Behind the Headlines Who is a Jew in Latin America
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Behind the Headlines Who is a Jew in Latin America

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A growing number of Jewish communal officials in this country, particularly those keeping track of developments in Latin America as they affect the Jewish communities there, are expressing concern, in private if not yet in public, over what they consider to be a dangerous and self-defeating trend in some of the Jewish communities south of the border.

Jewish organizational representatives in a number of Latin American countries maintain silence about individual Jews who are under fire from local regimes for criticizing repressive measures and the abrogation of civil liberties and when an individual Jew is singled out by the regime as a dissident and is persecuted or arrested for his views. Many of these dissidents are well-known intellectuals who are held in high esteem by their colleagues in their own country and abroad for both their contributions to academic and artistic life and for their principled stands on behalf of social justice.

American Jewish experts on Latin American affairs see this situation as being especially prevalent in Argentina. Brazil and Chile, where the Jewish communities are caught in the crunch of social and political unrest and upheavals and strive to develop a course of activity that will permit the communal institutions to function under the most adverse conditions.

The silence regarding dissident Jews is not necessarily a result of indifference to the plight of the individual; rather, it is an effort born of anxiety to keep the community as a whole free of dissident taint and thereby free from indiscriminate persecution and reprisals. Nevertheless, American Jewish officials point out, this approach is fraught with disaster in the long run for the community as a whole. They underscore the fact that the term dissident in Latin America is defined very loosely to act as a general dragnet for any and all critics.

Furthermore, they note, while dissidents who happen to be Jewish are not singled out as Jews, the propaganda mills of the regimes and their "unofficial" death squads seek to implant in the minds of the public that there is a link between dissident and Jew. This, they say, is a short, step from the twisted logic that all Jews are dissidents and all dissidents are Jews. This is how Hitler began. Furthermore, American Jewish experts on Latin America say, when Catholics or Protestants are singled out as dissidents and persecuted or arrested, there are civil liberties defense groups which publicly come to their aid.


What is disturbing to the American Jewish spokesmen is that a number of Jewish communal leaders in Latin America shun the dissident Jew and in many cases decline to defend them in public. There appears to be a tendency, it is noted, for some Latin American Jewish officials to define the Jewishness of the dissidents not according to halacha but on the basis of how a specific Jew is viewed politically by the local regime.

If the regime continued that is perhaps who happens to be Jewish is a dissident by virtue of his or her opposition to the regime, some of the Jewish leaders and many in the community accept the admonition of the regime that the person involved is not being singled out as a Jew but merely as a dissident. They then go a step further and insist that the persecution, abduction or imprisonment of this person is "not a Jewish issue."

This is further implemented by the insistence on the part of the local Jewish officials that this person is, of course, "not really Jewish." To buttress this contention, they cite the lack of any connection on the part of the dissident to any communal organization and the fact that he or she never really spoke out or acted in public as a Jew.

What follows, having accepted the decision of the local regime as to who is a dissident and who is a Jew, is that the dissident Jews who disappear or are arrested cease to be the concern of the official Jewish community; their plight and that of their families, is minimized or even ignored and not given any publicity that would help focus the attention of world Jewry on this situation. The dissident becomes almost a non-person within the official Jewish community. Whatever news does emerge about the fate of this individual is due to news stories filed by correspondents writing for newspapers and periodicals abroad or reports monitored by American Jewish organizations with "Latin American desks."

The tragedy, it is pointed out, aside from the personal element, is that there may be more Jews in these countries who are missing–abducted, tortured, imprisoned or killed–without anyone abroad knowing about it until it is too late to do anything to save this person because of the silence of the Jewish community.


American Jewish experts in Latin American affairs cite such cases as that of Vladimir Herzog, the Brazilian journalist who was found dead in his jail cell after being taken to military headquarters for questioning on his alleged involvement in a political movement the Brazilian government considered illegal; the disappearance in Chile of David Silberman who was a high official in the government of Salvador Allende, and of Diana Aaron, Luis Guendelman and Juan Carlos Perelman; the abduction and disappearance in Argentina of family members of Juan Gelman, a well-known poet and journalist who himself was forced to flee to Rome last year after receiving threats from right-wing death squads; and the disappearance of Raymundo Glazer, an Argentine film maker.

In the case of Herzog, some 8000 persons of all faiths attended an ecumenical memorial service in Sao Paulo last November. His death in October sparked massive indignation and demonstrations by university faculty and students, journalists, intellectuals and members of the Christian clergy. But the Jewish community leadership maintained an official silence. When one of the spokesmen was asked about this, he replied that it was "not a Jewish issue."

The leadership also declined to participate officially in the ecumenical memorial service. In fact, Rabbi Henry Sobel who did participate was rebuked by many Jewish leaders. But Sober, at the service, cried out for human rights for all people everywhere and cautioned that Jews cannot ###the face of oppression.

The irony, it is pointed out, is that some of these dissidents were in the past, under different circumstances touted by the same Jewish communities which now ignore them as examples of Jewish contributors to their countries’ social, economic and intellectual life.


The crassest example of the double standard–they are "our Jews" when the regime in power is not hostile to socially progressive ideas but "not our Jews" when the regime is hostile–was provided by a leading figure in the Chilean Jewish community. When this writer was in Chile three years ago he introduced him to many of the leaders in the Allende government who were Jewish. He underlined, in his introductions, that each one was a well-known Jew before becoming part of the Allende administration and cited their connections with communal organizations.

Some eight months later, three months after Allende’s government was deposed by the military junta, this same individual was in New York. He was asked what happened to some of the Jewish officials whose whereabouts were at that time unknown. "Why do you ask?" he said. "Because their whereabouts are a matter of great concern to the Jewish community in this country." he was told. "Why should it be?" he responded. "They weren’t really Jews. They were Communists." Asked why he had introduced them as Jews eight months earlier, he merely shrugged his shoulders.


What makes the situation fraught with disaster it is pointed out, is that once the government or the death squads decide to abduct or kill dissidents who happen to be Jews it is a short step for this to spill over into general anti-Jewish activity. The proof of this is that in Argentina, especially, anti-Jewish elements are indiscriminately bombing synagogues, and stores and homes owned by Jews and offices of prominent physicians and psychiatrists are daubed with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans. The Nazi hate material proliferating in Argentina and seen sporadically in Brazil does not limit itself to merely singling out dissident Jews.

It should be noted that Latin American Jewish leaders are active in campaigning publicly against Nazi and general anti-Jewish hate literature, meeting frequently with government officials in efforts to halt the spread of this disease. Their conscientiousness has in many instances helped to stem the tide of hate literature.

The only course of action, it is suggested, is for the Jewish communities of Latin America to defend all Jews–dissidents included–now. It is noted that when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism, Jews declared in unison that they were all Zionists. Perhaps now is the time, it is further suggested, for Latin American Jews to say in unison, we are all Jews.

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