Around 2,000 Turkish Jews have applied for Portuguese citizenship, it was revealed last Monday, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly slammed Israel ahead of an election next month.
Application numbers have increased since December 2014 when the Portuguese government granted nationality through naturalisation to the Turkish descendants of Sephardic Jews who took refuge in the Muslim Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century.
“We expelled the Jews and we told them that if they wanted to stay in Portugal, they should be converted to Christianity. It’s a dark page in our history,” Lisbon’s ambassador to Ankara Paula Leal da Silva told Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish newspaper.
“So now, what the government decided to do was to tell those people, the great-grandchildren of those people, ‘Listen, we expelled you from here, but you are welcome to come back. You are welcome to have the Portuguese nationality’.”
Knowledge of the Portuguese language is not a prerequisite for applicants to gain citizenship.
“If we expelled them five centuries ago, how can these people speak Portuguese? We only say, ‘if you want this [nationality], which is yours because you were here centuries ago, you just have to present some documents and it will be issued,’” Ms da Silva added.
Turkey’s Sephardic community still has cultural ties to the Iberian peninsula — including the Portuguese bread soup açorda, which has survived the centuries.
Portuguese nationality offers Turkish Sephardis several advantages including the benefits of EU citizenship and the chance to leave an increasingly uneasy atmosphere at home.
The terms “Jews” and “Israel” are often used interchangeably in Turkish society, a position that saw ultranationalists attack an Istanbul synagogue last July in retaliation to controversial Israeli security measures around the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Concerns over popular antisemitism have further grown within Turkey’s Jewish community since the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in December.
A vocal critic of the move, Mr Erdoğan is likely to use his populist, nationalist brand of identity politics, including anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, to score points with his right-leaning support base over the coming weeks.
But there are fears such sentiments could stir antisemitic feelings ahead of the snap presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.
Mr Erdoğan, who has previously denounced Israel as a “terrorist state”, hit out at the country in a speech at an awards ceremony last Monday.
“What is happening in Palestine, especially in Jerusalem, is nothing other than the efforts of tyranny to justify its oppressions, even to institutionalise them,” he said.
“The violence that the Israeli administration has recently inflicted on the Palestinians … shows that tyranny’s boldness is increasing every day”.