Those who are granted the responsibility to make laws are frequently unaware of the reality of thousands, sometimes millions of people whose fate they dictate. When such reality is the diaspora of Sephardic Jews, which is multi-faceted, and encompasses several geographies and distinct cultural contexts, the gap between what legislators proclaim from the benches of Parliament and the diversity of motivation of those seeking Portuguese citizenship is glaring.

The proposal recently submitted by the Portuguese Socialist Party to amend Article 6, nº 7 of the Citizenship Act is an example of how wide this gap can be. What follows draws on the perspectives I have gained from trying to understand the kaleidoscopic reality onto which this law is projected, through having visited numerous Sephardic communities scattered around the world, in an attempt to grasp what are the ties that bind in practice and in the context of citizenship law.

What ties do bind is a question that the Portuguese legislator seems to struggle with in successive amendments to this country’s Citizenship Law. It is a legitimate subject for the authors of the recent proposal to try once more to address but, as is unfortunately so often the case, they forget the practical reality behind a theoretical problem, the human face and the diversity of family histories behind the numbers.

The Socialist Party’s proposal represents an attempt to give flesh to the indeterminate legal concept of “connection to Portugal”, which is a requirement for naturalisation of Jews of Sephardi background (those who left the Iberian Peninsula due to the pressures of the Inquisition). In doing so, an additional requirement to those already set out in the law is being proposed: the applicant has to have lived in Portugal for two years before applying for Portuguese citizenship.


The current law already gives examples of what should be considered “objective requirements of connection to Portugal”: they could be surnames of Sephardi extraction, the family language (namely, Ladino) or descent from persons who were driven to leave continental Portugal, directly or indirectly, by the inquisitorial racism against Jews. The first question that comes to mind is: why is it that this existing attempt to define a vague term more concretely is now deemed insufficient by the proponents of this amendment? The arguments set out to justify this amendment raise several issues.

Is it because there was “an exponential increase” of naturalisation requests, as stated in the proposal ́s justification? As if the legislature was not obliged to have sufficient historical literacy to anticipate the number of persons who would fit those legal requirements due to the extent of the Sephardi diaspora in the Ottoman Empire and the New World.

Or is it that Portugal is forever destined to mimic what Spain does, leading us to replicate their Edict of Expulsion of Jews in the first place; and that now the expiry of this Spanish Law in October 2019 – as had always been foreseen – makes us feel lonely, “the only country with such type of naturalisation”? Or is the reason for this proposal that the end of the Spanish law for Sephardis led to an increase of requests for information by “large law firms”, as if lawyers organised in professional structures with considerable resources should not legitimately devote their attention to an area of law which has been largely left to lawyers working in solo practice?

Or could it be because the people who have already naturalised as Portuguese under this law are “mainly Israeli and Turkish”, as so plainly written in the justification of this proposal? As if this were not to be expected or, worse, as if it were not to be desired. Or, taking this argument one step further: not only are they undesirable, they also have wives and children for whom they subsequently apply for citizenship, or so lament the proponents of the proposal. As if no other type of naturalised citizen would think of utilising this legal possibility. And forgetting to mention that citizenship by marriage or as a minor child of a naturalised citizen, which are governed by other norms of the Citizenship Act, already require a connection which in practise has been mostly interpreted as residence.

It could also be because it became apparent that there are “large companies” (bracketed in the same dubious ethical silo as “the large law firms”) which “sell Portuguese citizenship with aggressive publicity in Israel or in Turkey, as a way to acquire the advantages inherent in an EU passport (visa waiver for most countries, especially the USA, and the right of residence in any country of the EU)”. As if Israelis and Turks were irredeemably the Other, as if there were no other citizens – including United States nationals – interested in this type of Portuguese citizenship for reasons besides mobility. Is there a fear that this very interest, be it material or immaterial, in this intangible good of nationality, which has long been desacralised, will be further devalued? The question then is: devalued for whom? For us members of privileged nations, as opposed to the Other who did not win the birthright lottery? In a world in which not all passports are treated equally when crossing borders, as Ayelet Shachar reminds us, and in which selective policies on composition of the demos are forever growing, how can one blame a person for wanting to take advantage of the benefits of a country ́s historical guilt?

And yet, the benefits we are talking about here are not merely material and those of global mobility. They are far more complex and varied: the wish to honour ancestors, the preservation of memory, the affirmation of a Portuguese and European identity, and a life insurance against anti-Semitism which is spreading where we least expect it.

