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Jews in Latin America: Past and Present

September 1, 1981

Facing Problems of Social Transformation

by Paul Horowitz Originally published in the September, 1981 issue of Jewish Currents Reviewed in this Essay: Jews of the Latin American Republics, by Judith Laikin Elkin. University of North Carolina Press, 1980, 313 pages. IN THE EARLY 1970S THE EARLY CHILEAN RIGHT Tried to focus middle-class and elite anger, unleashed by the Popular Unity government’s efforts radically to transform Chilean society, on the “Jews surrounding Allende.” Individual Jews were prominent members of the Popular Unity coalition. At the same time, there was a significant exodus from Chile’s small Jewish community (some 7,000 of a total of 30,000 in a country of 9.78 million) as Jewish businessmen and their families, like others in their social class, fled the country. The exiting Jews were afraid of expropriation of the wealth which their families had, in most cases, accumulated only with in the last generation. Anti-Semitism is always ugly, whether in Paris in 1980, Spain in 1492, or Chile in 1970, and its image of Jews is always inaccurate. But it is striking that Jews were both among the top leaders of the most significant socialist experiment in Latin America in the 1970s and among those that fled because of their stake in the hierarchical social structure which this experiment attacked. Latin American Jewry has in the past been too little known by U. S. Jews. In fact, except at the most explosive moments — coups, earthquakes, and revolutions — Latin America as a whole has been too much absent from our consciousness as U.S. citizens, despite the fact that the United States has more invested in Latin America than in the rest of the third world combined, receives more immigrants from south of the border (legally or illegally) than from anywhere else in the world, and dominates the political and economic reality of the southern continent and the Caribbean islands. Fortunately, our understanding of Latin American Jewry, of its history and its present circumstances, has been much advanced by Judith Laikin Elkin’s Jews of the Latin American Republics. Carefully researched, amply documented and constantly engaging, it addresses the most fundamental questions about the destiny of the Jewish community in its interaction with societies that are undergoing constant and at times revolutionary change. The historical and sociological in formation that follows is largely drawn from this excellent work. Compared to Israel, the Soviet Union or the United States, the Latin American Jewish community is indeed quite small, an estimated 617,320 as of 1978. Argentina’s community is the largest (approximately 300,000) and there’s a substantial Jewish community in Brazil (150.000) and, proportionally in Uruguay (50,000); continuing, are Mexico (37,500), Chile (28,000), Venezuela (17,000) and Colombia (14,000). Several other countries have communities of 5,000 Jews or less. (All figures from the American Jewish Year Book, 1980.) The Latin American continent was first settled by Europeans during the age of the Inquisition. Jews and New Christians (conversos or marranos) were legally banned from settling Spain’s newly acquired possessions. The application of the ideology crystallized in the concept “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood), by subjecting New World settlers to investigations of their family origins or private religious practices, succeeded in preventing the establishment of any openly Jewish communities. Nevertheless, conversos came to play a significant role in the commercial life of the colonies. Jews fared better under the Dutch. Curacao, taken by Holland in 1634, became a center for Jews in the Western Hemisphere right into the modern era. Despite the comparatively lax enforcement of the Inquisition by the Portuguese when they reconquered sections of northeast Brazil in 1654 from the Dutch, openly practicing Jews retreated both to Curacao and back to Amsterdam; some also found their way to New Amsterdam and founded the first Jewish congregation in New York, Shearith Israel (“Remnant of Israel”). Many Portuguese conversos, on the other hand, fought alongside their “countrymen” against the Protestant Dutch enemy. Elkin reports that few Jews settled in the independent republics of Latin America in the first three quarters of the 19th century. Those who did, mostly from France and Germany, entered societies already engulfed in social and political conflicts. Traditional, feudal elements of the privileged class were being challenged by sectors ambitious for industrial development, who held a more open attitude to global capitalism and its post-Enlightenment ideological expressions. As the development of capitalism in Europe literally set into motion thousands and then millions of people, its incipient development in Latin America made possible and required the entry of additional immigrants from the Old World. The geographic distribution of settlement in the New World was roughly similar for Jews and non-Jews; countries that were receptive to immigrants in general were also receptive to Jewish immigrants. ELKIN SUMMARIZES THE SITUATION AT THE DAWN OF THE ERA OF LARGE-SCALE IMMIGRATION:
By 1889, only a few thousand Jews were to be found in all Latin America... The identifiable groups included the Portuguese Sephardim of Curacao, who had by now dispersed to adjacent lands of the Caribbean basin; East European Ashkenazim from France, Germany, Alsace, Lorraine, Switzerland and England, who were scattered in the metropolitan cities of Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil and Peru; Spanish-speaking Sephardim from North Africa adventuring in the Amazon region of Brazil and Peru; and Arabic-speaking Sephardim in provincial towns of Argentina and Mexico.
