Descendants of Sephardic Jews may be eligible for Spanish or Portuguese citizenship.
* Article originally published in May 2017; requirements for this law are in flux
Spanish and Portuguese Citizenship for Sephardic Jews
Within the last three years, Spain and Portugal have begun to offer citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews who were exiled during the religious persecutions of the late 15th century. As a result of these new laws, we’ve received many requests for research into possible Sephardic ancestry. We are happy to assist in these research efforts, but before pursuing possible Sephardic connections it is important to understand the requirements and stipulations for obtaining citizenship. It should also be noted that unless you have recent known connections to established Sephardic communities, it is very difficult to prove connections to Sephardic ancestors from centuries ago. The purpose of this article is to provide some basic information about the requirements for each country.
Obtaining Citizenship in Spain
In order to obtain Spanish citizenship under the new law, descendants of Sephardic Jews who were exiled in 1492 need to document their Sephardic Heritage and demonstrate a “special connection” to Spain. Though these requirements seem to be fairly straightforward, they are actually quite restrictive.
In 1492 more than 350,000 Jews were exiled from Spain by royal decree, and those who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism or were executed. Many descendants of converted or “converso” Jews eventually settled in the new world. However, under the Spanish citizenship law it is unclear whether or not the descendants of conversos qualify for Sephardic citizenship since many of them remained in Spain and its colonies, and others only left Spain after several generations. By talking to our various contacts we’ve been able to ascertain that is sometimes possible to obtain citizenship by documenting descent from converso Jews, but it depends on the circumstances, and doing so frequently requires extensive and arduous research. This process might be expedited if a converso ancestor is already known and the only requirement is to search for genealogical documentation, but it’s also possible that even after all the work is done the request for citizenship will be denied. Unfortunately there is no way to know ahead of time what the decision will be.
For those who are descendants of the exiled Jews of 1492, the requirements for citizenship are still quite steep. Though applicants need not be practicing Jews, they do need to have their Sephardic heritage vetted and confirmed through a local Rabbinic authority. With this certificate, they also need documentation regarding the articles of confederation of the local Rabbinic authority and/or its legal representatives. Other means of demonstrating relationship include a knowledge or use of Ladino or Haketia, traditionally Sephardic languages. Applicants can also demonstrate relationship to the Sephardic community through genealogical research, proving a relationship to individuals in official lists produced by Spanish authorities in 1924 and 1948, or through certification with the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities.
However, proving your heritage is just the first step. After proving Sephardic heritage, applicants must also take several tests on Spanish language, culture, and history onsite in Spain or at one of its consulates. Travel costs are to be covered by the applicant, and all of this is to be completed by the applicant within four years of the date that the law went into effect (by October 2019).
Even with all of the documentation and testing, an applicant still may not qualify for citizenship. The law is vague in many areas and a great deal of confusion has arisen around the application process. Due to the multiple tests , the strict requirements, the excessive costs and fees for all applications, translations and certificates, the vague stipulations regarding Sephardic surnames, the excessive paperwork, and the time limits, the application for citizenship for descendants of Spanish Sephardic Jews has proven to be an extremely frustrating process for many current applicants. It has also served to severely limit the number of individuals who have actually succeeded in obtaining citizenship. Of the estimated several million who could qualify for citizenship, less than 10,000 have actually done so. One Spanish delegate expressed his disappointment at the passing of the law as follows:
“We want to express our disappointment because this law, which was supposed to restore justice, has become increasingly complicated. If we observe the procedures, the prerequisites, the number of documents to be submitted, the certified translations, the fees, the language and culture exams and the need to travel to Spain, we cannot but wonder about the reason for all of these hurdles…Considering all of these factors, we believe that this law does not right a wrong. This law is more of a symbol, a first step, but not a law that will serve to satisfy the majority of Sephardim who would like to obtain Spanish nationality.”
Some websites claim to post lists of “Sephardic” surnames, and state that if an individual has one of these surnames in their recent ancestry, they may qualify for citizenship under the new law. While this could be helpful, it is important to note that while there are some surnames that are unique to the Sephardic community, many (if not most) of the surnames utilized by Sephardic Jews are also found in broader non-Sephardic Iberian populations. Many Spanish and Portuguese surnames originated simultaneously in different areas. Just because a Sephardic Jew may have utilized the Gomez surname does not mean that all other individuals with the Gomez surname are also tied to Sephardic families.
Finally, most individuals who approach us regarding Spanish Sephardic citizenship wish to obtain “dual citizenship” with Spain. However, Spain may grant dual citizenship to citizens of Iberoamerican countries like Andorra, Philippines, Equatorial Guinea and Portugal, but in all other cases, applicants for Spanish citizenship must make an oath to “renounce their previous nationality.” The effect of this renunciation depends on the previous nationality of the applicant. In the case of the United States, this renunciation is not considered legally binding under American law. Therefore, in the United States you would be considered to only have American citizenship and in Spain you would be considered to only have Spanish citizenship. While technically illegal to continue to hold other nationalities in conjunction with Spanish citizenship, it appears that this is a common practice among American expats in Spain.
Obtaining Citizenship in Portugal
In order to obtain citizenship under the Portuguese law, individuals must demonstrate their connection to a Community with Portuguese Sephardic origins through genealogical documentation. Application for citizenship is submitted to either the Jewish Community of Lisbon or the Jewish Community of Oporto, and must include copies of the birth certificate, passport, and proof of residence of the applicant as well as genealogical documentation of the applicant proving their connection to a Community of Portuguese Sephardic origins and a 150 euro fee for review of the application. Though these requirements seem less arduous than the Spanish citizenship process, as of October 2016, only 8% of the applications received have been approved for citizenship. The good news is that while Spain has issued a deadline for the submission of Sephardic Jewish citizenship applications, Portugal has not.
Because of the difficulties listed here, we generally recommend pursuing citizenship only if you have demonstrable and recent connections to established Sephardic communities, strong family traditions of Sephardic Jewish, converso, or crypto-Jew ancestry, or known Sephardic Jews among the members of your family tree. In all other cases it can take hundreds of hours to trace each family line back far enough to determine if a connection is there, and the ultimate outcome might still be that the there is no connection – or it is unable to be documented.
Whether you are interested in obtaining citizenship in Spain or Portugal, our experts can assist in performing the required research to demonstrate a connection to Sephardic Jews. While we can never guarantee specific results, we know the most efficient ways to search for the records you’ll need. Contact us today to discuss which project would be best for you!
 Soeren Kern, “Spain’s Law on Citizenship for Sephardic Jews ‘Does Not Right a Wrong,’” Gatestone Institute, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/6010/spain-citizenship-jews, accessed May 2017.
 J.S. Herzog and AP, “Portugal has only approved 8% of Sephardic Jewish applications for citizenship,” www.ynetnews.com, 24 October 2016, accessed May 2017.