26 March 2021 by Laura Langhorn de Carvalho


The Sephardic Jewish ethic division originated from the traditionally established communities in Portugal and Spain – the Iberian Peninsula. Sephardic Jews include the Jewish population who were forced to exile from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. The vernacular language most traditionally employed within this community is – Ladino Oriental, or Judaeo-Spanish, which was derived from Old Castilian and unified Jews throughout the Peninsula and later, outside it. The Sephardi community is divided into sub-groups:

i. Easters Sephardim: the descendants of those exiled from Spain as Jews in 1492 or prior and settled mainly in various areas of the Ottoman Empire
ii. North African Sephardim: the descendants of those expelled from Spain also in 1492 and settled in North Africa, mainly in Morocco and Algeria
iii. Western Sephardim: the community of Jewish ex-conversos whose families had decided to remain in the Iberian Peninsula as “New-Christians” and were able to return to Judaism
iv. Sephardic Bnei Anusim: the community of nominal Christian descendants of 15th century Sephardic Anusim, or forced converts and settled in Iberia or Iberian American territories. Due to historical circumstances, this sub-group was never able to return to the Jewish faith over the next 5 centuries. Their population size is estimated in the millions and considered several times larger than the previous sub-groups combined.

The Sephardic community therefore has its own laws and customs and distinct cultural, philosophical and juridical traditions. Indeed, customs such as the eating of rice and legumes (kitniyoyt) over the religious holiday of Passover are still often maintained in this religious community

By the 7th century, which marked the beginning of the “Sephardic Golden Age”, Jews in the Iberian Peninsula had properly asserted their religion and culture within the area and were gaining vast recognition in typically non-Jewish professions such as poets, scholars and physicians. They held a surprisingly high number of freedoms and were even allowed to hold high public offices in Spain including counselor, treasurer for secretary for the Crown. Indeed, of most European countries, Spain had been one of the most tolerant prior to the Inquisition!

Sephardic art and culture flourished with painting and architecture depicting Jewish ideals, gender differences, complications of the Jewish faith and its survival. Sephardic poetry was significant prior to 1942 with the most popular type of poetry being wine poetry with religious and hedonistic connotations. Sephardic paintings would borrow Islamic forms of art for aesthetic and ornamental reasons and would utilize Christians art forms for storytelling demonstrating the relative proximity in which these conflicting religions used to exist. Art would continue to allow the Sephardic community to thrive during the immense diaspora following 1492.

The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II de Aragon and Isabel I de Castilla as a way to maintain Catholic orthodoxy and replace the Medieval Inquisition. This era had seen many Jews expelled from Christian kingdoms and Spain’s fear of looking like too tolerant a country is argued to have been a large part of their decision to take such extreme measures against the Jews in their country. A main reason for the Spanish Inquisition was to prevent Jewish conversos from taking part in Jewish practices which, as New Christians, they were supposed to have stopped.

The issuing of the “Alhambra decree” in January 1492, gave the choice between exile from Spain or conversion to Christianity. If Jews did not agree to these conditions, they were deemed heretics and faced being burned at the stake. The Jews of Spain mainly emigrated to Portugal, where King Manuel I would later sign the 1496 decree which forced them to convert, and North Africa, notable Morocco and Algeria. An estimated 100,000-300.000 Jews emigrated. Most first immigrated to Portugal where the community would be later forcibly converted in 1497).


In 2015, both the Spanish and Portuguese government and Parliament sought to atone the exile and forced conversions of Sephardic Jews that had been subject to mass religious discrimination in the past. Their current aspiration for multiculturalism and demonstrating their democratic nature possibly explain the reason for the creation of these citizenship programs.


In Spain:
The application process for receiving Spanish citizenship as a Sephardic Jew can be difficult and long.
You would first have to prove Sephardic status and lineage, and a special connection with the country, then perform a four-hour Spanish language test and finally pass a citizenship test.

I. Proving Sephardic status:

• Certificate of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain (FCJE)
• Certificate by the President of the Jewish community of the zone of residence or birth.
• Certificate from the rabbinical authority, recognized legally in the country of residence.
• Proof of the use of ladino or “haketia”, certified by an Israeli competent entity.
• Birth certificate or marriage certificate “ketubah” that proves celebration in the Castilian tradition, including a certificate of validity of a Community leader or Rabbi. Report produced by the appropriate entity that proves the applicant’s membership of the family names to the Sephardic lineage of Spanish origin.
• Any other circumstance that clearly demonstrates the status as a Sephardic Jew of Spanish origin.

II. Documentation required:
• Completed application form
• Birth certificate
• Police certificate (for the last five (5) years prior the application)
• Certificate of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain
• Certificate by the President of the Jewish community of your residence or birthplace
• Certificate from the rabbinical authority
• Documents confirming Spanish origins (Sephardic Jew)
• Proof of knowledge and use of the ladino or “haketia” language
• Two test results (basic knowledge of Spanish language and of the Spanish Constitution and culture)

In Portugal:

I. Unlike the Spanish law, there is no deadline to apply for Portuguese nationality. It is considered far easier to apply for Portuguese citizenship since there are no aptitude tests or examinations required to be taken. No need to prove knowledge of the Portuguese language or any existence of a special link between the applicant and Portugal.

II. Documentation required:

• A Birth certificate
• Copy of Passport
• Criminal record
• Certificate from a Sephardic community – Must include family name, lineage, language and family memory all collected by a Rabbi’s declaration
• A certificate document of family ties with Portuguese Sephardim – property deed, or will, or record of family lineage, circumcision certificate…


While the religious discrimination Jews faced in the 15th century is unjustifiable, providing those with links to that community with Portuguese or Spanish citizenship is at least a way to show sympathy and to allow Sephardic Jews to connect to their old roots. In my opinion, considering the bureaucratic and civil administration is so daunting and long for the Sephardic Jews to receive the Spanish citizenship it seems more of an example of performative activism. Anti-Semitic beliefs remain prominent in Spain especially, with 58% of the population believing that the Jewish “are powerful because they control the economy and mass media”. Expressions like “perro judío” and “judiada” remain common and create a division between the Jewish community and the rest of Spain. Slowly however, Spain is making progress, particularly within the educational sector – teaching about the holocaust, funding and promoting Jewish cultural institutions…