Latin America received an enormous wave of Eastern European immigrants from the last decade of the 19th century up to World War I. From 1881 to 1914, 113,000 largely East European Jews entered Argentina, encouraged in part by Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association; 10,000 settled in Brazil and another 4,000 made their homes elsewhere in the continent. An American Jewish Committee report of 1917 estimated that there were 150,000 Jews in Latin America exclusive of Mexico, 80 percent of whom were Ashkenazic. The years following World War I were marked by rising global anti-Semitism, from which the New World was not immune, and by increasing barriers to immigration. The United States was one of the first to close its doors, through restrictive legislation in 1921 and 1924. In the last half of the 1920s over 40 percent of Jewish migrants from Europe went to Latin America, but the absolute numbers involved were much less than the pre-World War I flow. Indeed, legal immigration to Argentina was sharply reduced after 1923, and by the 1930s, when rising anti-Semitism in Europe made the need all the more dire, most other Latin American countries (with the exception of the Dominican Republic and Ecuador) had also closed their doors. The inter-war flow did not, however, alter the ethnic character of the developing Jewish communities except in Brazil, where the East European immigrants in the 1920’s and German refugees in the 1930’s eclipsed what had been a largely Sephardic population in the Amazon River basin. The new Jewish immigrants faced special problems of adjustment. Whereas 80 percent of all immigrants to Argentina were Spanish or Italian, 80 percent of Jewish immigrants were “rusos,” the catchall term for East European Jews that became synonymous with “Jews” in the Latin American southern cone. Unlike the Sephardic immigrants who, Elkin persuasively argues, were “habituated” to being a “separate, tolerated caste,” a “subordinated minority,” the Ashkenazic Eastern European immigrants had been touched both by industrialization and by modern ideological currents. Their language, culture, experience and aspirations were at odds with the stratified and rigid social structures of the Latin American countries. The full flowering of capitalist forms of production in these societies was blocked both by their internal class dynamics (e.g. elites engaged in pre-capitalist agriculture and in export/import trade with the advanced economies of Europe and North America were stronger than indigenous capitalists) and by their subordinate position in the global market. Non-liberal ideologies persisted along with pre-capitalist economic forms. FURTHERMORE, IN COMPARISON WITH THE GERMAN AND FRENCH JEWS who preceded them, the East Europeans were neither as cosmopolitan (or assimilationist) nor nearly as well educated nor well endowed. In fact, many were penniless on arrival. This situation and the experience of oppression in their countries of origin led the East European Jewish settlers in Latin American to form an array of community institutions which we can easily recognize: mutual-aid organizations, schools, burial societies, social and community centers, and, of course, trade unions and political organizations. Peddling in the cities was the most common occupation of Jewish immigrants. By selling for small down payments and lengthy weekly installments, Jewish peddlers introduced the popular classes to household commodities, contributing to the development of an internal market in these nascent capitalist economies. Such peddlers became known as cuentaniks or semanalchiks, from the Spanish cuenta (account) and semana (week) and the Russian suffix “ik.” JEWS