New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Ms. Rita Mayer Jardim, Attorney at Mayer Jardim, to ask a few questions about Portuguese Citizenship for descendants of Sephardi Jews. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Thank you for this opportunity to meet with you. Can you tell us about yourself and how you became interested in working in this specific area and why?
Rita Mayer Jardim: I studied law in Portugal and I then completed my studies in International Human Rights Law at Oxford University. I think it was the Human Rights law angle that slowly led me to Citizenship law. I was working in the London law firm Mishcon de Reya when this law was approved and I immediately when this law was approved, I felt I wanted to be part of what I think is history, to play a very small part but to play something and to be doing something I believe is meaningful for many reasons.
So from the moment the law came into force when it was possible to apply, I started working on these applications, in the beginning not really knowing, because there were no precedents, there was no track record I could use, which was also the appeal of this. I had to find my way around. How do you prove so many different family histories that they connect to this Sephardic anchor which could be very far in the past, or very recent, everything was so different, and it’s the diversity of these cases that I’m most interested in? There are geographical diversity and historical diversity in all these applications. It’s not just legal work you have to enjoy the historical elements which play a big role.
Since early 2015, I started working on applications and I feel I have traveled the world of the Sephardic diaspora. I still have many places to go to mentally, but I’ve covered an interesting amount of stories and geographies and times.
NYJTG: These cases are all over from all over the world. Can you share with us one or two interesting and rewarding cases you have worked on?
Rita Mayer Jardim: They are and of course once you start working with a given community, a given family, a given environment, you tend to grow exponentially within that area or geography. My first case was with the South African citizen, a Sephardic Jew, whose grandparents had lived in Rhodes and he also had connections to Izmir and Salonika. That was the first one. He was the first South African citizen to become Portuguese through this law. That was my first case.
The second one was a US citizen, the one whose ancestor he discovered to his surprise was the founder of the Savannah congregation. At the time his ancestor was one of the first colonial settlers. This case was extraordinary and I didn’t have anything so extraordinary since, I think since I’ve started, in the sense that through a genealogy study, we were led to the inquisition procedure of this man’s ancestors. It evolved from that. There are lots of other geographies which have grown immensely.
Brazil is one of those. Currently, I think, leading the applications are Brazilians who trace their ancestors to the time when Portugal colonized Brazil. These are Brazilians whose families settled in Brazil 400 years ago, and whose ancestors were Converso, the New Christians.
Then I have some applicants from Israel of course, it became also an area of focus. I go to Israel frequently and in Israel, it’s a very well known law. There’s a lot of interest from Israeli citizens and then a few bits in every other different country, including people of Moroccan descent, Syrian descent, etc, with a current day connection to Israel. Finally, I have applicants from the Netherlands, the UK, and other European countries which don’t really need to apply in the sense that they already have European citizenship. If it’s a Dutch citizen, it would be in a sense redundant, but it’s not because motivations vary.
NYJTG: Even in England with the Brexit situation, there are people with Sephardic ancestry who are applying for the Portuguese Citizenship, correct?
Rita Mayer Jardim: It is absolutely true. It’s not the numbers that sometimes people say, there is no flood, no, but it´s true they are applying. They don’t do want to lose their European identity. It’s also a question of identity. It’s a statement, “We are European.” And it’s also a practical matter of, “I want to work like I always worked, with no boundaries, no borders in Europe. I want to travel, I want to study, I want to be part of a community I always felt a member of.”
So yes, there’s an increase in applications. Relatively speaking, it’s not a significant amount, but I think it’s expressive because of the background.
NYJTG: Of course, one of the things is that there’s a growing interest in Portuguese citizenship and the Sephardi Jew. How easy is it to obtain one? How long does it take? Who is eligible to apply? And what are some of the requirements, basically what is the process?
Rita Mayer Jardim: The process is comprised of two stages. First, you need to convince one of the Jewish communities of Portugal that you have a tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin. Portuguese as understood in the wider sense of Iberian origin. Once you have convinced one of those communities, you will receive a certificate that says, “You meet the requirements for citizenship under this law”, with your family tree on the back.
That is a process that is taking around two months. It can be more or less complicated, easier or harder depending on your personal circumstances and your family history and the origin geographically for your family, and your current circumstances. Each case is different, but around two months is the average of the processing of that request.
