A social history project to chart the “biggest Jewish re-passporting exercise” of the past century was launched today.
Next week, the Jewish Historical Society of England will open up a special website to record the stories of British Jews who have reacquired European citizenship, as part of an effort to better understand why thousands of previously well-settled families have decided in the last three years to seek out passports from the nations their ancestors fled.
Ever since the Brexit referendum, there has been a surge in applications for citizenship to countries on the continent from British Jews, mostly believed to be Remainers trying to protect their EU freedom of movement rights.
Despite widespread anecdotal reporting of the phenomenon there has not yet been any systematic attempt to unpick the thinking behind it, said Simon Albert, a lawyer from London who jointly came up with the idea.
“It’s probably the biggest Jewish re-passporting exercise this century, maybe even the last century as well,” he said last week. “It is historically unprecedented for the descendants of a former refugee community to do what we’re doing now, which is reinstating our ancestors’ citizenship.”
The project will see Jews who have taken up a second passport invited to fill in an online questionnaire which asks them why they have sought out EU citizenship and what family history makes them eligible.
Mr Albert said he also wanted to look into the emotional impact, particularly as many Jews would be trying to reacquire citizenship from countries which had persecuted and even murdered their relatives.
“This is emotional because you’re asking people to take up the passports of countries which in the course of living memory did unspeakable things to their families,” he said. “And it’s only by accident of that history and because of British politics they are choosing to take up the citizenship of those countries which did those things.”
Although nobody knows exactly how many people have sought out second passports since 2016, Mr Albert said he believed it could be as many as two or three per cent of Britain’s approximately 300,000 Jews — perhaps as many as 9,000 people in total.
The project began after a chance encounter at Limmud in 2018 between Mr Albert and Ruvi Ziegler, an associate professor of international refugee law at Reading University, who had given a talk on Brexit and his own Jewish identity.
Both men have a deep personal connection to the project, as Jews with multiple passports themselves. Dr Ziegler, who was born and raised in Israel, procured German citizenship when he moved to the UK to study and then work (and has since been naturalised as a British citizen too).
“My grandparents on one of my sides left Germany after Kristallnacht, to British Mandate Palestine in January 1939,” he explained last week. By proving this ancestry he was able to reacquire German citizenship through Article 116 of the country’s Basic Law (which reinstates the citizenship of those who were stripped of it by the Nazis).
He was well aware of the complexities of restoring his German citizenship: “My grandparents lost their citizenship forcibly and my mum never chose to try and take it up. It was a contentious issue in the family.
“The idea of reclaiming specifically German citizenship for those who were Holocaust survivors was not a simple one.”
What fascinates Dr Ziegler and the other academics already involved in the project is just how many British Jews have gone down the Article 116 route, despite the fraught historical overtones.
Figures obtained from the Germany embassy reveal that before 2016 only a few dozen Britons reclaimed their citizenship each year. In the year of the Brexit referendum that figure leapt to 684, and for every year since it has been more than double this again. In total, more than 5,200 Britons (of whom almost all must have been Jews) have acquired German passports since the referendum.
“In one form or another these are Holocaust survivors. This is staggering,” Dr Ziegler remarked. Prior to 2016 these people didn’t choose that route but now they do.
“It raises really interesting questions as to whether they were previously reluctant to do so or whether they didn’t feel any need to.”
Mr Albert has also dug into his past to protect his own EU citizenship. Three of his grandparents fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and came to the UK.
Despite growing up entirely integrated into British life, following the Brexit vote Mr Albert pored through archives to prove that when his own father was born his grandparents remained Czechoslovak citizens, and used this evidence to successfully acquire Czech passports for him and six other family members.
For him, the motivation was mostly pragmatic rather than emotional. “I’m an arch-Remainer, so it was [all about] Brexit,” he said. “I have lived in Brussels and Paris, I was born in Frankfurt, I have used my rights as a European citizen to work, live, travel and indeed practise European law. I’m that bloody-minded that I refuse to have those rights taken away from me.”
Clearly a desire to protect EU citizenship rights is a major driver for many, but Dr Ziegler and Mr Albert said they expected their project would also reveal other motivations, including fears of growing antisemitism in the UK.
“Some people will just keep it in a drawer, but for some others they might actually want to use it. What do they want to use it for? How scared are they?” Mr Albert reflected.
“We talk about paranoid utterances by some crazed Jewish grandparents. But they really weren’t that paranoid, it was only the paranoid who survived. And hypothetically if something terrible happened and we needed to go somewhere, well now we would have choices.”
Taking in all the other 27 EU members states will also unpick other parts of Jewish history too. Britons with Sephardi heritage have also been taking up Spanish and Portuguese passports since the referendum, utilising laws in both countries which offer citizenship to anyone whose ancestors were forcibly expelled during the Spanish Inquisition more than 500 years ago.
“There are 27 different countries... [and] there will be 1,000 different versions of that story: how people got out, how they rejected being German or Polish or Lithuanian and felt entirely British, but now they feel slightly less British by taking out another passport,” Mr Albert said.
Both men said they were aware their project could unintentionally play into longstanding antisemitic tropes which cast Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” or accuse them of having “dual loyalties”. But neither said this would stop them exploring the issue.
Dr Ziegler said he would strongly defend the right of all people to “self-identify”. “The idea people only have one loyalty and it’s ascribed to them by somebody else… I find illiberal and should be resisted,” he said, although he expected some Jews would not take part because the issue is uncomfortable.
Mr Albert, however, said British Jews were doing nothing different to the hundreds of thousands of their fellow Remainers who had “found an Irish granny and claimed a passport” to safeguard their EU citizenship.
“People who have malign intentions will say nasty things about Jews one way or another. It’s the oldest hatred. It never went away. If someone wants to say ‘dual loyalties’, well OK, are those 800,000 people with Irish passports now less British?”
The treasure trove of questionnaires will be a piece of “pure self-expression”, allowing Jews to speak for themselves unmediated by politicians or communal groups, he added.
The responses will then be given to a group of sociologists, historians, lawyers and other scholars who will publish their research and conclusions in a special edition of the journal of the Jewish Historical Society of England at the end of next year.
The project is being launched at an event in London today at the Wiener Library, where experts including the sociologists Keith Kahn-Harris and David Hirsch, and the University College London historian Shirli Gilbert, will discuss “Triple loyalties in Brexit Britain: British, Jewish, European?”
Tim Wyatt is a freelance journalist. For more on the project, visit https://jhse.org/inner-passport-system