BROUGHT WITH THEM AS WELL vital industrial skills and radical ideologies, and assumed a central place in the burgeoning industrial proletariat. A Jewish Workers Center was formed in Argentina in 1897; by 1908 one page of Buenos Aires’ anarchist newspaper was in Yiddish. Jewish workers and intellectuals supported the range of working class political movements of the time; Elkin reports that socialism was the strongest current. But then a Jewish anarchist assassinated the chief of police in Buenos Aires in 1910, unleashing a wave of repression against anarchist and Jewish working class centers, libraries and newspaper offices. Anti-immigrant sentiment in general rose in the post-World-War-I era as the native elite responded to the perceived threats of economic competition from immigrants-turned-entrepreneurs and to the predominantly immigrant working-class challenge to industrial exploitation. A 1919 iron workers strike in Argentina fueled xenophobic fires; as the strike was being settled, the Jewish community in Buenos Aires came under murderous attack. Rusos were identified with Bolsheviks and anarchists as Rear Admiral Domecq Garcia unleashed the “unofficial” death squad of his day, the Guardia Blanca. The White Guard attacked Jews and Catalans, destroying presses, shops, clubs, and libraries, while the police looked on. When, after several days of such attacks the police finally moved in to “restore order,” 800 people were arrested and 72 killed. All in all 850 to 1,000 were killed, 3,500 to 5,000 wounded, the vast majority Jews. The Semana Tragica (Tragic Week), as these events became known, ushered in a period of increasing reaction. The closing of doors to new immigrants in the inter-war years signaled the defeat of liberal-capitalist forces. Shortly after the events in Argentina, Montevideo police stormed Uruguayan Jewish community institutions to put down an alleged “Jewish Bolshevik” conspiracy. Later in the next decade the Jewish community in El Salvador was attacked under the same pretext, with more dead resulting. THE “INTERNATIONAL JEWISH CAPITALIST CONSPIRACY” was equally the basis for anti-Semitic measures restricting Jewish peddlers in Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. The Vargas regime in Brazil (1930-45) tolerated anti-Semitic attacks by the Acao Integralista Brasileira, an Italian fascist imitation, until that party’s suppression in 1938. But in the same year, the government chose to head off an attempt by Nazi Germany to woo Brazil’s substantial German population by banning all foreign political and cultural activity; thus the vibrant Yiddish theater, newspapers, libraries, and schools closed. Though at times the Jewish community, often with assistance from U.S. organizations, protested these attacks, the longer term response was not as encouraging. Elkin sums up the impact of the Semana Tragica as follows:
Although Argentine Jews customarily downplay the events of Semana Tragica, it seems likely that a historic process was set in train as Jews proceeded to internalize the lesson of ‘tragic week.’ ... Jews learned that political activity was far more dangerous for them than it was for others and that the entire Jewish community could be attacked for the actions of anyone who had been born Jewish. This sense of collective destiny — that the entire community is hostage for the acts of individual Jews — remains strong among Argentine Jews — and among Argentines — today. It both explains and aggravates the tendency of mainstream community members to reject radical political activity by Jews and thus to split Jews along ideological and generational lines (since it is almost always the young who are attracted to radical politics).
