Portuguese soccer player Miguel Vitor's play for Israeli citizenship - editorial

There have been several high-profile conversions of sports figures who have played in Israel in the past.

Hapoel Beersheba defender Miguel Vitor celebrates after scoring his team’s opener in last night’s 2-1 victory over Honved of Hungary in the first leg of the Champions League second qualifying round. (photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)
Hapoel Beersheba defender Miguel Vitor celebrates after scoring his team’s opener in last night’s 2-1 victory over Honved of Hungary in the first leg of the Champions League second qualifying round.
(photo credit: UDI ZITIAT)

According to a Yediot Aharonot report published Sunday, moves are afoot to grant Israeli citizenship to Portuguese soccer player Miguel Vitor, captain of Hapoel Beersheba FC. The unusual step is aimed at allowing Vitor to play for the Israel national team, especially in the UEFA European Championships in 2024.

The move has the support of the Israel Football Association, whose head, Oren Hasson, sent a request to Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper, Yediot and Ynet reported. Tropper forwarded the request to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who asked ministry staff for their recommendation whether to accept it.

We have nothing against Vitor, 32, who has a string of sporting credits to his name and has been a key Hapoel Beersheba player since he arrived in Israel six years ago.

Expressing his support for the citizenship move, Vitor was quoted as saying: “I’m very connected to the country and it would be a great honor for me. My girls are Israeli in every way. My wife and I feel like ambassadors everywhere.”

The couple has three daughters and live in residential community of Lehavim, north of Beersheba. They were vocal in their support of Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls last year and in the past and have said they would like to settle in Israel permanently, according to the Israel Football Association.

In his letter to Shaked, Tropper wrote: “Miguel Angelo Leonardo Vitor has leadership qualities. He’s charismatic, and as captain of Hapoel Beersheba FC led the club to a championship win and was even awarded the title Player of the Year.” Vitor’s skills and abilities could significantly contribute to Israel’s efforts “to qualify for football’s biggest and most prestigious tournament after decades of unsuccessful attempts,” he wrote.

Having Vitor available to play for Israel would undoubtedly be a boost for the country from a sporting point of view, and he is a valuable resident of the South. But is that enough to make him a citizen?

 Jared Armstrong, center, appealed the Israeli Interior Ministry's denial of his application for Israeli citizenship but his appeal was denied Wednesday. (credit: Courtesy) Jared Armstrong, center, appealed the Israeli Interior Ministry's denial of his application for Israeli citizenship but his appeal was denied Wednesday. (credit: Courtesy)

Tropper’s request to Shaked to grant him citizenship comes at the same time that The Jerusalem Post’s Zvika Klein reported on the request of a Jewish-American basketball player to make aliyah.

As Klein wrote last week, Jared Armstrong, who grew up as an observant Jewish African-American boy in Philadelphia and played basketball professionally, is fighting for his right to make aliyah and become a citizen under the Law of Return. 

After visiting Israel on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, Armstrong decided to make Israel his home but he has been subjected to a bureaucratic roller-coaster ride because it was decided that even though he underwent  a Conservative conversion, he was not eligible to make aliyah.

“I was born a Jew,” Armstrong, 24, told the Post. “I grew up an observant Jew. We kept Shabbat and the High Holy Days. I was not allowed to play sports on Saturday; instead, you would find me in shul.”

Armstrong’s father is not Jewish. His mother went through a conversion by Congregation Temple Beth El, which is not acknowledged by any of the Jewish streams in the US and therefore was not acknowledged by the Jewish Agency.

Armstrong currently resides in Tel Aviv on a tourist visa. “I was accused of only wanting to move to Israel for the job opportunity, to play basketball for Hapoel Haifa,” he told Klein.

There have been several high-profile conversions of sports figures who have played in Israel in the past, one of the best known and more recent ones being basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire, who formally converted to Judaism while living in Israel in August 2020.

At the same time that the cases of Vitor and Armstrong are being raised, the Knesset is discussing the so-called Citizenship Law, which limits automatically granting citizenship mainly to Palestinians marrying Israeli citizens. The background includes the threat that terrorists can exploit the freedom of movement afforded to citizens.

Being awarded citizenship is a privilege and a matter of some gravitas. Someone applying to become a citizen needs to be willing to live here and to contribute to the country on a permanent basis. The considerations should not be the immediate chances of an athlete to help achieve this or that award.

Citizenship is not something to play around with.