Portugal's Jewish Leaders Pan Gov't for 'Trying to Destroy' Community Over Nationality Law

The Jewish community of Porto says the changes to the naturalization law for Sephardi Jews, which came after accusations that they fraudulently allowed Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to obtain citizenship, were based on 'anonymous denunciations from the scum of society'

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
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The Jewish Museum of Porto.
The Jewish Museum of Porto.Credit: João Bizarro/Jewish Community of Oporto
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

The Jewish community of Portugal's northern city of Porto has accused the Portuguese government of antisemitism, alleging that it has colluded with law enforcement and the press to undermine its existence.

In an unusually harsh letter to lawmakers last week, the community’s board pushed back against changes to a naturalization law which they say will make it more difficult for descendants of Sephardi Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the Medieval Inquisition to receive Portuguese citizenship.

Criticizing government investigators’ allegations of wrongdoing against community officials —who stand accused of having fraudulently furnished a document allowing Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to obtain Portuguese citizenship last year— the community alleged that agents of the state, along with journalists, influencers, magistrates and policemen, spread “slanderous” denunciations “with the aim of trying to destroy the Jewish community of Oporto.”

Under the law, applicants' genealogies are vetted by experts at one of Portugal's Jewish centers in Lisbon or Porto, and more than 50,000 people have acquired Portuguese citizenship under Portugal’s law of return for Sephardi Jews.

The government, the community charged, “gathered together anonymous denunciations from the scum of society, reduced the so-called Sephardic law to the fees charged by the Jewish Community of Oporto, spread the word that the leaders of this community embezzled the organization’s money, involved them in suspicions of corruption and created an atmosphere of terror and hostile news through the agency of half a dozen handpicked journalists. Week after week, entire families were subject to a holocaust of exposure in the newspapers, dragged by their hair onto television, all based on anonymous denunciations.”

Authorities detained Porto Rabbi Daniel Litvak in connection to the Abramovich affair this March, eliciting comparisons to the historical persecution of Portuguese Jews at the hands of the Catholic Church.

In a joint statement at the time, criminal investigation agency PJ and the public prosecutors said its officers raided homes, a lawyer's office and others spaces on Friday as part of the investigation into crimes such as money laundering, corruption and falsification of documents. Evidence was collected and would be analyzed, it added.

In response, the community announced that it could no longer issue documents relating to foreigners’ eligibility for Portuguese citizenship, stating that it was “no longer interested in collaborating with the Portuguese State in certifying Sephardi Jews.”

“This is the greatest attack against a Jewish community in the 21st century, and it is being carried out against the strongest Jewish community in Europe today,” Gabriel Senderowicz, the president of the Porto Jewish Community, alleged in a statement on Sunday, which also claimed that that his community’s growth had been paralleled by “an increase in anti-Semitic incidents against local community members.”

Prior to the investigations, leaders of Porto’s Jewish community celebrated their city and country as a safe haven from antisemitism.

“The Porto Jewish community is disappointed by the lack of solidarity among the Jewish organizations operating in the world today, especially those that have been our partners over the past decade,” Senderowicz wrote, singling out the Israeli embassy in Portugal for “not [having] uttered a word or message of support for the community.”

The World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

In a statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that “the Israeli Embassy in Portugal values the activities of the important Jewish community in Portugal, all its communities and institutions, and will continue to support and work with it shoulder to shoulder, for its growth and prosperity, as the State of Israel works with all Jewish communities around the world. The embassy is in constant contact with the Jewish community in Porto.”

Asked if his community was comparing current events to the Holocaust, Senderowicz replied that “the word holocaust, in Portuguese, means sacrifice. We don't use the word Holocaust to mean Shoah.”

“The sacrifice to which we refer was caused by state agents in partnership with journalists and influencers, who articulated among themselves destroyed the reputation of the religious and secular leaders of the community – rabbis, leaders, secretaries, without forgetting the museologist and the doorman,” he told Haaretz in a WhatsApp message.

Asked if he could provide proof that the Portuguese government intended to destroy his community, Senderowicz stated that he could not share such information but that “soon our Jewish museum in Porto will exhibit evidence of all this, as well as photographs of the protagonists.”

In a sign of splits among the country’s Jews, Esther Mucznik, a former vice president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, called Senderowicz’s allegations “absurd, without any basis in reality.” In reality, “authorities are looking into alleged criminal actions and we will know what they come up when their investigation is over.”

Jose Oulman Carp, the president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, declined to comment on the allegations by his counterpart from Porto.

Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.

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