The next stage is the application for citizenship which is addressed to the Ministry of Justice of Portugal. This is a bureaucratic process that is currently taking around two years. It started as something as quick as six months. My first application was decided, with a passport in the hand of my client, in six months. It’s no longer the case because of the number of requests that every day, every week, just pile up. That has a tendency to increase especially due to the expected ending of the Spanish similar law, which is only similar in the sense that you need proving you have a Sephardic heritage. But in Spain, you also need to prove you know Spanish, and also that you know the Spanish constitution, values, and culture. You take two tests. Portugal has no such tests.
Also, in addition, you need to physically go to Spain and I think to meet with a notary. In Portugal, the process is easier in the sense of there’s no expense or time required to go to Portugal, even if new citizens always tend to end up visiting, but it´s not mandatory. For some, it is the first time they go to Portugal and it’s usually a very good surprise.
But the fact that the Spanish law is more difficult, more onerous, both in terms of cost and time, means that the Portuguese number of applications continues to increase. The Portuguese law was not approved with an expiry date in mind. It was considered at the time when the law was being developed, whether there should be a limitation on this and the Portuguese government and Parliament decided, and rightly so, that there shouldn’t be a limitation to a right. If this is a right, there’s no logic in assigning it a timeframe for this. Portugal is dealing with a huge influx of requests, which means that you should consider at least two years until you have your birth certificate, the registration as a naturalized citizen, which then allows you to have your passport done in any Portuguese consulate or in Portugal.
NYJTG: So they don’t have to come to Portugal?
Rita Mayer Jardim: No, they should because they will love it, but it’s not mandatory. It’s not a requirement. Everything is done remotely by a power of attorney. When you hire a lawyer, documents are sent by courier. The first stage doesn’t have formalities in terms of legalization. The second stage requires proving a very important requirement, that the person is free of criminal records so a formal document needs to be provided to prove that. There is discretion for the Ministry of Justice, there is freedom to decide whether to grant or not, just because technically the law was drafted as an option the Portuguese government. But there have been no refusals except on the basis of a criminal record, that, of course, is an impediment to citizenship. It takes a little bit of time, however slowly but surely you get to the desired outcome, which is to reconnect, to connect, to pay respect to your ancestors and also, very pragmatically, to be connected to a wider employment market as European citizens.
NYJTG: This is how the applicant can prove their Portuguese Sephardic ancestry by providing all these documents that you have outlined?
Rita Mayer Jardim: Yes, so each case will be different. There is no cookie-cutter approach. It’s not one single document that will prove your connection as much as you feel Sephardic. There must be some elements of proof. The proof does not need to be a genealogy that connects you to a Portuguese ancestor more than 300 years ago. That’s not the threshold. Sometimes it is possible to do that, but that’s a rarity in a sense. There are many elements which have weight and it´s the cumulative effect of the various elements of proof that will make your case successful or not.
NYJTG: Earlier you spoke about families and the restrictions imposed on children in certain situations, can you elaborate on this?
Rita Mayer Jardim: The way the Portuguese naturalization route into citizenship works is that you need to be over 18. So, children who are under 18 should wait until they become of legal age. If they are very close to eighteen, nothing prevents them or even younger, to get the certificate that attests they are Sephardic. It’s just that that certificate will not be able to be immediately used. You need to be eighteen.
Families can apply all at the same time and in a sense, it’s preferable because you’re not waiting for each application. Applications are independent in the sense that you don’t need first to get citizenship for the father and then for the children. Each person has an individual right. That’s why they’re 18. They have as adults, a right they may exercise or not. For spouses who are not Sephardic, they also have in the sense of facilitated route into citizenship not as descendants of Sephardic Jews, but as spouses of a Portuguese citizen.
It is crucial that they are also mothers or fathers of Portuguese citizens. The spouse does need to wait for the husband and for their sons or daughter over eighteen to become Portuguese. The minute that happens, the day that happens, we are able to submit an application as long as the spouse has been married before, doesn’t need to be from that moment, for more than three years. Citizenship by marriage in Portugal works like that. More than three years of marriage with connections to Portugal and the children who are Portuguese could be those connections.
Minor children need either to wait until they’re eighteen and then they apply or if the family decides to move to Portugal. every citizen has the right to move to Portugal whenever he or she decides and to take all family members, dependent ones. Minors are dependents and once a minor comes to Portugal and starts attending school, then he or she has the necessary connections to Portugal. So then the minor may become Portuguese as a son or daughter of a naturalized citizen that has connections to Portugal. So, no longer as the Sephardi Jew – in sum, there are ways for a family who is willing to move to Portugal, for all the family members to become Portuguese.
NYJTG: Can a DNA test be submitted for citizen application? Would it be accepted?