Yet until the 1950s the left and the workers movement remained a significant part of the highly organized Jewish community. Socialists and Communists within the community struggled with each other and with Zionist and religious forces as well. In the 1930s, the Uruguayan Jewish community of only 30,000 supported separate kehillot (community councils) for Sephardic German, Hungarian, and East European Jews, three separate school systems (religious, religious Zionist, and secular Zionist), and two chief rabbis. The struggle for hegemony within the East Europe kehillah was fierce, and when the Communists lost, they formed their own separate bank, cemetery, and even a linke shekhitah (left-kosher slaughterhouse)! Tragically, a united front Council Against Nazism and Anti-Semitism, formed in 1936, also broke down, and civil war almost erupted with in the Jewish community. Presaging later developments throughout the continent, the Jewish left was gradually isolated from the rest of the organized Jewish community. By 1940, Zionism was the dominant force in the Montevideo kehilla hand it remains so today. ANALOGOUS INSTITUTIONS IN ARGENTINA AND MEXICO CITY, as well as all other kehillot investigated by Elkin have a similar ideological character. In the 1950s the kehillot assumed a more assertively anti-communist posture: “The kehillot took upon themselves the task of cleaning up the Jewish street so that right-wing governments would not be tempted to do that job. In the short run, results were favorable, in that Jewish communities were able to exist under conservative regimes that did not tolerate egalitarian movements. In the long run, expulsion of the linke left the kehillot without ties or inclinations toward the radical and revolutionary parties that came increasingly to the fore in the sixties and seventies. Expulsion of the linke left the latter’s children and spiritual heirs without ties to the Jewish community.” Elkin neglects to point out that this essentially accomodative response to right-wing anti-Semitism could not, and did not, succeed in winning a secure place for Jews in Latin American societies. The gradual but definitive change in the class character of the Jewish community also contributed to the decline of the Latin American Jewish secular left. Elkin cites an old expression — “we planted wheat and grew doctors” — to describe Jewish social mobility in Latin America. By 1950 the cuentanik had disappeared and a survey of Jewish families in Argentina revealed that twice as many sons over 18 as fathers were professionals. An extensive analysis of Argentine 1960 census data showed Jews to be better educated and more concentrated in white collar positions and in commerce than the national average. In contrast to the general population, which was increasingly pushed into free wage labor, Jews more typically became employers (albeit of small firms) or self-employed. Although in 1960 there were still 1,500 Jewish private servants (mostly women), 10,000 Jews operating market stalls and 24,000 Jewish production workers (mostly in the garment industry), the upwardly-mobile trend was unmistakable. Survey data from the Jewish community in Sao Paulo (the largest in Brazil) in 1968 and the biennial reports of the Comunidades judias demonstrate that the Argentine pattern is typical for the region as a whole. This socio-economic ascent of Latin American Jewry was largely restricted, however, to certain areas of modern “civil society.” Continued obstacles, formal or informal, barred Jewish entry into the traditional oligarchy based on land, the army, and the church. At the same time, Jewish mobility engendered assimilationist trends. Jewish attendance at elite private schools and growing enrollment in the universities have been mechanisms of this assimilation. One consequence is that the kehilla, dominated by the older generations concerns, is increasingly un-representative of the Jewish population, especially the younger generation, and ill equipped to confront the assimilation. In recent years the Jewish sports club has been the far more vital institution. Modeled after other national sports clubs (e.g . Italian, Greek, etc.) found in Latin American cities, the sports club is the main Jewish institution that appeals to the native-born generation for whom the language, ethnic and even political rivalries of the kehillot are an anachronism. The clubs have stimulated increasing “intermarriage” among Jews of the various ethnic sub-communities. For Elkin, they are “the last best hope for maintaining a Jewish presence on the continent, (i)n keeping with the secular thrust of Jewish life since the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants.” But can these essentially non-political institutions deal with the essentially political problem of violations of Jews’ democratic rights? Anti-Semitism remains a readily available ideological tool of the Latin American right. In the early 1970s anti-Semitism figured in an Argentine power struggle