A Tale of Two Passports

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It was reported in the Spanish media last November that 520 years after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the edict that led to the mass expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, the Spanish government was attempting to redress the injustice: It would be granting citizenship through an expedited administrative procedure to the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain. It was imagined that this step would receive a strong positive response, and that many Sephardi Jews around the world would take advantage of the offer and receive both Spanish citizenship and a Spanish passport.

This is part of an effort by the Spanish to transform the negative migration figures in their country, which has been hit hard by the global economic crisis, and to induce affluent persons to immigrate to it. At the same time, the Spanish trade minister announced that his country was considering offering a residential permit to any foreigner buying an apartment valued at 160,000 euros or more.

Shai Cohen − currently working on a PhD in Spanish philology in Pamplona and author of the book “Strapado” ‏(a historical novel about Spain at the time of the expulsion‏) − wrote last November in his blog about the decision to grant citizenship to descendants of expelled Jews. The interest shown by Israelis in receiving Spanish citizenship was immense, he said.

Cohen explains that until recently, according to a law that has been on the books since 1948 and was updated in 1982, any descendant of Jews expelled from Spain who wished to receive citizenship had to live in Spain for two years as a permanent resident. This would make it clear that he or she did not simply come for a limited period of time with the intention of leaving as soon as citizenship was obtained.

Afterward, in addition to the petitioner’s birth certificate and a statement attesting to a clean police record, he or she would be required to prove their ethnic identity − for example, to have a community rabbi sign off on a certificate that he was a Jew from a family known to be Sephardi, on the basis of family name or other corroborative evidence.

The objective of November’s announcement is to ease the process and to do away with the residency requirement. Since there is no precise documentation on the expellees, petitioners will have to prove their ethnic origin by means of language ‏(descendants of the expelled Jews spoke Ladino, a language that has been preserved to the present day‏); family names; connections with Sephardi customs ‏(proving a link to Spain by way of familiarity with language, culture, etc.‏). They will also undergo an examination administered by the Jewish community. The latter would be required to produce a certificate issued by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, which would confirm the status of the Jewish person seeking citizenship.

Cohen notes that the number of Jews now living in Spain is 40,000-50,000, concentrated mainly in the large cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Cordoba. Therefore, access to the community rabbis who can confirm the “Sephardi-ness” of the petitioner is to be limited to these cities.

He adds that another, related problem for the descendants of the Spanish expellees from different countries, including Israel, is that as of now, one of the conditions of receiving a Spanish passport would be forfeiture of other citizenships. Unless this condition is struck out in the new law, the possibility of becoming Spanish will be much less relevant to Israelis who do not wish to forfeit their citizenship.

Cohen: “According to estimates, we are speaking of a number of between 250,000 and 3 million descendants of persons expelled from Spain who are living in other countries − primarily those that were part of the former Ottoman Empire, North African countries, Italy, Holland and, of course, Israel. As soon as I publicized this on my blog, I received over 100 replies and personal emails from people who asked what they would have to do. Based on some research that I carried out, there is no doubt that there are numerous people interested in obtaining a Spanish passport. How many of them truly intend to come and live there is another matter entirely, but the important question is whether the government is interested only in distributing passports or is interested in new citizens who would strengthen the community in the Iberian Peninsula.”

However, if and when the decision is put into effect, it is still unclear when it would happen, and under what conditions. A spokesman for the Spanish embassy in Israel said that the law has not yet actually been enacted, and that he does not know when this might happen or what the criteria would be: “We have been receiving a large number of requests for information, but at the moment it is still on the shelf. We have been waiting for over 500 years, so we’ll wait a little bit longer.”
Until the criteria for receipt of Spanish citizenship are set, Israelis will not stand in line for the longed-for passport, but there is already a long list of countries at whose embassies the lines are growing ever longer.

Newly attractive targets

In the past few years, arranging a European passport has become a flourishing industry in Israel, with a plethora of websites explaining the rights one can expect to receive and explaining the factors that might facilitate the process. There are attorneys who specialize in the issuing of passports by different countries and check entitlement to naturalization, as well as translation and notary services.

