Special Interview Small Jewish Communities in Latin America Have Urgent Needs

Latin American Jewish communities are in urgent need of increased Jewish education, Jewish awareness, social programs and stepped up efforts to have Jewish students study in Israel. This assessment of the needs of Latin American Jewish communities emerged at a special conference held in Venezuela last month, according to Kalman Sultanik, a member of the World Zionist Organization Executive.

The conclave, a regional meeting of the Latin American Zionist Council held in Caracus May 27-29, was called to discuss the current economic and political turmoil in the region in relation to the Jewish communities there. Some 60 Jewish community representatives from Colombia, Aruba, Costa Rica, Curacao, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela met. Because of the special nature of the meeting, unlike the bi-annual Latin American Conference of the Zionist Council, delegates from Argentina, Chile and Brazil did not participate, Sultanik said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He said that the assessment provided of the meeting did not include discussion of the status of the Jewish communities in those three countries whose representatives were absent.

Discussions at the conference focused on the smaller Jewish communtities which, Sultanik said, are in the process of “disintegration.” In addition to Cuba, Nicaragua’s Jewish community is nearly non-existent, he said, adding that the Jewish community of El Salvador has merely 12 families. Forty Jewish families reside in Aruba, the smallest community in the area, which does not have a rabbi, he said.

MANY RECEIVE JEWISH EDUCATION

As for the other Jewish communities in the region, whose representatives provided information to Sultanik, there are 7,500 Jews in Colombia, of whom some 4,000 live in Bogota; there are 250 Jewish families in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. But by far the largest Jewish community which had a representative at the conference was Mexico where some 45,000 Jews live with an estimated 5,000 Jewish children attending Jewish schools. In Peru, Sultanik reported, where there are 5,000 Jews, 95 percent of the Jewish children receive a Jewish education. It was noted that the rate of intermarriage in Peru is 20 percent.

While Sultanik said that there was a high percentage of Jewish children attending Jewish educational institutions throughout the region and that the educational level of those schools is “very high,” he attributed this to the fact that Jewish communities in Latin America live apart from the large sector and that other educational facilities are “generally on a low level.”

“Furthermore, the communities there have not yet reached the stage where a younger generation, more integrated into the sociopolitical life of the respective country, is faced with having to make a choice,” Sultanik said. He said assimilation was reported to be at a relatively low rate in the larger Jewish communities as compared with the smaller Jewish communities.

Sultanik asserted that Zionism remains an integral element within the Jewish community in Latin America. He said that Zionist parties where they exist that identify with political parties in Israel, “keep a very low profile,” which he said “is a positive factor since it results in the communities’ unity and their support of Israel as a whole, and they do not take the opposition line in Israel.”

RELATIONS WITH GOVERNMENT ‘EXCELLENT’

Sultanik said in reference to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that there was “no schism” in the Jewish communities discussed at the conference, since, Sultanik said, they publicly support the policies of the Israeli government. There have been several reports however of incidents in some Latin American Jewish communities involving the daubing of slogans and in some cases swastikas on synagogues.

In response to a query, Sultanik asserted that the Jewish communities of the participating nations maintain “excellent relations” with their respective governments and that the delegates do not feel there is overt anti-Semitism on either a social level or governmental level.

An official at the Israel Mission to the United Nations told the JTA that he would describe as “cordial” the relations maintained between the Jewish community and their governments. He noted also that some Jewish schools in Latin American nations are officially recognized by the government.

JEWISH POSITION PRECARIOUS

But despite the optimistic tone of Sultanik’s assessment of the three-day conference, he said the “Zionist movement must devote special attention on how to assist these small Jewish communities. The whole region is in a state of turmoil from the political and economic viewpoint — everyone seems to be sitting on top of a volcano.”

“Whenever the economic situation in these areas is favorable, Jews fare even better, but this works in reverse,” Sultanik continued. “Since Jews are not an integral part of the social fabric of their respective country, they are more conspicuous. They all belong to the ‘haves’; they have their own insitutions and clubs; they reside in well known quarters and they engage in specific fields of endeavor. In a critical situation such as is prevalent today, this makes them easy prey for scapegoating.”

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