Special to the JTA Jews of Latin America Said to Be Both Thriving and Imperiled
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Special to the JTA Jews of Latin America Said to Be Both Thriving and Imperiled

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The Jews of Latin America are both thriving and imperiled, ensconced in the middle and upper classes, yet few can gain access to social and political power in their class conscious and predominantly Hispanic Catholic societies.

This configuration of Latin American Jewry emerged at a research conference here earlier this month co-sponsored by the Latin American Institute of the University of New Mexico, a long-established area studies center, and the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, a newly-burgeoning international association of scholars.

The aim of the three-day meeting was to provide information on the treatment of minorities in Latin America for the Institute and to augment the Association’s data on Latin American Jewry, one of the least studied and currently among the most powerless and vulnerable Jewish communities. More than 24 specialists from Latin America, the United States and Israel presented papers in English and Spanish.


The general view of the specialists was that Latin American Jews, are frustrated in their efforts to translate their economic well-being into some modicum of political power. This frustration turns to outright fear when discrimination takes an official turn, as it tends to do during periods of economic and political stress.

During last year’s currency crisis in Mexico, for example, a legislator, Miguel Angel Olea Enriquez, a member of Mexico’s ruling party, charged in the Chamber of Deputies that Jews were responsible for economic crimes, specifically, speculation, tax evasion and profiteering.

The experts also point out that equally offensive is the feigned tolerance — such as visits to synagogues during the high holidays — by government officials in countries headed by rightwing dictators. But most alarming in recent years, it was pointed out, was the disproportionate number of Jews — between 1,200 to 1,500 — kidnapped and in some cases tortured under the military regime in Argentina between March, 1976, and October, 1983.

In the view of Dr. Carlos Waisman, a sociologist at the University of California in San Diego, Latin American Jews are outnumbered, politically powerless and vulnerable to scapegoat tactics. He described their situation as being “riders on a bus.”


One way Latin American Jews have tried to solve their dilemma is by emigrating to Israel and to other countries. Dr. Sergio dellaPergola, a demographer at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, reported that between 1970 and 1980 more than 35,000 Jews left Argentina. Jewish emigration from other Latin American countries also rose during that period.

Dr. Judith Elkin, author of “Jews in Latin American Republics” (North Carolina Press, 1980), pointed out that assimilation is another way of solving the dilemma. “The trend … accelerates as more Jews enter the university and go on to the free professions,” she said.

But emigration and assimilation have not been the only responses. Increased tensions in recent years have caused some Jews to return to or devote more attention to Jewish culture and tradition. Dr. Dan Levy of the State University of New York in Albany reported upswings in activities of Jewish day schools, community centers and the Conservative synagogue movements in Latin America.

Dr. Henrique Rattner of Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was among the speakers who said that he was encouraged by the recent election in Argentina of President Raul Alfonsin, whom he characterized as a champion of social pluralism and human rights, and of persistent calls for democratic elections in Brazil and Uruguay.

But Dr. Gilbert Merk, director of the Latin American Institute, said that these developments did not necessarily mean that there would be an abatement of anti-Semitism. His forecast was that the continuing credit indebtedness, inflation and unemployment in Latin America throughout this decade would create more political and economic unrest and with it, a continued high level of anti-Semitism.

The Latin American Jewish Studies Association was organized in 1982 by historian Judith Elkin and other academics. The group claims to have 300 members and two offers to co-sponsor conferences, one at the Hebrew University in 1985 and the second at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1986.

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