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Proud, Successful Community Finds Itself ‘foreign’ at Home

Mexico’s Jewish community, only 80 years old, appears secure and content in its Jewishness and ardently pro-Zionist.

“We have the most vibrant Jewish community outside Israel,” said Rafael Kopeliovich, a successful Mexico City architect.

“There is hardly a Jew here who is not involved,” said Kopeliovich, whose father came to Mexico from Russia in 1920.

That community is remarkably wealthy and generous in a generally poor country, leading its rabbis to warn regularly but unsuccessfully against ostentatious displays in daily life and especially at Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.

The Jews of Mexico are groping for a common Mexican-Jewish identity, both among their own smaller communities and within the nation.

The community inevitably shares certain traits with its Mexican countrymen, including a belief in consensus rather than confrontation.

Yet, socially, the 50,000 Jews in Mexico City and 3,000 or so in the rest of the country are largely isolated from the other 99.9 percent of their countrymen.

“In the collective unconsciousness of Mexico, the Jew is a foreigner,” says Dina Siegel, director of the Tribuna Israelita, which functions as a combination community relations council and Anti-Defamation League.

“De jure we are Mexicans, de facto we are foreigners,” she said.

“Mexican society rarely allows infiltration,” agreed Picha Rubinstein, who is prominent in the tourism industry.

“Mexican society is a combination of race, religion and how long your people have been here,” he said. “Very few Jews can penetrate it.”

One result is that the Jewish community in national politics seems almost invisible.

“Mexico is not an immigrant country like the United States or Argentina,” said Judit Bokser-Liwerant, a political science professor at the national university and head of the Jewish Studies Program at the Iberoamerican University.

“Mexican identity has been historically defined by the mestizo, the ethnic fusion of Spaniards and Indians,” she said. “The Jewish culture was not part of it.”

The “otherness” of Jews, imposed both from within and without, often comes into sharpest relief in times of crisis.

Anti-Semitism is then fanned by the press, relying less on ideology than on the general population’s virtual ignorance of Jews and Judaism.

DIDN’T MENTION JEWISH RELIEF EFFORT

After the 1985 earthquake that devastated large areas of Mexico City, for instance, newspapers, led by the daily Excelsior, ran numerous articles charging that Jewish factory owners had let their workers die while saving their own goods, and that Jews were profiting from the disaster.

There was no mention of the vast relief effort quickly organized by the Jewish community, which greatly exceeded that of the Catholic Church.

Communal cohesion is one of the strengths of the Mexican Jewish community, especially when compared with the Jewish community in the United States, according to Mario Nudelstejer, executive director of the Jewish Central Committee.

Other strengths include the near impossibility of assimilation by conversion or other means, and the preservation of diverse traditions from the countries of origin.

The community’s weaknesses, he said, include the lack of long-range planning, demographic studies and professional community workers.

One weakness, said Marcelo Rittner, a Conservative rabbi, is the absence of democratic elections within the community.

Mexican Jewry’s has intense emotional attachment to Zionism and Israel.

“Everybody has gone to Israel, everybody has to go,” said Nudelstejer. And it is a given that Jewish high school graduates head for Israel.

The enthusiasm, however, does not translate into any substantial aliyah, Nudelstejer said.

“Jews,” he said, “live very well in Mexico.”

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