The year 1492 was not only the year that Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.” It was also the year that Spain exiled its Jewish population, causing tragedy and hardship to the Jews of Spain and Portugal.
Recently, Portugalis, an Israeli company, has capitalized on modern-day Portugal’s attempt to redress this injustice and today is helping Jews of Sephardic background obtain Portuguese citizenship, with all the accompanying rights and privileges. To understand this business model, one must first take a brief detour into Jewish history.
On March 31, 1492, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon issued the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from Castile, Aragon, and its territories, by July 31 of that year. Four months later, thousands of Jews left Spain.
Many fled to Portugal, hoping that they could continue to live as Jews. However, in 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children. In 1536, the Inquisition was established in Portugal, and thousands of Jews left the country or converted.
The Jews of Portugal emigrated to countries in North Africa, Turkey and Italy. Eventually, their descendants spread throughout their world to far-flung destinations, including South America, France, Morocco, Curacao and the Antilles.
Fast-forward 500-odd years to the year 2015. The Portuguese government, attempting to make amends for its persecution of Jews during the 16th century, passed a law granting citizenship rights to the descendants of Jews that it had persecuted 500 years before.
According to this law, any Jew who can prove that their family originated in Spain or Portugal, and lived in a country where Sephardic Jews fled, may receive Portuguese citizenship. The Portugalis company was established to assist Jews in establishing their Sephardic origins and obtaining Portuguese citizenship.
WHAT ARE the benefits of obtaining Portuguese citizenship? Having Portuguese citizenship and a Portuguese passport can be very beneficial for Israelis, explains Shay Cohen, Portugalis CEO. Since Portugal is a country in the European Union, a Portuguese passport conveys all the benefits of a standard EU passport, including entry into 180 countries without a visa – including the US – as opposed to the 150 countries that one can enter using an Israeli passport.
With Portuguese citizenship, one can live, work, and study in all EU countries legally without limitation. For study purposes, with a Portuguese passport, one is considered an EU resident and does not have to deal with restrictions on foreign students.
What do Jews from Sephardic lands need to do to receive citizenship? “Jews have to prove that their family name is Sephardic,” Cohen explains, “and that they come from countries such as Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algiers, Turkey, Greece, the Balkan countries, South America, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or Iraq.”
Cohen says that when the Jews left Portugal and Spain, they fled to these countries. “For example, all of the Jews of Greece come from Spain and Portugal,” he says. “The Jews of Turkey come from Spain and Portugal.”
The Portuguese law extending citizenship to Jews was originally intended to be in force for just one year, says Cohen, but the Portuguese president extended it, viewing it as the correction of a historic injustice.
Portugalis was established after the law was enacted in 2015. Its sole purpose is to obtain Portuguese citizenship for Jews of Sephardic background, both in Israel and around the world. “It is a huge market,” Cohen explains. “There are 3 million Israelis who are eligible, and it is not only for Jews in Israel. It is also for Jews in other countries such as the US, Turkey and Morocco. We perform this service for Jews around the world.”
Cohen himself, whose family hails from Morocco, has obtained Portuguese citizenship. He adds that it can be passed on to children under age 14, and spouses of those who have obtained citizenship and children 18 and up can also acquire it by applying. Children born after citizenship has been granted automatically receive Portuguese citizenship.
The procedure for obtaining Portuguese citizenship is straightforward, Cohen says. Applicants contact Portugalis and provide them with their basic information, including their family’s proof of residence in one of the countries where Portuguese and Spanish refugees lived, together with their proof of affiliation with Judaism. The application process can be done online via the Portugalis website or by phone.
For example, says Cohen, the fact that his father’s Israeli ID stated that he was born in Morocco and listed Judaism as his religion was sufficient evidence for him to obtain Portuguese citizenship. The applicant then signs a power of attorney authorizing Portugalis to act on their behalf and submits the first payment to the company.
If the application is rejected, Portugalis will fully refund the money to the applicant. Cohen says that the entire process can take up to two years but often takes less time.
COHEN POINTS out that the Jewish community in Portugal plays a major role in screening and checking applications. “The Jewish community is a very significant factor in this law. The Portuguese government authorized the Jewish communities to examine the application initially and confirm that the applicant has an ancestral affiliation with Portugal.
“The Jewish community is the body that is responsible for attesting that this specific family is originally from Spain or Portugal and is therefore entitled to citizenship.” Once the Jewish community has approved the request, they then submit it to the Portuguese government authorities.
After the application has been received, Portugalis representatives contact the rabbi of the Jewish community of Porto, a city in northwest Portugal, whose Jewish population numbers approximately 1,000. The rabbi investigates the query and responds to Portugalis. Portugalis maintains offices in Porto and Lisbon, where its team of lawyers submit and process applications to the Portuguese authorities.
In addition to its offices in Portugal, Portugalis has two branches in Tel Aviv, one in Haifa and one in Beersheba. Staff members speak multiple languages, including English, French and Spanish, to assist callers from around the world.
Portugalis is the largest company that processes citizenship for Jews of Sephardic background; Cohen says that the majority of those who have applied and received Portuguese citizenship have been clients of his company.
In addition, Portugalis assists Jews who have received Portuguese citizenship in obtaining favorable mortgage terms for real estate investments in Portugal, and even for those who are not Portuguese citizens.
Cohen hastens to explain that his service is not intended to encourage Israelis to leave the country. Israelis who obtain Portuguese citizenship can remain in Israel, do not have to learn Portuguese, and do not have to spend any time in Portugal.
“We don’t encourage yeridah (moving outside of Israel),” Cohen says. “We are saying that one can participate in the global world. With Portuguese citizenship, you can fly where you want and when you want. These days, no one knows what will happen, and you don’t know where it might prove helpful.”
Cohen adds that when the company was first established, he anticipated that it would serve a limited demographic, but interest has spread beyond its original target group. “We originally thought that it would be for young people – for students and soldiers. We found that everyone wants Portuguese citizenship. We get retirees and people of all ages who want to travel.”
He notes that while Portugal’s president extended the law, no one knows for certain how long it will be in effect. “Our suggestion for anyone interested in Portuguese citizenship is to start the process as soon as possible.” For more information about Portugalis, visit www.portugalis.co.il
This article was written in cooperation with Portugalis.