By David Nataf
On December 18, 2021, a controversial case emerged in Portugal, when the media reported that the Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich had obtained Portuguese nationality, following donations to the Jewish community of Oporto. Putin's war tanks were on the border of Ukraine and the moment was seized by those who wanted to repeal the Portuguese law that granted nationality to descendants of Portuguese Jews. This heated debate had begun two years earlier.
Roman Abramovich, from whom the community has always claimed to have received only 250 euros, had become a negative symbol of the Portuguese law of return that for seven years granted nationality to more than 60,000 people, mainly Israelis from traditional North African families and from the former Ottoman Empire.
On March 11, 2022, the police arrested Rabbi of Porto and a few days later the government published a decree that repealed the law in practical terms. However, on September 27th, the court of appeals declared that the case was based on “nothing” and the community raised the tone of its protests against what it says was a “Soviet-style anti-Semitism” that “ attacked only the strongest Jewish community” based on the myths of the “rich Jew”, “money” and the “orthodox rabbi” seen as a Zionist agent.
The author of this article had access to the dossier attesting to the Sephardic origins of Roman Abramovich, that the community recently sent to the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. It is an interesting dossier, telling the story of a family of forced migrants. Abramovich's paternal grandparents were from wealthy Lithuanian families, with Sephardic names and origins. They were victims of Stalin, who exiled them to Siberia in the 1940s, after robbing them of everything they had including hotels, real estate and merchant ships.
Abramovich's family has names of Sephardic origin such as Rosa, Leiva, and Leon that are mentioned in the law of 2015. They have family memories that were confirmed by Russian and Israeli rabbis, who have known his family for 30 years and who know the history of Sephardi families.
Lithuania itself and the religious organization Chabad-Lubavich are also involved. That country grants nationality to the children and grandchildren of Lithuanians and the billionaire's own children are Lithuanian. Chabad, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Baruch Portugali, has always been a beneficiary of financial support from the Russian, Israeli, and now Portuguese billionaire.
Surprisingly, the dossier goes further. When the Jewish Community of Porto confirmed the Sephardic origins of Roman Abramovich, it informed the Government about the possibility of him making investments in Portugal and asked for urgent recognition of his nationality for reasons of national interest. In April 2021, the billionaire became a Portuguese citizen and continued to travel in Europe using his Israeli passport. Everything looked peaceful, but all was not well.
In December of the same year, the Portuguese press reported the case in distorted terms, ignoring the Jewish community in Porto, provoking an anti-Semitic wave in Portugal. The Jewish museum in Porto shows what happened at that time, with the persecution of the community. Old anti-Semitic songs about the housing crisis and the cost of living due to the naturalization of wealthy Jews were whispered again behind closed doors.
This writer’s personal experience living in Israel during three wars, witnessing Thailand’s revolution and military coup and observing Myanmar’s democratic elections under military rule, provided context to this antisemitism. In all those places, my family never experienced the hostility we faced in Oporto. My own daughter was dubbed an “Israeli terrorist” in 2020. In 2021, my house was smeared with red paint, defacing the mezuzah.
The debate around the Abramovich case reveals the complexity of Sephardic heritage and citizenship in Portugal. Each individual involved has hundreds of thousands of ancestors going back 19 generations from the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. Questioning a person's Sephardic ancestry is a mathematical falsehood, which is aggravated when he has memories and names recognized under Portuguese law.
The question of Jewish ancestry is a subject loaded with personal, historical, political, and geostrategic implications. Portugal tried to correct historical errors by receiving descendants of Sephardic Jews who were unjustly expelled. After seven years, the same country tried to hunt non-Sephardi Jews as it previously hunted its Sephardi Jews.
Originally published in The Times of Israel