(JTA) — More Israelis applied for Portuguese citizenship than any other foreign group over the past two years, even though few choose to actually live in the country.
The number of Israelis seeking a Portuguese passport through a 2015 law passed for the descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition reached 20,975 in 2022, according to statistics from the Portuguese Immigration and Border Service (SEF).
That exceeded the 18,591 applicants from Brazil, whose population is over 20 times larger than Israel’s and has longstanding cultural ties to Portugal, including a shared language.
Israelis were also the largest group in 2021, when 21,263 people applied.
The surge of Israeli applicants began after Portugal passed its “law of return” in 2015, allowing the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were affected by the 16th century to apply for nationality. The Portuguese government has announced plans to end this policy in December 2023, declaring its purpose of reparation to be “fulfilled.”
The policy was plagued by scandal last year amid allegations of fraud and corruption in the Jewish Community of Porto, one of two Jewish authorities — alongside Lisbon’s community — that was certified to vet applications. In particular, the Porto community came under fire for approving the citizenship of Roman Abramovich, a Russian-Jewish billionaire who made his fortune in Russia’s energy sector and has been called a close ally of Vladimir Putin, although he has denied being part of the Russian president’s inner circle.
Abramovich’s naturalization came to light shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, when it became apparent that he could live in Europe and challenge the European sanctions being imposed on Russian oligarchs. His case triggered a criminal probe into Porto’s vetting process, leading to the detainment of community rabbi Daniel Litvak and a bitter rift in Portugal’s Jewish communities.
Portuguese citizenship has wide-ranging appeal for Israelis, including the freedom of movement that comes with a European Union passport. Portugal has lower taxes and a lower cost of living than Israel, although its income levels are also proportionately lower. Some Israelis are attracted to the more relaxed acceptance rates at public universities in Europe and lower attendance costs for E.U. nationals.
There are likely also political motivations. Liberal-leaning Israelis — alarmed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and its push to undercut the Israeli Supreme Court’s power and independence — have expressed growing interest in moving abroad. Others are galvanized by the fear and stress that come with living in a country continuously locked in deadly conflict with its neighbors.
But despite their spiking interest in nationality, most of the Israelis who applied have not moved to Portugal. While 60,000 Israelis had Portuguese citizenship in 2022, only 569 were residents, according to SEF data. In comparison, 239,744 Brazilians lived in Portugal last year.
Many citizens of Israel, a country full of citizens who have endured past migrations, may be driven by the desire for a “plan B.” Amikam, an Israeli healthcare professional who did not provide his last name, told The Portugal News that he applied for nationality in 2017 even though he has no plans of emigrating.
“It’s always good to have a plan B in case things in Israel turn for the worst,” he said.