of Jews.

The Inquisition is now centuries old, and blame for that atrocity does not lie on the shoulders of modern-day Portugal. But it is worth noting that the decision to grant Jews citizenship was made in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis. Portugal, in fact, was one of the European Union countries that required an economic bailout in the wake of that crisis.

Statistics from the International Monitory Fund show that at current prices, Portugal’s gross domestic product this year is estimated as $22,687 per capita, far lower than the figures for countries such as Germany and France. Meanwhile, Portugal’s unemployment rate, expressed as a percent of the total labor force in Portugal, is estimated to be about 15 percent this year, higher than the rates in Germany and France.

Given these statistics, was Portugal’s new Jewish citizenship law enacted out of economic concerns driven by money-related stereotypes about Jews? In fairness to the Portuguese government, the new law is not its first effort to atone for the past persecution of Jews. In 1988, former Portuguese president Mario Soares formally apologized for the Inquisition to members of the country’s Jewish community, and in 2000, the leader of Portugal’s Catholic Church also apologized for the persecution of Jews.

It remains to be seen how many Jews, or descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism, will apply for either Portuguese or Spanish citizenship. In the wake of the law passed in Spain last year, the country has estimated that anywhere between 90,000 and 500,000 Jews could apply for Spanish citizenship over the next five years, Euro News reported.

In addition to a desire to formally acknowledge their Sephardic heritage, the idea of gaining an EU passport and the right that such a passport would grant for employment in different EU countries will appeal to at least some Jews who are not currently EU citizens.

For instance, James Harlow, a descendant of Sephardic Jews from San Jose, Calif., said he intends to apply for Portuguese citizenship in order to expand his current business to the EU.

“Citizenship makes travel, talent recruitment, and operations easier,” Harlow, 52, told the AP.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem-based organization Shavei Israel, which is dedicated to reconnecting communities with “lost” Jewish heritage back to the Jewish people, believes that the Portuguese law should inspire Israel to increase its outreach to the descendants of forced Jewish converts to Christianity, known as Bnei Anousim.

“A growing number of Bnei Anousim are looking to strengthen their Jewish identity and reclaim their roots,” said Michael Freund, Shavei Israel’s founder and chairman, according to Israel National News. “It is vital that Israel take steps to strengthen their connection with the Jewish state and the Jewish people. If the Portuguese and Spanish governments recognize the importance of this community, the Israeli government can and should do the same.”