A couple embrace during a protest in Trafalgar Square, London, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. They are demanding the release of all hostages allegedly taken by the militant group Hamas.

'A link with my ancestors': Britons reconnect with Jewish roots for EU passports

Since the Brexit vote of 2016, hundreds of thousands of Britons have applied for citizenship of European countries, allowing them to continue to work and travel freely while holding onto their British passport. Thousands have been able to acquire passports of other European nations through sometimes distant Jewish roots.

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Danny Saphier’s grandfather was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in the 1920s. He fled to Britain in the 1930s and, like other German Jews, was stripped of his original citizenship by the Nazi regime. 

Almost a hundred years later, his British descendants, including Saphier, have decided to reclaim German passports.  

“It's an idea of heritage, it's an idea of legacy,” Saphier said in an interview in central London. “And I feel that legacy with getting back my German citizenship.”

Since the Brexit vote of 2016, hundreds of thousands of Britons have applied for citizenship in European countries — allowing them to continue to work and travel freely while holding onto their British passport. 

The vast majority of those have applied for Irish citizenship, which is relatively easy to obtain for people with family connections to the country.

But thousands like Saphier have been able to acquire passports of other European nations through sometimes distant Jewish roots. This encouraged them to explore their heritage long before the current Israel-Hamas war.

German-born Jews and their descendants have been able to reclaim their citizenship for decades under the country’s post-War constitution. 

But, until recently, few in the UK were taking up the invitation — largely because a British passport offered the same opportunities for work and travel as a German one. 

That all changed when Britain left the European Union. The year before the Brexit vote, just 43 people in Britain applied for German citizenship through this route. By the year after, that number had soared to almost 1,700.

Saphier says: “Getting the passport has been practically, incredibly useful. if I want to move to Germany, I can. Also, if I was to have kids, they can also become German and have the benefits that I had growing up.”

Saphier, who’s 33 and lives in London, said it wasn’t just a practical decision to apply for a German passport but also an emotional one. 

He wasn’t raised Jewish, but the process has made him feel closer to his Jewish roots and helped him better understand his grandfather, who died before Saphier was granted citizenship. 

“I do wonder what my granddad might think about his grandchildren now becoming German. I think he'd be happy that we became German again. I think he'd see it as a sign of progress, and I think it is a sign of progress.”

In some families, there are disagreements about whether they should be taking passports from countries that persecuted their ancestors at all. 

There are other challenges. Some of them are bureaucratic. Germany originally barred Saphier from reclaiming citizenship because his parents weren’t married. 

He joined a campaign group to get this and other legal blocks overturned and was eventually invited to the embassy for naturalization.

“We had this ceremony with a diplomat,” Saphier said. “They apologized, which I found quite moving and also quite strange ... I mean, the way I saw it is that this person born now had no responsibility for what had happened in the past with the Nazis.”

Germany isn’t the only country in Europe that offers citizenship to the descendants of persecuted Jews. Many Brits have also applied to Austria and other European nations where their relatives once lived.

Portugal even offers passports to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula more than 500 years ago, though the country is currently debating whether to close that window.

Adam Ward, a 40-year-old who grew up in the UK and now lives in Paris, claimed Portuguese citizenship this way. 

“I wanted to be a European citizen, you know, definitely there's that element. But it was kind of multilayered, and it was also wanting to create a link with my ancestors," Ward said. 

Ward’s mother was adopted and knew little about her birth family, aside from the fact that her birth father was a Sephardic Jew who lived in Myanmar. 

Ward spent years researching this side of the family — tracing their route from Portugal to Iraq to Myanmar — before applying for Portuguese citizenship. 

“I was spending hours doing it in the evenings, and every piece that I was piecing together was just wonderful, really.”

The new passport allows him to live and work in France, and his two sons both have Portuguese passports. He said he’s still in the process of discovering what his Portuguese citizenship — and Jewish heritage — mean to him.

“It definitely has increased my connection to Judaism, for sure. I was brought up a Christian — it's made me research it more, it's made me more empathetic.”

Ruvi Ziegler, an associate professor at the University of Reading, is co-founder of the EU Passport project, which is researching the phenomenon of British Jews reclaiming European citizenship.

He said people with more distant Jewish heritage would face “a whole additional kind of set of questions” about themselves as they go through the process. 

"There will be people in the UK who can almost rediscover their Jewish identity because of something that happened," Ziegler added. 

“So it might be Brexit, it might now be, say, the [Oct. 7 attack] and its aftermath, people who might not think of themselves fully as Jewish might be almost outed in the public domain.”

Both the Brexit vote, and recent violence in Israel, along with a spike in antisemitic incidents in the UK, have in their own ways forced the question of Jewish identity to the fore, Ziegler said. 

And it’s causing many more to consider how these identities of British, Jewish and European all sit together.

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