aimed at forcing the resignation of a member of Juan Peron’s cabinet and in the attacks on Allende’s Chilean government in the example cited above. Following military takeovers in Brazil in 1964, Uruguay in 1973, Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile that year and the military seizure of power in Argentina in 1976, the Southern Cone descended into dictatorial darkness. Working class and peasant organizations were repressed and democratic rights in general eliminated. There can be no doubt that without having unleashed full-scale attacks on the Jewish community, the repression of the military dictatorships has had a particularly severe effect on Jews, both because of their disproportionate numbers in the organizations of the left and because the military and police forces have not refrained from singling out Jews for especially harsh treatment. The military governments, perhaps fearful of international repercussions and in some cases internally divided between ultras and more “moderate” forces, do not officially support anti-Semitism. But the attack on democracy launched by the military has unleashed forces which threaten the Jewish community. The pattern of anti-Semitism varies. In Chile, there is little overt anti-Semitism, while in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil vicious neo-Nazi anti-Semitic literature circulates widely especially among the very powerful security forces. Individual Jews in Brazil have participated openly in the political life of the country throughout the past decade, but a Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy campaign against anti-nuclear power protestors last spring included anti-Semitic attacks. The situation in Argentina is the most ominous; since the military assumed control explosives have been set at Jewish institutions, religious and secular, and in 1977 the American Jewish Committee was forced out of the country after operating there for 29 years. But the response of the organized Jewish communities to these regimes has been accomodative, perhaps an illustration of Elkin’s analysis of the legacy of the Semana Tragica. The Jacobo Timerman case is perhaps the most dramatic example. Distinguished editor and journalist, Timerman was jailed and then held under house arrest for 29 months, and finally released in Sept. 1979. Timerman himself wrote:
I got very little help from the Jewish institutions in Argentina. Only two rabbis stood beside me and my family. It was not the Jewish press of Buenos Aires, but an English daily, the Buenos Aires Herald, which took up my case. The Judenrat (Jewish Council) of Buenos Aires left the task of presenting my case in the hands of lawyers retained by my family. If that organization ever mentioned my case, it did so only to register the statement in its archives, so that it could prove its concern in case anyone asked. (Maariv, English translation, New Republic, Dec. 2, 1979.)
ONE ARGENTINE JEW WHO, LIKE TIMERMAN, MOVED TO ISRAEL, articulated the response of the official Jewish organizations:
(Although active in the Jewish community)... I never encountered the name of Timerman. I have no doubt that Mr. Timerman is a courageous fighter for human rights; but his struggle was always one that was of general concern. He did not fight our fight... and he did not suffer our pain. The sufferings of Mr. Timerman in Argentina were not because of his struggle to revive our state (Israel), not because he was a Jew. (Quoted in Haim Suller, “Terror in Argentina and the Jews,” Morning Freiheit, April 13, 1980.)
Similarly, Gil Sinay, president of the Representative Committee of Chilean Jewry, when asked why the Jewish community remained silent with regard to the crimes of the Chilean Junta, insisted “that his prime responsibility is the safe-guarding of Jewish interests, which center on religious and Israeli-related activities.” Sinay claimed that the “large number of Jewish technocrats and reformers” in Allende’s government, targets of the vicious anti-Semitic campaigns of the early 1970s, were “unaffiliated to the community,” and presumably not to be defended (Clifford Chanin, “Jews Returning to Chile,” London Jewish Chronicle, April 4, 1980 and Miami Jewish Floridian, April 18, 1980.) The special treatment of Jewish victims of government repression is ignored and the officially condoned anti-Semitic campaigns are glossed over; all because the military governments have not formally announced a direct assault on targets because they are Jewish. Yet the organized Jewish communities in the Southern Cone can never be secure in societies in which democratic norms are in general violated. So much for the right. The Jewish communities’ interaction with the left is conditioned both by its own class character (as we have seen, increasingly upper middle class) and by the question of Israel. Although individual Jews are active leftists in every country in which there is a substantial Jewish population, it appears that the organized secular