The upsurge began about 10 years ago. Until then, most Israelis did not consider a Polish, Hungarian or Romanian passport to be of any value. These countries were not considered attractive targets for emigration, and their passport was no better than the Israeli one. But in 2004, 10 states were inducted into the European Union, mainly from Eastern Europe. The new member states included Poland, Hungary, Latvia and the Czech Republic. Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007. Ever since, a Romanian passport, for example, is no longer considered merely a Romanian passport: Now it is a European passport that opens the door to life on the Continent, facilitating free passage between countries, easy movement of workers in EU member states ‏(subject to some restrictions‏), free university studies ‏(in some countries‏) or low tuition fees, entry without a visa to the United States and most other countries, and also commercial advantages.

For example, anyone with Polish citizenship can invest in real estate in Poland without having to comply with the legal stipulation of bringing in a local partner, which is required of foreigners.

Demand for dual citizenship could be an indication of the desire to emigrate, but this is not always the case. Based on data gathered by Yossi Harpaz ‏(a PhD candidate in the sociology department at Princeton University‏), between the years 2000 and 2010 there was no clear correlation between the demand for European citizenship and emigration from Israel. In years in which the number of Israeli recipients of European citizenship has reached record highs, emigration was actually trending downward.

According to Harpaz’s data ‏(for an 2012 article in the periodical Megamot‏), during the decade in question about 27,000 Israelis requested citizenship from either Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria or Romania, and a total of some 40,000 persons had two passports including one from one of those countries. When Germany, Austria and Greece are factored in, that number jumps to some 150,000.
Since 2010, the numbers have continued to grow. The Polish embassy in Israel reports that in the past year alone they received over 2,500 applications. According to their estimates, between 18,000 and 22,000 Israelis also hold Polish passports.

The cost of receiving a foreign passport can be thousands of shekels, depending on how it was procured − independently or with the assistance of an attorney. The process takes an average of between 18 months and three years, depending on the country and the complexity of the request. In extreme cases, it can extend for five years. Once every few years, renewal of the passport is required, and this can cost several hundred shekels.

Not everyone wants to receive a foreign passport, even if they meet the requirements. Seven years ago, when Romania joined the EU, Michaela’s children tried to convince her to apply for Romanian citizenship so that they, too, would benefit from citizenship and a foreign passport that would grant them free access to EU states. But she refused. As a Holocaust survivor whose family was expelled from the village in Romania where she grew up, she wanted nothing to do with the place where she was born and raised.

Not long afterward, the children traveled with their mother on a “family roots” trip to Romania. Her daughter recounts that after seeing up close the places where she spent her childhood and hearing at length what happened there, they for the first time identified with Michaela’s refusal to turn the clock back.

Similarly, the 60-year-old father of Gabi vehemently refuses to accept a foreign passport. However, after Gabi pressed and begged − on the grounds that it was worth having an option if something bad ever happened in Israel − his father reluctantly began the process. He traveled to the village in Romania where he was born to obtain his birth certificate, inquired as to the cost of submitting the request − and then regretted the decision.

Interestingly, the reason he gave was his children: He did not want them to have any incentive to leave Israel. Gabi’s father claimed that his own mother, who survived the Holocaust, had not relinquished her life and citizenship in Romania so her descendants could later do the same vis-a-vis Israel. The family disagreement has been raging for 10 years, and Gabi is still trying to persuade her father to change his mind.

If for Gabi the motive for attaining a foreign passport is existential fear for the future in Israel, for Elia − a young Tel Avivian in her early thirties − the possibility of work or residence in the EU was the main consideration. Two years ago, after a process that dragged on for 18 months, she and her two young brothers were issued Romanian passports.

When citizens of Romania and their descendants lose their citizenship or it is revoked against their will, they are entitled to request that it be reinstated.
“The idea was my father’s,” Elia relates. “He immigrated to Israel from Romania in his twenties, and asked to have his citizenship renewed. We did the process on our own. We submitted a birth certificate and certificate of having a clean police record, translated documents into Romanian, went to the embassy a few times. During the process we also traveled to Romania, to connect with our roots. In the meantime, we have not made much use of the passport. I use an Israeli passport in Europe, because I haven’t seen any big advantage [with the other one]. But perhaps in the future we will take advantage of it to work or study in the EU.”

