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Famous Jews of Sephardic or Portuguese descent – obtaining Portuguese citizenship

Michael Decker
Michael Decker

This article will review the biographies of a number of famous Jews of Sephardic or Portuguese descent, from countries throughout the world. Sephardic Jews and their descendants, according to Israel Prize recipient Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel, “are responsible for a long line of impactful global events, such as: secularism, the modern Western identity, the development of the Western novel, globalization, capitalism and even the bourgeoisie.” This article will present a number of famous Jews of Sephardic or Portuguese descent who greatly affected the countries where they lived in the past, or even continue to influence us in our day.

Our office specializes in the field of immigration, relocation and obtaining foreign citizenship. Our office assists clients in the process of obtaining Portuguese citizenship for descendants of Spanish expellees, currently living in Israel or in other countries. We can determine whether you are eligible for Portuguese citizenship due to family ties to Portuguese/Spanish expellees or Marranos (Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity), based on a simple examination by a genealogist.Famous Jews of Sephardic descent

Spanish expellees – general background

Over five hundred years have passed since the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century. Remarkably, the Spanish expulsion occurred only three months before the Spanish conquistadors discovered America.

After discovering the new continent, the Spanish sailors figured out how to circumnavigate the world, sketching the various continents on clear maps.

At the time of the expulsion, Jews in Spain and Portugal numbered about 200,000. Ejected from their homes, they migrated from place to place in an attempt to find Jewish communities to settle into. In the process, they spread across vast territories – from Morocco to India, from Yemen to Britain, including such countries as Poland, Iran, Uzbekistan (Bukhara), the Ukraine, Iraq, and more.

With the dawning of the age of discovery in 1492, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews began to migrate towards the American territories. They had great financial means and extensive trading connections. Among them were many Spanish Marranos who were searching for a more inviting home than extremist Spain of the Middle Ages. Thus they eventually arrived in countries such as Mexico, Jamaica, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Argentina, the USA, Canada, and European countries such as the Netherlands, France, etc.

Over time, the Sephardic Jews assimilated in the countries they arrived in and became known. Among them were successful traders, authors, economists, philosophers, businesspeople, famous architects, and even wise and resourceful rabbis.

We have chosen to present a list of fifty famous descendants of Sephardic Jews, whom we deem as influential people who greatly benefitted the fields in which they were involved.

Famous Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent who can be found in history books

  • Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

– a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese descent. One of the early thinkers who brought forth the idea of the age of enlightenment, and one of the first critics in the field of modern biblical criticism. He is considered the “cornerstone” of the Dutch golden age, thanks to his deep and revolutionary ideas about the world and the concept of God. His ideas were affected by the rationalist movement that was popular in Europe at the time, and indicated a holistic, unified world-view, composed of God’s intelligence which is discovered through natural phenomena and processes.

  • Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl (1860-1904)

– a Hungarian journalist, political activist and writer, considered the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization and worked to promote Jewish immigration to the land of Israel in an attempt to create a Jewish state. He is considered the visionary of the state of Israel.

  • Moses Montefiore (1784-1885)

– a British financier, banker, and philanthropist. He served as the Sheriff of London and donated large sums of money to develop the industry, education, and health of the Jews in the Middle East. In addition, he built the first Jewish neighborhood, “Mishkenot Sha’ananim”, outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.

  • Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Famous Jews of Sephardic descent

– a German economist, philosopher, sociologist, historian, journalist and socialist revolutionary. He is considered the founder of the theory of the communist regime, which greatly influenced many countries throughout the 20th century and to this day. In addition, he wrote essays on the advancement of society under socialism. His ideas inspired Marxist movements in many countries and are studied in universities throughout the world.

  • David Ricardo (1772-1823)

– a British economist of Portuguese descent. He is known as one of the four most influential classical economists, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and James Mill.

  • Judah Alkalai (1798-1878)

– a native of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. He is considered one of the visionaries of Zionism, along with Herzl. While serving as the educator and cantor of the Jewish community in Semlin (known as Zemun today), in Serbia, he began writing his essay “Minchat Yehudah” (The Offering of Judah). The book deals with the connection to the founding texts of the religious Zionist movement. Shimon Leib Herzl, a Hungarian Jew who served as a temporary beadle in the synagogue in Semlin, was greatly affected by Alkalai’s theories, which discussed the process of the salvation of the Jewish people through philanthropy in the Holy Land. He asked his son Jakob Herzl, a Hungarian businessman, to print Judah Alkalai’s book. Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, Jakob Herzl’s son, was greatly affected by the ideas in the book, and they spurred him to his vision of the Jewish state, which was a reflection of Alkalai’s ideas.

