I've written a long investigation into Russian oligarchs for the magazine before, but my interest in this particular subject was first piqued several years ago during the Brexit process when I learned that Spanish and Portuguese authorities were offering citizenship to individuals who could prove their descent from Jews who had been expelled from both countries starting in the late 15th Century (many British jews were applying so they could get an EU passport).

As a consequence of this law, the Jewish community in one Portuguese city had started to flourish in a way that was very rare outside of Israel - since so many Jewish people have been leaving other countries for Israel in recent decades. Then I saw last year that the rabbi for that Jewish community, in the city of Porto, had been arrested in relation to Roman Abramovich's citizenship application, and I decided I had to find out what had happened.

Here's my Twitter account: https://twitter.com/WillemMarx

Here's the story for Vanity Fair: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2023/05/roman-abramovich-eu-citizen

  • Ask me anything about
    the law of reparations for Jewish people with historic links to Portugal.
    - the application for citizenship made by Roman Abramovich
    - the fallout for the local Jewish community


Comments: 124 • Responses: 17  • Date: 

USAisAok27 karma

How does someone prove their ancestry for something like this? 500+ years of records for something as fragmented as the Jewish diaspora seems an incredibly difficult task.

How many people have successfully gone through this process? Do you think Abramovich was accepted only because he's rich, or does he have legitimate evidence that a distant ancestor was expelled from Portugal that long ago?

RubberJustice8 karma

Long story short, one doesn't. Wilhelm and other journalist's investigations effectively showed that Porto's rabbi Daniel Litvak was fraudulently awarding his confirmation to fat-pocketed donors

willemmarx2 karma

Hi there. I'm not sure I agree with you there. The Rabbi was not the only individual who was approving certifications, as my story makes clear, and the requirements that Mr. Abramovich met, on their own, were in keeping with a methodology that the Jewish community in Porto had been following consistently for many years, without any formal complaints, nor credible evidence (or even a credible suggestion that I have seen, at least) that there was ever some sort of quid pro quo involving wealthy donors and certification. The criteria were created by the Portuguese legislature, and the Porto community was given latitute to interpret them as they saw fit, and in a way that they never sought to hide from Portugal's authorities.

willemmarx1 karma

Hi there - it's a good question. For many people who are descended from Jewish families living in Portugal at the end of the 15th century, and then in the 16th century when the Inquisiton began to operate there, it is very difficult to provide evidence of direct lineage. If you read the article, you'll see that those determining whether somebody qualified essentially took two different approaches: one was far more focused on archive and documentary evidence for that kind of lineage (which required months and sometimes years of work but was not necessarily definitive even then), one was more focused on ties to more recent Sephardic communities and Sephardic jewish identity, such as customs, language and food, alongside family names and family memories.

Tens of thousands have successfully gone through this certification process. I have no evidence that Mr. Abramovich applied in bad faith, and there is some evidence to suggest that his family may have had Sephardic links, but scholars have different interpretations, since the documentary evidence of much of the periods and geographies in question is necessarily fragmentary, for a variety of reasons. His wealth may not have have had any impact on his Sephardic certification though, as it's not clear that the person who granted that approval so quickly (inside 2 hours) was even aware of who he actually was.

victim_of_technology20 karma

I may be grossly uninformed as this is not a subject I follow but I understand that over the last several years a lot of Russians have migrated to Israel. I also see that Israel’s political landscape has shifted dangerously to the right and toward authoritarianism. Is this just a coincidence or are these changes related to one another? If they are related, is Portugal at risk for leaning towards right wing authoritarianism?

willemmarx2 karma

I do not think I'm qualified to add much analysis in any answer to this question I'm afraid. What I would say is that modern Portugal is neither right-leaning, in terms of its politics, nor authoritarian - while it is a relatively conservative and still quite religious country in some ways, it is is progressive in others, and the relatively tiny number of Russian citizens to have been certified as Sephardic (300 in seven years, according to the Jewish community in Porto) is unlikely to have any major demographic or political impact.

angiearch16 karma

So, after reading your VF article (which is a magnificent article btw), I would like to ask, can you elaborate more on the fallout for the local Jewish community after this "special citizenship" case? Is this correlated to the end of Sephardic Nationality Law at the end of 2023?

Thank you..

willemmarx2 karma

Thanks for the kind words. The fallout has been substantial - many international organizations have been unwilling to work with the Porto jewish community since the start of the investigation. Many individual members of the community have been named and shamed in some quarters of the Portuguese media, with a lot of insinuation but no credible evidence of wrongdoing, often based on anonymous sources, in particular from law enforcement entities. The Sephardic nationality law was first tightened, in the aftermath of Mr. Abramovich's citizenship being made public, and legislators have recently - as you allude to - decided to try and curtail the offer of Portuguese nationality to those of Sephardic Portuguese descent at the end of this calendar year. Nobody is under any illusion that this curtailment is not directly correlated to Mr. Abramovich's citizenship and the consternation and embarrassment that has caused for the authorities in Portugal.