Patience required

Maya Lanker-Yardeni, an attorney who specializes in Romanian obtaining citizenship and passports, says those who approach her usually have a defined objective. She divides the applicants into a few key groups: young men and women after army service who are interested in studying in Europe, and for whom the passport can make things much easier, either by granting priority or through lower tuition fees; people in their thirties who want the passport for the purpose of graduate studies or for work without needing a commercial visa; and people aged 40 and above who are in key positions and are interested in the business advantages afforded by European citizenship.

Another group is that of older adults who are in need of Romanian citizenship to receive pensions and benefits. “The procedure can take between one and three years, so that someone who only wants the passport for the insurance certificate will apparently do this on his or her own. Anyone who comes to me is interested in receiving it as soon as possible, and usually for a specific objective,” Lanker-Yardeni says.

Roy Ohana, an attorney who specializes in Romanian and Polish citizenship, notes that he comes across quite a few businessmen who are interested in a European passport so they can travel to Arab states. He states that several hundred yeshiva students, mainly from Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, find their way to his office each year, as they are interested in studying in Britain and Belgium. He describes the process as “not complicated, but bureaucratic,” and emphasizes: “You have to be patient.”

Hungary is also a popular country for passport seekers, although one must first be entitled to Hungarian citizenship. Three years ago, Gali received a Hungarian passport for herself and her two small children thanks to her grandfather, who was born and raised in Hungary until World War II. He immigrated to Israel, but his entire family perished in the Holocaust. The idea of applying for the passports came from her parents and her younger brother. They had to prove that the grandfather had lived and worked in Hungary, and to that end collected a birth certificate and documents. Once they had acquired them, they persuaded her to join in.

Gali says her family “thought it was a good thing to keep the option open. A European passport opens up a lot of possibilities. Although I will not choose to live in Hungary, a place beset by anti-Semitism, with the Hungarian passport we don’t need a visa for the U.S. and the kids would be able to study in the EU if they wanted. It was more for the children − that they have the option.”

She adds that in order to receive the passports for her and the children, she paid NIS 6,000 for assistance in filling out forms and receiving the necessary permits. In addition, the issuance of the passports cost several hundred euros. Each time there is a need to renew them − for her, every five years; for the children, every two years − there will be an additional fee.

Esther Krauss, who until 2004 worked at the Hungarian embassy and since then has worked as an independent facilitator helping Israelis who wish to obtain Hungarian citizenship and passports, speaks of a large surge in the flow of requests, which began when Hungary joined the EU and continues to this day: “Some people want citizenship in order to study in Europe, others want to enter the U.S. without a visa. Every period has its own reasons, and, of course, when the security situation deteriorates here, interest increases.”

Every descendant of a Hungarian citizen is entitled to citizenship, and there is no limit to the number of generations. However, the conditions must be examined, and documents must be furnished. Krauss notes that beginning this April, under certain conditions spouses married to Hungarian citizens may also receive citizenship.
Dr. Kolman Levente Soltesz, the Hungarian consul in Israel, explains that since late May 2011, the Hungarian embassy in Tel Aviv has issued biometric passports that enable entry to the U.S. without a visa. Since that time, 5,000 Hungarian passport applications have been provided to Israelis. A large share of the applicants has already received the passport.

So long as one’s older passport is valid, there is no obligation to request a biometric passport, so the number of persons holding dual Hungarian-Israeli citizenship is clearly much greater than 5,000. Another indicator of the high demand may be gleaned from Soltesz’s statement that the embassy is receiving hundreds of applications each month; appointments have been scheduled for 300 of the applicants in the next month alone.

Although Greece is in terrible economic straits, it remains a veteran member of the EU. A year and a half ago, it announced a policy that is expected to make it easier for Israelis to receive citizenship there. In the past 10 years, the number of Israelis holding Greek citizenship increased to 1,911, the Greek embassy reports.

In November 2011, the government of Greece enacted a decision according to which every Jew born in that country prior to May 1945 is entitled to Greek citizenship. The background to this law has to do with requests made by Holocaust survivors who lost their citizenship when they left Greece after World War II. Their descendants will also be able to undergo the naturalization process. As part of the government decision, Greek citizenship has to date been granted to only 12 people in Israel, but the embassy is in contact with another 100 or so Holocaust survivors who were born in Greece and live in Israel.