In the final paragraph of the justification of this proposal, we read that there is “a need to demand from the descendants of Sephardi Jews some kind of relevant connection with this country and the national community”. There is no question about the importance of making concrete what should be considered at any given moment relevant to the composition of the demos. Nothing is more legitimate: the composition of the national community is an endogenous choice – without prejudice to the loyalty we owe towards the European Union, we have retained the powers to make this choice. It is for the national legislature, representing the community, to define the appropriate criteria for the distribution of membership, to cite Michael Walzer. And the Portuguese legislature already made this definition in the past.

Within the context of the so-called Sephardi Portuguese citizenship, the Parliament determined as sufficient for this membership a proof that the applicants have kept for generations a surname recognised as Sephardic, or that their family communicates in a language that makes no sense outside the Sephardi diaspora, or that they are able to prove this Sephardi ancestry through genealogy. These were the criteria unanimously considered relevant for such membership by the legislature, who apparently did not suspect it would be coveted by so many thousands of “Others”.

To add another requirement to these criteria and without which, regardless of any other requirement, Portuguese citizenship will not be granted, would sound the death knell for this law. If this is its intended purpose, it would be more honest to declare it, facing the consequences and judgements this would entail.

The authors of the proposal allude to the “intention of the legislature” having been marred by the practical application of the requirements. But in what sense was it spoiled? By the fact that such requirements were fulfilled by more people than they were expecting? Is it merely a question of number of applicants? Or is it an issue with the original nationality of the majority of such applicants? Does the fact that they come from Israel and Turkey make them less committed to creating further connections with Portugal after they naturalise Portuguese or less worthy of our repentance?

Furthermore: was it ever the intention of the legislator to entice these new citizens to reside in Portugal? The declared intention of the legislator was to commit a (just) act of contrition, of historical mea culpa regarding the expulsion directly or indirectly of thousands of people whose descendants would probably be Portuguese if that expulsion had not taken place. So we must ask: what has changed? Was it the intention? Or was the underlying motivation to this law also born out of convenience? Possibly what the legislator was really hoping for, in the middle of a profound budgetary crisis, was that these new citizens would come and live in Portugal, because anti-Semitic stereotypes always portray them as wealthier and more entrepreneurial than everybody else?

Under a guise of benign intentions, which have earned Portugal so much praise amidst resurfacing anti-Semitism throughout most of Europe and the USA, are we finding after all a hidden material interest, an expectation that these Sephardim would come to live in Portugal and create additional connections for this country? Should this proposal be approved, the mask of historical repentance would fall away and we would see the naked truth of the pragmatic considerations of our alleged “collective interest”. We would realise that the naturalised citizens searching for the benefits of a Portuguese passport are not the only ones trading on this convenience: the Portuguese Parliament is also trading citizenship, conditioning it to residence and to a physical presence in Portugal. What the legislature would be omitting is that projects for residence are as conveniently and deliberately built as those for the acquisition of citizenship.

“Proximity no longer requires physical closeness; but physical closeness no longer determines proximity”, wrote Zygmunt Bauman. The effective connections that the legislature wanted to verify as a condition for the granting of citizenship were retrospective: does the applicant keep a memory of an Iberian origin through surnames or through a nearly extinct language, which is Ladino or Judeo- Portuguese? Can the applicant demonstrate a genealogical connection to Sephardi Jews? The proximity considered relevant when this law was approved looked at the past because it was the past that needed to be amended, symbolically and in a measure that will always pale in comparison to the enormity of three centuries of Inquisition. The proposed change to the law to make residence in Portugal a condition without which citizenship will not be granted is a demand to Sephardi Jews for physical contiguity, as if this were the only determinant of proximity.

To end with, allow me a personal experience: when visiting the synagogue of the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a Dutch haven for the expelled Jews of the Portuguese nation, it is impossible not to be moved by two things that take place there, not for the last two years but for the last four centuries. One is that the religious service always ends with thanking The Netherlands and the Royal House of Orange for the religious freedom granted to a community of Portuguese Jews who then dispersed throughout the New World. On the other hand, the Sephardic rite practised there unfolds largely in Judeo-Portuguese, stubbornly spoken with effort and a strong accent. The same language is heard when visiting Sephardic congregations around the world, from the USA to South Africa. The effort to speak Judeo-Portuguese or even sometimes Portuguese after four centuries of departure from Portugal is a far more profound proof of effective (and affective) connection than two mere years of legal residence. Although this proposal lacks merit and any sense of opportunity, its proponents should at least concede that this linguistic tie binds far more relevantly and should be duly valued. The Judeo-Portuguese and Portuguese languages should be both prerequisites and an alternative to living in Portugal.

The concerns and justifications presented in this proposal reveal racism and/or historical illiteracy. This proposal demonstrates that the fellow travellers of racism are sometimes to be found in the most unexpected of places.

(portuguese version)