Ilirien8 karma

Im not a jew nor do i know anything of their problems. Why does this “issue” matter and how does it matter to me? (Genuinely asking)

willemmarx35 karma

Immigration policies vary between countries, but in the historical context the offer of citizenship that Portugal made to people who had been forced out of their country on religious grounds was pretty unprecedented. Essentially along the lines of: "something awful happened to your ancestors (they were tortured, burned at the stake, their property confiscated, children forcibly given away for adoption), and we'd like to try and make it up to you, their descendants." Anti-semitism is still a scourge in many parts of the world, and played a role in this story I reported too, as political forces in Poland used the Abramovich application to help end legislation that had sought to right that historic wrong.

meshautesidees4 karma

Is it really unprecedented? Germany does the same thing. I have a family member applying for German citizenship. His grandparents were put in concentration camps.

willemmarx1 karma

It's true that countries including Germany and Austria have offered citizenship to those descended from expelled Jews - it's the much longer time span involved here that makes it unprecedented, if that makes sense.

TraditionalEconomy88 karma

How many descendants of Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula have moved back?

willemmarx2 karma

It's hard to put a precise number on it in Portugal (and I can't speak for Spain), but in Porto the Jewish community has gone from a few dozen to around a 1,000 people, with the vast majority of those having arrived in the past decade or so. So it would be accurate to say that hundreds, if not low thousands.

TraditionalEconomy85 karma

Have Gypsies/ gitano/ romani or any other religious or ethnic group suffered a similar fate as the Jews? Have they been made a similar offer?

willemmarx2 karma

Another great question, and yes there have been efforts to pay reparations for the "porajjmos" - the genocide against the Roma during the Holocaust (one example here: https://eeagrants.org/news/providing-justice-for-roma-holocaust-victims). What's unusual with the Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic offers is how long ago the Iberian peninsula expulsions were - half a millenium ago.

sickbabe2 karma

tangential but have any descendants of conversos in latin america been able to acquire passports this way? or just people who left and kept observant?

willemmarx1 karma

Great question. The Jewish community in Lisbon has certified many people from Latin America as being of Sephardic descent, even if they do not profess the Jewish faith or identify as Jewish. The Jewish community in Porto does not necessarily agree all that much with this approach, and has indeed criticized the fact that Brazilians or other latin americans have been certified - including one Christian priest, famously - but the Portuguese state has seemingly not been concerned by this.

RubberJustice2 karma

What do you think this case spells for other retributive justice laws?

One could easily imagine this would offer a pretty clear case against reparations and how easy and dangerous it would be to game them.

willemmarx2 karma

I'm not sure I'm qualified to address your question, as I lack the expertise to talk about retributive or reparative laws elsewhere, but I would say that many of the Portuguese lawyers and lawmakers (including many former and current senior officials I spoke to) said they regretted that the initial nationality law as conceived was not more proscriptive, to avoid the possibility (and I am careful to add that I do not say this is necessarily what happened with Mr. Abramovich) that the system could be gamed.

Ok-Feedback56041 karma

How he made it escaped from authorities?

willemmarx1 karma

How did who escape from which authorities? Keen to answer your question once I better understand it!

TraditionalEconomy81 karma

What is the main reason for people applying? An EU passport?

willemmarx2 karma

For many people that will be a part of their consideration, but based on conversations and interviews I conducted, for many it is also a desire to get in touch in some way with their distant ancestors, to help recreate a family identity that they have lost, and to stand up to a state that had so horrendously disadvantaged their forebears and publicly assert their existence and family's survival despite the horrors of previous centuries.

TasteofPaste1 karma

What is the method for tracing genealogy going back 600years, especially since so many people have been able to take advantage of this?

willemmarx1 karma

There are many different ways of doing this, although providing an accurate and provable family tree that dates back to the late 15th century is almost impossible for anyone - except perhaps a few royal families, and even then there might be questions about paternity. Anyway, in some cases they were able to trace a family back 300 years, for instance, to a person with a last name that clearly matched that of someone known to have lived in Portugal as a jewish person in the 15th century (since written records from that period still survive in archives). Sometimes if you could show you came from a sephardic community in North Africa, the former Ottoman Empire or northern Europe (Amsterdam, London, Antwerp, New York) or you spoke a language, Ladino, that expelled jews had taken with them from the Iberian peninsula, that would be sufficient evidence to meet the criteria set by the Portuguese state.

Reborn5275-1 karma

Any relation to Karl Marx?

willemmarx1 karma

Not to my knowledge!

Ok-Feedback5604-4 karma

How no one couldn't trace that large no of immigrants(1496)(I mean did local officers helped him secretly?)

willemmarx1 karma

Again I'm not sure what you're asking here - would you be able to rephrase your question?

Ok-Feedback56041 karma

How that large number of immigrants escaped immigration authorities that easily whithout getting traced?

willemmarx1 karma

which large number of immigrants are you referring to? And what do you mean "escaped immigration authorities" "without being traced"? I'm so sorry but I'm still not understanding what you're asking, as it pertains to the article I've written....

Ok-Feedback56041 karma

Jewish repatriation(as you've written)

willemmarx1 karma

Anyone offered Portuguese citizenship under the Sephardic Nationality law had to be certified by a Jewish community in either Lisbon or Porto, then authorized by the Portuguese state, including its foreign affairs and justice ministries, so there was nobody who "escaped immigration authorities" in a literal sense. The Portuguese justice minister at the time had the final word on the approval of each and every citizenship application. I hope that answers your question?