‘A Path’ to Citizenship
This month, I became a citizen of a new country: Portugal. A pretty unremarkable occurrence, maybe. What is strange is that my last ancestor to have lived in Portugal was born 312 years ago, in the year 1708. In 1736, twenty-eight years later, my great-x7-grandmother made it to Amsterdam, fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition. The Inquisition didn’t end until the mid-nineteenth century, and had an estimated 40,000 victims, with thousands killed and tortured in public ceremonies (the vast majority were Jewish, while some were Muslims and Hindus in Goa, a Portuguese colony in India). In 2013, the Portuguese parliament decided to apologise by offering thousands of Sephardi Jews, including me, a path to citizenship; a country which I had visited on a family holiday once, and had no tangible connection to. In a sense, I feel like an imposter – a Portuguese citizen who can speak less than five words of language. But in another sense, if my Portuguese ancestors weren’t forced to leave their country of birth by the very virtue of practicing a minority religion, perhaps I would be no less Portuguese than someone born in Lisbon today.
Citizenship of a nation-state is, of course, constructed. No one is innately British, Swedish, Guinean or Portuguese. As we’ve seen, it doesn’t even require birth within the borders of a country. Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, famously put it another way. For him, the nation ultimately only exists as an ‘imagined community’; created from above (‘the invention of tradition’), and below (the raw materials of local languages, dialects, and cultures). This may all be true, but the nation still has an almost irresistible, transcendental pull. It’s the pull to start rooting for Portugal at the next Olympics, or World Cup, or to convince yourself that Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t an irreconcilably smug arsehole. It’s even the pull to put up a Portuguese flag in your living room and add the national anthem to your Spotify playlist. But Portugal was also the country to terrorize and expel my ancestors.
Is Persecution Timeless?
In 2019, Sioux activist and academic Nick Estes published his book Our History is the Future, a story and manifesto of indigenous resistance. In it, he explains indigenous notions of time:
“There is no separation between past and present, meaning that an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of our past. Our history is the future.”
This conception of time is specific to indigenous North American communities and rooted in their unique culture and belief system – it can’t be appropriated. But for all individuals born into a traditionally persecuted ethnicity, race or religion, Estes’s title in an inescapable fact of life – Our History is the Future. That legacy, of how our ancestors were persecuted, is unavoidable in how we construct our identities. Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American essayist for the Atlantic, grapples with the idea of citizenship of a country whose democracy was founded on slavery, where the ingrained structures of white supremacy perpetuate modern-day slavery (the incarceration of African Americans) to this day.
As a British Jew, this transgenerational legacy of persecution feels in many ways less ‘real’. I’m lucky enough to be (not always) shielded from many direct experiences of discrimination. Yet, a 2018 CNN poll showed more than a quarter of Europeans believe Jews have too much influence in business and finance, an antisemitic trope as old as time; nearly a quarter believe we have too much influence in conflict and wars around the world. The defacing of Jewish graves in France with swastikas is a regular occurrence. One in twelve UK adults believe that the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated. In March 2019, our current Attorney General shamelessly spouted the far-right conspiracy theory of ‘cultural Marxism’. Antisemitism, whatever its manifestation now – as Holocaust denial or the same old canards – is as permanent as it was in eighteenth-century Portugal. As a British (and now also Portuguese) Jew, therefore, the reality of antisemitism is part of how I live my life – my identity. It is rooted in what my ancestors faced, in whatever country they had been forced into: from inquisitions, pogroms, or genocide. It is also rooted how society speaks to me today. My history is the future.
Why, then, should I form any connection to the country I’m a citizen of? Whatever your Daily Mail columnist might say, no one has a duty to. Should I accept the seemingly obvious conclusion that I’m Jewish, not a member of any other nation?
These are valid and difficult questions. The lesson I think I have learned, however, is that as a member of a historically oppressed minority, taking on, and embracing, citizenship is not an affirmation of everything a country stands for – nor its past. Nor is it a fruitless endeavour, even as discrimination permeates. It is a conscious rejection of how that country treated my ancestors, affirming their experiences.
What Benedict Anderson perhaps misses is how nations can be constructed backwards in time, as I draw my identity as part of a country back to how my ancestors were forced to (or not) live. Above all, this is why knowledge of a country’s past, and oppression of minorities, is crucial. Britain needs to get over the institutionalised terror of facing this. Portugal should be commended for doing so. History cannot be shaped into the most comfortable narrative.
By Harry Franks
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