German issue

Aside from the applications from Eastern European countries, many Israelis hold citizenship of Western countries such as the U.S., Germany and France. According to estimates, at least 200,000 persons hold dual Israeli-American citizenship and over 100,000 Israelis have German citizenship.

For example, Maya, 27, applied for and received a French passport, along with her brother, after completing her military service about seven years ago. “My father said it was worthwhile exploiting the fact that he is a French citizen,” she said. “My brother wanted to work in the U.S., and with a French passport you get an automatic work visa for six months. Nor is there any need for a visa to enter the U.S. I traveled around Europe and I didn’t have to stand in line at transfer points between countries. I also want to live and study in France in the future, and, thanks to my citizenship, the studies will be free.” In Maya’s case, the process was especially simple, as her father was born in France and lived there until he was 17.

“We came, had our pictures taken, and received the passports,” she recalls.
In the past, many Israelis who were able to receive German passports avoided doing so, partly out of principle, partly out of embarrassment. But the numbers indicate that this approach has changed. Germany is considered to be a country from which it is relatively easy to receive a passport. The rule there is that if one of the parents has German citizenship, their children can also receive it.

Dr. Yuval Chen, who specializes in German law, says that demand for the passport rises in particular during times of trouble, such as the Second Lebanon War, or when the Iranian threat returns to the headlines. “Ever since the start of the 21st century, the [requests for] applications began to gain momentum. If in the past Israel’s founding generation was opposed to it, today this generation is pushing its children and grandchildren to receive citizenship, in order to enjoy the benefits that the passport grants. Another factor that eases the conscience is the fact that it is now a European passport, not only a German passport.”

Chen also comes across many young Israelis seeking citizenship, a large percentage of whom are students in the art and culture fields who are planning to emigrate from Israel and live in Berlin. “They migrate there, buy apartments in Berlin and, if they are working there, receive tax deductions based on the rents they pay.”
In the case of Adi Birk, her German citizenship is part of her identity. Her parents applied for a German passport for her nearly 30 years ago, when she was a little girl. Her citizenship was granted by virtue of her grandfather and grandmother, who lived their whole lives in Germany. Her father was also born and raised in Germany, until he immigrated to Israel when he was in his twenties.

Birk: “My grandmother was a proud German, but her family was annihilated in the Holocaust. Unlike other families that arrived from Germany and boycotted German products, our family always bought Bosch. Germany was her home; it was the culture from which she came, along with the fact that we are Israelis. I feel it is part of my own identity.”

Not long ago, Birk had to renew her citizenship, and she reports that the process was far from simple. “As you might expect from Yekkes [Jews of German origin], they are very exacting about their requirements. For each step in the process, you had to complete a document and only afterward could you submit another document, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, they are very organized, and in Germany they have copies of all the documents. The procedure is conducted between you and Germany, with the embassy merely transferring the documents. Also, it is difficult if you don’t know the language.”

In order that her son Ilay, who was born last year, can receive automatic citizenship and not have to be naturalized, Birk was required to complete the process prior to his birth. On the day before he was born, she received a phone call in which she was asked to come in and sign the documents, otherwise the process would not be complete. “Even after he was born, we had to submit a special request to the interior ministry in Germany so that the child be registered with my husband Yogev’s family name, which is not the same as my family name, and it took another two or three months.”

To date, Birk has not made much use of her German passport. “My brother studied in Britain but it didn’t really help him, because in order to enjoy the benefits there, he would have been required to live there for three years beforehand. Although I have an automatic visa for the U.S., and may have saved a few hundred shekels in visa application fees. On the other hand when I enter the U.S. with a foreign passport they are more likely to detain me with interrogations because I am an Israeli with a German passport. It is impossible to know when it will help, but in my case that was definitely not the biggest consideration.”

Today Jews around the world are largely focused on building and strengthening their local Jewish communitiesCredit: Yuval Tebol
Adi Birk and her son Ilay. 'My grandmother was a proud German but her family was annihilated. I feel it is part of my own identity.' Credit: Eyal Toueg

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