Rita Mayer Jardim: The DNA tests as far as I can understand, and I’m not a geneticist, will not be able to tell that you have Sephardic ancestors. They tell you whether you have Iberian origin, and that may be relevant if you’re an American citizen, with your life and your ancestors always here. The fact that you have an Iberian genetic marker, it could be relevant. In itself, it’s not a sufficient element of proof because as I said, and as far as I understand, there are no specific Sephardic markers to tell if someone is of Sephardic genetic origin. In any event, I have clients who have done those tests and what they say was that “I saw my genealogy report said I was descended from this person. I think I only believed it when I saw the genetic testing that said, ‘Yes, you’re Iberian.’” It’s more like a validation of something. To some people, it´s not evident. For you, for someone who knows in their heart they are of Sephardic descent, they don’t need scientific proof, but for someone who is not and discovers that maybe it is a sort of science rubber stamping that conclusion.
NYJTG: How many have applied and how many have been naturalized so far?
Rita Mayer Jardim: According to the data that I was provided, 30,000 have applied since 2015, of which 7,000 have naturalized. So close to 25% and these numbers keep changing. The majority of that total of 30,000 applicants since the beginning comprises Israeli citizens. They were followed by Turkish citizens and Brazilian citizens and then all the rest, including US citizens. The information I got is that currently, the majority of the applications are coming from Brazilian citizens. Overall there is still a large number of Israelis.
As I mentioned, there’s big visibility in Israel about Portugal, tourism in Portugal, living in Portugal. There was even a recent article, in an Israeli newspaper, which told the story of agricultural settlers, families that move to Portugal and are doing an agricultural activity, especially in the areas which are very dry and require knowledge on how to make an orchard out of a desert, which the Israelis know very well how to do. They’ve been very successful and large numbers of these families are enjoying the experience of living in Portugal.
NYJTG: What are the motivation and reasons for these people applying for Portuguese citizenship?
Rita Mayer Jardim: I would say that there are always different motivations. You can say that for US citizens, for Dutch citizens or European citizen, it´s an emotional motivation. It is as some of my clients have told me, “I’m closing the circle. I’m honoring my ancestors”. Again, they’re being part of History. For other persons from other countries such as South Africa or Turkey or Brazil, it also has an emotional connection, I think it’s always present, but it’s not the main driver. I would interpret their intentions this way. There’s a pragmatic need. I would say Israelis also look at having more options on the table. So in a sense, also pragmatic. For some, it’s just the fun of it. I’ve heard family saying, “This is an aggregating element. Now you know really distant cousins that I didn’t have much contact with. We have something now that really binds us together.”
It’s emotional. It’s glue. It binds families in a sense and explains a bit of who you are and why you are at a given place in a given moment.
NYJTG: And applicants don’t need to be Jewish…. and it is the same process?
Rita Mayer Jardim: They don’t need to be Jewish. The Portuguese state is a secular state. The Constitution states that you cannot discriminate someone or give any advantage to someone on the basis of religion. There could be no way that citizenship law would be drafted in a way that you needed to profess a certain religion and to be an observant member of that religion. It’s not a religious law. It cannot be a right given on the basis of religion. Of course, if you are currently connected to a congregation which is Sephardic, indirectly that will help your case or not because you could also be Ashkenazi, and be it within a Sephardic congregation for many reasons, right? And of itself, religion is not an element of proof. It’s not a requirement at all.
I would say that many of my Israeli clients are secular Jews. I have people who, as Jews, belong to non-orthodox congregations. They could be Reform. In the US, several would be. I have, as I said, lots of clients who are descendants of Conversos of New Christians and they haven’t converted. That is never a requirement. Of course, religion is part of the culture, but the non-religious applicant goes through the same process.
NYJTG: Is there a difference between Porto Jewish community and Lisbon Jewish Community in terms of the application process and one is easier than the other?
Rita Mayer Jardim: The application process is the same. The standard of proof as I understand is different. I don’t think you can say one is easier than the other one. They make a different interpretation of this secular nature of the Portuguese law and its Constitution. Lisbon looks at various factors and as far as I understand Porto looks more towards a specific religious denomination.
NYJTG: How can our audience reach out to your expertise and advice?
Rita Mayer Jardim: Yes, I’m always happy to have a conversation about their story and how this application could be successful in the process. The easiest way would be my email or my WhatsApp number.
You can reach her at:
Mobile +351 960 427 131 Office +351 216 004 837 +351 939 219 386
Thank you, Ms. Jardim, for your time and for all the information you shared with us. I really appreciated it, as will our readers.
Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide