Home inFocus Latin America: Our Southern Neighbor (Winter 2021) The Jews of Central and South America

The Jews of Central and South America

Daniel S. Mariaschin Winter 2021
Synagogue of the Israelite Argentine Congregation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Boris G / Flickr)

he presence of Jews in Latin America dates back to the years of Christopher Columbus and the colonization of the Americas, as many Jews or “crypto-Jews” (Jews who had faked conversion to Christianity) came to the “new world” escaping persecution by the Inquisition. 

Even though scattered Jewish immigration had occurred earlier, the greatest period of Jewish immigration into Latin America took place between the 1880s and the 1930s, as many Jews escaping discrimination and brutal pogroms in Eastern Europe found refuge in the open immigration policies of some Latin American countries, particularly Argentina and Uruguay. These were mostly Ashkenazi Jews. But there was also a smaller migration of Sephardic Jews from the Middle East and Northern Africa. 

With the rise of Nazism some countries restricted immigration, making it difficult for Jews to enter when they most desperately needed to escape. But during and after World War II some Jews arrived as refugees. 

Today, Argentina is the home of the largest Jewish community in Latin America with approximately 230,000 Jews. 

Even the smallest Jewish communities of Latin America are generally well organized. They have their own synagogues, schools, community centers and umbrella institutions that represent them at the national level. And for the most part, they have a close connection to Israel. They are strongly Zionist, and many Latin American Jews have made Aliyah over the years. 

These communities did face anti-Semitism, though not with the intensity seen in Europe. For a long time the Catholic Church fed anti-Semitic prejudices and stereotypes by continuing to teach that Jews killed Christ, even after the Second Vatican Council whose teachings reached some parishes quite late. 

During World War II some governments were drawn to the Nazi ideology. In Argentina, the Peron government allowed many Nazi officials fleeing Europe to enter the country after the war, which is a great stain on Argentina’s history. 

In those countries where military governments took power during the Cold War there was particular cruelty against Jewish political prisoners. But with the consolidation of democracy in the great majority of the countries of the region, and the considerable improvement in Jewish-Catholic relations, classical anti-Semitism was relegated to margins of society.

Current Challenges 

Though traditional anti-Semitism still exists in Latin America, the main challenges facing the region’s Jewish communities recently have had more to do with dangerous ties between certain leftist governments and the Iranian regime. The emergence of Left wing anti-Semitism, in the form of anti-Zionism, is now a problem.

The Iranian Connection 

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president of Iran in 2005, the ties between Venezuela and Iran grew considerably. The marriage of convenience between the Iranian president and Hugo Chavez, then president of Venezuela, inaugurated a difficult period for the Jewish community in that country. The anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic rhetoric of the government triggered large numbers of anti-Semitic incidents, some sponsored by the ruling party. Anti-Israel rhetoric was exported to other countries with close ties to Venezuela, such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and El Salvador. 

Today, under the rule of Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s successor, Venezuela has turned into a full-fledged dictatorship, with a political, economic and humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. The anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric has decreased, as has the ability of the regime to influence other countries. The political landscape in the region has changed as well. But the ties between the Maduro government and the Iranians continue to grow, which is a source of great concern. 

In recent months, several tankers carrying Iranian fuel arrived in Venezuela, openly defying U.S. sanctions against both regimes. They may also be carrying arms or explosives. 

Unfortunately, Latin Americans, and local Jewish communities know too well how dangerous Iranian activities in the region can be. In 1992, a suicide bomber hit the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Two years later, on July 18, 1994, a car bomb exploded in front of the AMIA Jewish community center, also in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. Even though only secondary actors have been brought to justice, the involvement of the Iranian regime in both of these horrific terrorist attacks, acting through Islamic Jihad in the first attack, and Hezbollah operatives the second one, has been proven. 

Just a day after the AMIA bombing on July 19, 1994, there was a plane crash in Panama, where 21 people, most of them Jews, were killed. The government of Panama later confirmed that the crash was the result of a terrorist attack perpetrated by Hezbollah. 

According to counter-terrorism experts there are Hezbollah cells around the region, in Venezuela, but also Brazil, Chile and the border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This area is considered the main source of Hezbollah financing outside of the Middle East. 

