Porto Jews slam Portugal for 'antisemitism,' 'persecuting Jews'

The accusations were made over the Portuguese parliament's arrest of a community rabbi for allegedly helping Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich obtain a Portuguese passport.

 Flag of Portugal (illustrative). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Portugal (illustrative).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Three and a half months after the arrest of Daniel Litvak, rabbi of the Jewish community of Porto, Portugal, for allegations of helping Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich illegally obtain a Portuguese passport and embezzling community funds received as part of applications for Portuguese passports, the Porto Jewish community responded to the Portuguese parliament and accused the state of antisemitic persecution.

Following the affair and the arrest, the Porto Jewish community has opted to cease cooperating with the state regarding the approval of applicants for Portuguese citizenship from the state. Last week, the community submitted its response to the state’s intention to repeal the 2015 nationality law – which allows descendants of those expelled from Spain and Portugal to obtain Portuguese citizenship – and raised serious allegations of antisemitic persecution and methods reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.

“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, president of the Porto Jewish Community, said on Sunday.

According to heads of the community, 40,000 young students visit the cultural institutions of the Porto Jewish community every year – the synagogue, the Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum.

“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,” said Senderowicz. “They (the Jewish organizations around the world) all remained silent to an unfounded lawsuit conceived by state officials and journalists on the basis of anonymous messages. Even the Israeli embassy in Portugal, whose cultural activities have been supported by the Jewish community of Porto with hundreds of thousands of euros over the past few years, has not uttered a word or message of support for the community.”

“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.”

Porto Jewish Community president Gabriel Senderowicz
 Porto Jewish community president Gabriel Senderowicz (credit: Courtesy of the Porto Jewish community) Porto Jewish community president Gabriel Senderowicz (credit: Courtesy of the Porto Jewish community)

The law

The Spanish Law, as it is called in Portugal, is the result of the work of the government that operated between 2013 and 2015, with the aim of reconnecting Portugal with the Jewish Diaspora that originated in Spain and ended with the Inquisition and expulsion of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry. The nationality law concerns more than a million people who could benefit from this right, counting the traditional families of the Sephardi communities that lived in North Africa and what was then the Ottoman Empire. Seven years have passed since the law came into effect, yet only about 10% of those eligible have applied for citizenship and about 5% have received it, according to statistics by the Porto Jewish community.

In a response submitted by representatives of the community to the parliament regarding the intention to repeal the Spanish Law, it stated that “starting in 2020, a serious smear campaign against this legislation and the Jewish community in Portugal in general began. Various state officials claimed that ‘applicants for citizenship are looking for convenience passports,’ that ‘there are tens of millions of applicants,’ that ‘Spanish applicants have children and spouses,’ and claimed that citizenship is granted relatively easily and for a fee that goes to lawyers, genealogists and the Jewish communities in Portugal.”

Rising antisemitism

Representatives of the community say that over the past decade, in parallel with the flourishing of Jewish communities in Portugal and Porto in particular, there has been an increase in antisemitic incidents against local community members.

Over the past decade, Porto has transformed from a city with a Jewish community numbering only a few dozen members into a vibrant community of 700 members. During this time, centers for young Jews, restaurants, shops and kosher factories have been opened, as well as a Jewish museum, “the largest Chabad center in Europe,” as it is titled, a Holocaust museum, and a Jewish cinema; and three full-length feature films were produced that tell the story of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry: Sefarad, 1618 and Luz de Yehuda.

“As part of its fight against rising antisemitism in Portugal, Europe, and in general, the Jewish community of Porto prides itself on financial assistance to the poor, sick and elderly, hospitals, kollels [religious schools], synagogues around the world, Shabbat meals in Jewish communities in 14 different cities, the construction of mikvaot (ritual baths), schools and cemeteries in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Moscow and Bangkok, a food bank in several countries, assistance to disaster-stricken countries in Africa and Asia, all Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) projects in Israel, and even a Jewish-Muslim project aimed at bringing people together,” the heads of the community wrote in a statement.

“The police invaded the Kadoorie Synagogue as if it were a brothel, and rushed to the homes of the vice president of the community, the granddaughter of the founder of the Porto Jewish community Captain Barros Bastos, in search of sacks of cash,” Senderowicz wrote slamming the authorities. “The vice-president of the community has spent her life clearing the name of her grandfather, who in the 1930s was persecuted by the Portuguese authorities and also accused through anonymous messages to the authorities of activity to restore the Marranos [Jews who converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages] to the bosom of Judaism. She finds herself persecuted like her grandfather was persecuted, just because of her Jewishness.”

The response to parliament further stated that “the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Porto was detained for questioning, his freedom of movement restricted, and he was humiliated before the whole world due to false accusations by anonymous sources. The allegations against him were that he authorized the French-Israeli businessman, Patrick Drahi, who was actually authorized by the Lisbon Jewish community, and also authorized the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who was actually authorized by the Chief Rabbinate of Russia; that he corrupted the registration for Portuguese citizenship – a procedure of which, to the best of our knowledge, the chief rabbi has no knowledge; that he embezzled the fee money paid by those applying for citizenship – a charge that has no technical feasibility in the Porto Jewish community; and that he embezzled and laundered the fee money of those seeking citizenship under the Spanish Law – which never happened.”

The response also stated that the humiliation suffered by the chief rabbi of the Porto Jewish community “included a humiliating arrest that lasted 24 hours in which he was forced to give the police forensic evidence in violation of the law, denied access to food [the rabbi eats only kosher food], was stripped of his traditional attire including tzitzit [four-cornered fringed garment], tallit [prayer shawl], tefillin [phylacteries], and even his prayer book was taken from him. He was placed in a cell with a Muslim suspected of murder and another man arrested on suspicion of armed robbery. Finally, he was brought before the court and asked ridiculous questions that proved that his arrest was in vain. The court released the community rabbi and did not prevent him from continuing to issue certificates to those eligible for Portuguese citizenship. However, the Board of Directors of the Porto Jewish Community has decided to suspend this activity, as it refuses to cooperate with a state that, with the aim of destroy

ing the law, has launched an antisemitic incitement campaign against an organized Jewish community based on anonymous messages from Jew-haters.”