  • Teresa de Cartagena (1425–?)

– A Spanish author, Christian nun and the daughter of a famous Converso family (the most distinguished and influential one in Spain). It is known that she was the granddaughter of Pablo De Santa Maria, the first Converso in the family (known as Rabbi Solomon Ha-Levi, who served as the mayor of Burgos). As a woman, she is considered the first female Spanish poet, and also as the first Spanish feminist. In her writings, she emphasized that women must be taught to read and write, just like men are taught. In addition, she argued that women are more spiritual than men and that they have a higher inner power than men, who are busy fighting each other. She also disagreed with the reigning opinion at that time, that women are inferior or weak, and explained that this argument is derived solely from defective traditions. Her feminist ideas seeped into the European aristocracy in the years after her death.

  • Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1884)

– a British politician of Sephardic descent who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice. He wrote novels and fiction during his time as prime minister, which are still read today, and worked to establish the modern conservative party, which exists to this day and serves as the oldest political party in the UK.

  • Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

– a philosopher of Algerian-Spanish descent who lived in France. He was a polymath with vast knowledge who greatly affected the humanities and social science fields and the way we view them today. He wrote essays on anthropology, literature, law, history, linguistics, psychology, politics and more, and his writings are studied today in universities in Europe and in South America.

  • Amatus Lusitanus (1511-1568)

– a notable Portuguese physician and descendant of a Marrano family. He may be considered the greatest doctor from the 16th century, particularly thanks to his discoveries about the heart valves and their functions, which later led him to discover the circulatory system. Lusinatus was known as a polyglot who knew many languages such as: Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, French and German. He was summoned to serve the kings of Venice and of Poland, nobles of the Ottoman Empire, counts of the Low Countries, the Pope, and more.

  • Muammar Gaddafi

(1942-2011) a Libyan, descendant of the Bedouin tribe Qadhadhfa. According to Jewish-Israeli and Libyan sources, Gaddafi’s mother was “Ayesha”, a descendant of a Sephardic Jewish woman. It is told that when Ayesha’s mother was a young woman, she married a Jew, but decided to escape from him after he treated her harshly. At age 18 she was “kidnapped” by Gaddafi’s grandfather Hemed who married her off to his son Muhammad.

  • The Mendes Benbenishti family

Famous Jews of Sephardic descent

– A famous Sephardic family over a thousand years old. The pedigree of the family goes back to the heads of the Babylonian diaspora such as Rabbi Sheshet and Rabbi Chisda. It is said that the patriarchs of the family decided about 1000 years ago to immigrate from the Provence region to Barcelona. In Barcelona, thanks to their connections and high status, they assisted in the foundation of the Aragon principality at the beginning of the 11th century and the Barcelona principality at the end of the same century. Among the descendants of the family were the famous bankers Francisco and Diogo Mendes Benbenishti. They were the directors of a powerful trading company and a world-renowned bank whose agents operated in Europe and in the Middle East. After the death of the brother Francisco, his wife “Donna Gracia” replaced him in the business. It is said that in her time she was considered the wealthiest woman in the world.

  • Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836)

– a legendary British boxer of Sephardic origin. He held the position of the British Island champion for four consecutive years between 1792-1795. He was considered a boxing artist of his time, and became known as an intelligent man who developed a defense strategy that greatly surpassed his generation. He was among the pioneers who helped develop the “self-defense” method which he described in his book “The Art of Boxing”. It is said that when Mendoza became an admired London hero at the end of the 18th century, he managed to raise the status of London Jews, who were suffering from severe antisemitism at the time.

  • Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

– a Frenchman, the son of a Sephardic Marrano mother. He is considered one of the most prominent and influential philosophers of the French Renaissance period, and served as a jurist, politician, humanist, and writer of many essays. Even though he was not a scientist, he habitually conducted observations in the realm of psychology. His thoughts and ideas covered such topics as the reasons behind human fear, motivation, happiness, experience, and activating and educating children. His ideas are considered modern and enlightened in that he refused to recognize the old books as an authority for educating children. Instead, he argued in his writings that children should be educated according to the educators’ knowledge about them and familiarity with them.

