How are the Jews of Latin America faring?
How are the Jews of Latin America faring?

An interview with Gustavo Perednik

“The main overall problems of Latin American Jewry are assimilation and the lack of interest in Jewishness. Judeophobia, a term which I prefer to antisemitism, remains far lower than in Europe.

Demographically Jews in any country do not represent even close to one percent of the general population. Yet the number of Jews is often over- perceived up to 5 to 10 times by parts of the general population.

“Latin American Judeophobia is modeled after the American pattern of an anti-immigration reaction, rather than the European one of outright demonization. The media tends to often be anti-Israel. The slandering of Israel is reinforced by the Israeli left and opposition parties. This happened for instance when they labeled as “racist” the recent Israel Nation-State Law. This enabled many Latin American media outlets to present Zionism as a racist movement.”  

Gustavo Perednik is an Argentine-born Israeli educator. He has given lectures in more than fifty countries, including at universities in China, the USA, and Russia. He has published twenty books on Jews and modernity as well as several internationally best-selling and award winning novels.

He discusses developments in a number of Latin American countries:

“In several of them there is a passage of Judeophobia from the political right to the left.

It is conspicuous in Argentina, where the largest Jewish population in Latin America – about 110 000 people -- lives. Here Judeophobia primarily targets Israel, whatever it does. As an example, one of the former editors of the main leftist newspaper Página/12 scorned the performance of Israel’s Beresheet rocket. The recent physical assault on the low-profile Argentinian Chief Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich and the arrest of his attackers, didn’t have any long-term impact. The general level of Judeophobia remains, however, relatively low.  

“The investigation about the assassination of my friend the late Jewish investigative prosecutor Alberto Nisman -- whom I brought on his first trip to Israel in 2007 -- is not stalled. However, it is so sluggish that the hope about results has diminished. These are also jeopardized by the senatorial immunity of Peronist ex-president Cristina Kirchner. She has recently launched her much publicized political autobiography. From this self-aggrandizing book transpires her commitment to bury forever any accusation against her or her acolytes.

"Argentina’s economic stagnation raises fears of a comeback to power of the Peronists. That would mean a possible reversal for many cases pending in justice.  

Chile hosts the vocal and well organized presence of the biggest group of Palestinian descendants outside the Middle East – around half a million. The great majority are Christians. This obstructs the country becoming one of the friendliest nations to Israel and the Jews. The Jewish community which numbers at most 15 000, and probably substantially less, is more than thirty times smaller. It is on the one hand highly active, and on the other hand cautious maintaining a low profile. Thus often anti-Zionist propaganda penetrates deep in the media, academia and public life.

“With more than 100,000 Jews, Brazil is the second largest Jewish community in Latin America and one of the ten largest in the world. The election of Jair Bolsonaro, a great friend of Israel, as the country’s president has given a boost to Jewish identity. Yet, assimilation is major while Judeophobia continues to be a marginal factor.

“There are over 40,000 Jews in Mexico. This tightly-knit community is in several aspects exemplary. Almost all Jews are affiliated with it. Most children attend one of the dozen impressive, state-of-the-art Jewish schools. Assimilation tends to zero. The level of Judeophobia is low despite the depth of its roots. These are traceable to the two and a half centuries during which the Spanish Inquisition was active in the country. Then hundreds of Jews were tortured and persecuted.

“As in Argentina, about a century ago, Mexico had an ultra-Catholic Minister of Education. Both eventually supported Nazism. Today expressions of Judeophobia come mostly from the left. The communist, Eduardo del Río García – who passed away in 2017-- published many Judeophobic cartoons. Nevertheless in 1987 he received a prestigious national prize for his work.

“The media was particularly venomous against Israel during the Iraq war of 2003. Moreover, some of the estrangement from the State of Israel that can be felt amongst Mexican Jews in our days is mainly due to the haredi views of some of the rabbis.

“Until two decades ago Venezuela was one of the most tolerant countries on earth. Judeophobia was imported to there by the worst type of populism under President Hugo Chavez who died in 2013.  He was allied with the Iranian Ayatollahs. Venezuela is the only Latin American country where Judeophobia is promoted by some Government authorities.

“Chavez was an active Judeophobe. His advisor Norberto Ceresole, who died in  2004 – was an Argentinian Nazi-styled pamphleteer. Under Chavez the Jewish school was raided. He broke off relations with Israel and frequently used vicious language against it.

“In the last years the Jewish community dwindled to 20% of its historical peak. There are no more than 5,000 Jews left in Venezuela, but their Jewish life remains very dynamic. The overall up-and-down hope of an imminent transformation of the country is particularly felt among Jews.”