Jewish left has dwindled. Yet the Yiddish monthly, the Freie Schtime, continues to publish in, of all places, Argentina. Although Jews in Cuba, for example, had, in the 1930s, organized eight trade unions and joined and strengthened others already in existence, by the time of the Cuban Revolution the self-defined Jewish community was largely bourgeois. Within a few years most had left the island, not as the result of anti-Semitism, but because they preferred to start life anew in capitalist USA to proletarianization in Cuba. Significantly, it was Cuban-American-Jewish businessman Ben Volpe who was the major force behind the effort to establish a dialogo, or dialogue, between the Cuban government and the Cuban-American community. Volpe has been attacked by rightwing Cuban organizations linked to the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion, the assassination of Orlando Letelier, and to the Watergate break-in. Similarly, in Nicaragua, the entire Jewish community of about 350 left following the victory of the Sandinista Front which toppled the Somoza dictatorship in July, 1979. (American Jewish Committee release, May 15, 1980 and Jewish Digest, Dec., 1980.) Undoubtedly, contradictions concerning Israel and Zionism have also contributed to the collapse of a specifically Jewish left and shaped the response of the community as a whole to the left in Latin America today. The left’s support for Palestinian rights, let alone support for the PLO itself, are for many (including Elkin, I’m afraid), automatically equated with anti-Semitism. At the same time, Israeli arms exports to Latin America have reinforced the left’s attacks on Israel. ISRAEL HAS IN FACT PLAYED AN INCREASINGLY SIGNIFICANT ROLE as merchant of arms to the third world in general and Latin America in particular. While in the 1960s Israel sold less than $10 million of weapons per year abroad, by 1976 sales totaled an estimated $300 million. Today Israel is exporting approximately $1 billion worth of arms each year to the third world. (All figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Handbook, 1980.) In the 1970s Israel was the largest non-industrialized country arms exporter, accounting for 26 percent of the third world’s total, and .7 percent of the world’s total arms exports. (The U.S., at 45 percent, including arms to 17 Latin American countries, and the USSR, at 27.5 percent, including arms to Argentina, Cuba, and Peru, are the largest suppliers by far.) Within Latin America, Israel is far surpassed as a source of arms by the U.S., Britain, and France. But it is not so much the magnitude as the specific recipients and the timing of Israeli arms shipments that stand out. Israel sold the Shafir-2 air-to-air missile to Pinochet’s Chile and 26 of its aging Mirage 5 fighter planes to Argentina after the solidarity movement in the U.S. was able to cut off U.S. military aid to those countries. From 1975 to 1979 Israel was the Guatemalan dictatorship’s largest supplier of arms, and in 1969 the military regimes in Honduras and El Salvador used Israeli-made infantry weapons against each other in a border war. Today those two countries are waging a unified struggle with those weapons against El Salvador’s popular movement. Most critically, Israel continued to supply the Somoza dictatorship until its last moments, even after the U.S. had cut off military aid. Although it is U. S. military and non-military aid which has most often and in far more significant quantities propped up reactionary regimes in Latin America, and while it is often forgotten that sectors within Israel itself have supported democratic struggles in Latin America (for example, Histadrut took action in support of Guatemalan Coca-Cola workers in a world-wide boycott last spring), Israeli arms sales to Latin American dictatorships have both increased in recent years and have been available to such regimes when other doors were closed. Conditions in Latin America, not Moscow- or Havana-based conspiracies, give rise to anti-capitalist, democratic and revolutionary movements. In recent years mass activity has increased, even in military-ruled Brazil and Chile, and, following the Nicaraguan example, revolutionary movements are mounting challenges precisely in those Central American countries receiving Israeli arms: Guatemala and El Salvador. Although the left’s growth has been halting at times, it is nevertheless unmistakable. We Jewish socialists have a vision of a vibrant Jewish community supporting popular struggles—for its own sake and out of a commitment to all the best in the Jewish tradition — and of a thriving Jewish existence in post-revolutionary society. Whether this vision will become real in Latin America, sure to confront revolutionary possibilities in other countries in the months and years to come, is for the future to tell. For now, it is at best a possibility. At the time of publication, Paul Horowitz had also written for NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America).