  • Rabbi Isaac Luria – Ha’Ari (1534-1572)

– considered the father of Kabbalah as we know it, which is also known as “Lurianic Kabbalah”. He shaped the world of Kabbalah when he lived in Safed in the 16th century, along with his students who were known as “Gurei Ha’Ari” (cubs of the lion). He viewed the world as a gnostic – meaning, a godly identity is hidden in an impure material world. According to him, people must study the secrets of the Torah and thus recognize the reality of the Creator and elevate themselves spiritually to His supreme world. Moreover, he believed that only by a life of asceticism can people achieve eternal life and purity.

  • Samuel Sarphati (1813-1866)

– a Dutch physician with Sephardic-Portuguese roots. He was also known as a philanthropist, chemist and successful businessman. After working in medicine for many years and identifying with the pain of his Dutch patients who suffered from the filth and lack of hygiene that were prevalent in the streets of the Netherlands at that time, he decided to build public health institutions. The educational institutions he established granted the Dutch much-needed information, with the goal of improving their quality of life through basic hygiene. In addition, he founded the first bread factory in the Netherlands. Today Samuel Sarphati is also considered the chief planner of the city of Amsterdam, where the Sarphati-park was built in his memory, with a statue of him at the center. There is also a street in the city named after him.

  • Yuval Noah Harari (1976–)

– an Israeli historian and professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of bestsellers such as “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” and more. His books have been translated into over 60 languages and have sold over 20 million copies. His writings examine the reality of free will and human conscience and intelligence.

  • Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) (1138-1204)

Famous Jews of Sephardic descent

– perhaps the most magnificent and revered Jewish scholar of the last millennium and beyond. He is known among non-Jews as a great polymath and philosopher who espoused a rationalistic Aristotelian philosophy, in addition to being a tireless researcher interested in astronomy, theology, mathematics and science. A relief in his image is carved in the United States House of Representatives, marking him as one of the twenty-three greatest lawmakers in history.

  • Silvio Santos (1930–)

– is the stage name of Senor Abravanel, a Brazilian billionaire, media tycoon, television host and entrepreneur of Sephardic descent from Saloniki. He owns the second largest television network in Brazil, in addition to companies for television, cosmetics and more. According to Forbes Magazine, he is considered the most famous individual in Brazil.

  • Haym Salomon (1740-1785)

– a Polish-American businessman of Sephardic origin who is known as “the financier of the American Revolution”. He gained renown as the chief broker who financed the Continental Army, headed by George Washington, the first US president, during the American Revolutionary War against the British between the years 1775-1783.

Other famous Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent

The singer Enrico Macias, the famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz, physics Nobel Prize recipient Serge Haroche, the philosopher Alain de Botton, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the rapper Sean Paul, the basketball player Omri Casspi, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rene Cassin, legendary American tennis player Victor Seixas, former American Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, the famous posek Rabbi Joseph Karo, and the famous 17th century diplomat Menasseh Ben Israel.

Others are Literature Nobel Prize recipient Elias Canetti, the American violinist and music expert Felix Galimir, the famous chess player Joseph Platz, Israel’s 5th president Isaac Navon,  the German physician, author and diplomat Friedrich Wolf, Medicine Nobel Prize winner Baruj Benacerraf, Christopher Columbus’ interpreter on his trip to America Luis de Torres, the actress Jessica Alba, the author Emma Lazarus, the father of the modern Turkish nation Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the doctor and Rabbi of the Sephardic community in Manchester Maurice Gaguine, the author Primo Levi, the musician and composer David Guetta, the author Simon Sebag Montefiore, the personal doctor of Queen Elizabeth I Rodrigo Lopez, and many others.

For a comprehensive article on obtaining Portuguese citizenship – click here.

Surnames of people eligible for a Portuguese passport

The article is intended to provide information on famous Jews of Sephardic descent who have influenced the world we live in. It has another purpose, however, which is to make people aware of surnames which are not always identified as Sephardic, or may even be dentified as Ashkenazi or non-Jewish. According to calculated estimates, there are over 100 million descendants of Sephardic or Portuguese Jews in the world. We would be glad to help you determine whether you have Sephardic family ties and thus help you find out whether you are eligible for a Portuguese passport.

Our thanks to Mr. Jonathan Gabrielov for writing the article.

Contact an attorney who specializes in issues related to Portugal

At our offices we have a professional and developed practice which handles anything related to obtaining Portuguese passports for descendants of Spanish and Portuguese expellees. If you think you may be eligible, contact us and we will be glad to help you verify your eligibility, via a simple evaluation by a genealogist.

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