Some countries in the region, such as Argentina (under former President Mauricio Macri) and Paraguay, have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization. But other measures are needed to track Hezbollah’s illicit activities and prevent it from raising money to fund terror. For this reason, Guatemala recently enacted legislation to prevent terror financing, mainly by cracking down on Hezbollah’s ability to transfer laundered funds. 

In 2011, Ahmad Vahidi, then Iran’s defense minister, was invited to Bolivia to participate in two military events. Vahidi had then, and still has, an Interpol arrest warrant (or “red alert”) against him for direct participation in the planning of the AMIA bombing. When the visit took place, the government of Argentina, at the urging of the Jewish community, protested Vahidi’s presence in Bolivia. Evo Morales, then the president of Bolivia, apologized to Argentina for the incident, and “invited” Vahidi to leave the country to prevent a diplomatic rift with Argentina, but Vahidi was not handed over to Interpol. 

On Nov. 8 2020, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attended the inauguration of the new President of Bolivia Luis Arce (a close ally of former President Evo Morales) and pledged to strengthen ties with this Latin American country. 

Iran will probably continue to try to strengthen ties with Argentina as well. In 2015, AMIA case prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused the Kirchner government of signing a pact with Iran in order to get immunity for the Iranians involved in the AMIA bombing in exchange for certain trade benefits. A few days later, Nisman was found dead in his apartment, a bullet to the head, and the case has still not been solved. Nisman had issued, in 2013, a comprehensive report detailing the presence of dormant Hezbollah cells in different parts of Latin America. 

It is important to note that the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, stated in June that Iran’s presence in the region, particularly in Venezuela, threatens the region’s peace and security.

Contemporary Anti-Semitism 

With regard to contemporary anti-Semitism, Chile is probably the place where we’ve seen the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents in recent years. Home of the largest community of Palestinian descent outside of the Middle East, this country has become a hotbed for extreme anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic views. There is even a presidential candidate, from Chile’s communist party, who continuously repeats anti-Semitic canards. Chile does not have adequate anti-discrimination legislation, which aggravates the situation. 

Both Argentina and Uruguay have adopted the anti-Semitism definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which is useful in identifying anti-Semitism. It would helpful for other countries to follow suit. 

Last year, Almagro declared that the OAS General Secretariat would formally adopt the IHRA definition “with the goal of strengthening the OAS’ efforts to counter anti-Semitism and xenophobia,” which was a very important step in the fight against the regional manifestations of the world most ancient hatred. 

The “Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance,” which was sanctioned by the OAS several years ago, is also an important tool to combat anti-Semitism. As a member of the working group drafting this convention, B’nai B’rith successfully advocated for the inclusion of anti-Semitism as a form of discrimination. 

In Argentina, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) recently adopted the IHRA definition as well, which is truly significant given the importance of the sport in that country. The day earlier, the University of Buenos Aires, the country’s most prestigious university, did the same. And several provincial governments adopted the definition as well. 

Relations with Israel 

There is encouraging news coming from the region, as several countries have recently strengthened ties with Israel, which has a positive impact on the local Jewish communities. 

Two years ago, Guatemala decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The government of Honduras recently declared that it will also be moving its embassy to Jerusalem soon. The government of the Dominican Republic recently joined the U.S. in voting against removing the arms embargo on Iran at the U.N. Security Council, and stated a few weeks ago, that it is considering moving its embassy to Jerusalem too. And Israel currently has very good relations with most of the countries in the region. 

But despite these good bilateral relations, most Latin American countries have generally poor records when it comes to their votes at the U.N. on Israel-related resolutions. This may be gradually changing and, hopefully, given the swift changes taking place in the Middle East, several Latin American governments will take a fresh look at their voting patterns. This is certainly something that Jewish organizations at the U.N. will continue to strive for. 

The Importance of Cooperation 

Looking ahead, it is critical not to underestimate the importance of close cooperation between the Latin American Jewish communities, the American Jewish community, and the State of Israel. As the world becomes smaller, we realize that there is a broad array of issues of mutual concern (ranging from the different manifestations of Jewish identity and continuity, to anti-semitism that affects local communities, to the activities of Hezbollah and the Iranian threat), which are best addressed by acting together. 

Equally important would be for each community to strengthen its relations with friends and allies such as church groups, like-minded non-governmental organizations and the media. These alliances are essential when it comes to protecting our communities and advancing the values we so deeply care about. 

Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International.