Jewish Peruvian Prime Minister Retains Identity As He Takes Top National Role
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Jewish Peruvian Prime Minister Retains Identity As He Takes Top National Role

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In Peru, a predominantly Catholic country, it is a time-honored tradition that when Cabinet members take their appointed places, they kneel before the president and a large crucifix.

So when Efrain Goldenberg-Schreiber was named foreign minister last August, he offered to step to the end of the line of new appointees so as not to interrupt the flow of events. Goldenberg, a Jew, was not going to kneel before the cross.

President Alberto Fujimori would not hear of it and removed the cross especially for Goldenberg, replacing it for the appointees coming next in line.

This past February, Goldenberg was named prime minister, the first Jew to hold the post. Since he was first in line this time, the president withdrew the cross at the beginning of the ceremony, probably a first in Peru’s history.

The story was one of several tales of being Jewish in Peru that Goldenberg told here Wednesday to a gathering of the American Section of the World Jewish Congress.

And among his accounts were assurances that Peru appears to be moving toward stability after years of military rule, economic woes and murderous terrorist attacks by two powerful indigenous groups, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru.

Goldenberg, a striking-looking 65-year-old former business executive, spoke confidently about Peru’s future.

He said that President Fujimori, a Japanese-Peruvian, had “done two good things for the country — acted against hyperinflation and against terrorism.”

He said, “it is now safer to walk on any street in Lima than in New York.'”

Goldenberg, who is on the board of the Lima Jewish community association, is the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came impoverished to the country.

He was born in the small Pacific Coast city of Talara, where there were only two Jewish families, and he was the only Jewish child. He attended primary school there, but his family moved to Lima in time for him to celebrate his bar mitzvah in the Peruvian capital.

His father, he said, was president of a Zionist organization, and his mother was president of Pioneer Women.

He attended high school in Peru and the National Major University of San Marcos between 1946 and 1952, earning a bachelor’s degree in the humanities and a law degree.

Even before he had finished studying law, he entered the family export and fishery business and became a director of several enterprises.

His 92-year-old father still goes to the office, he said, and the business is being run by his son as he attends to governmental matters.

Goldenberg is married to Irene Pravatiner, also a child of Russian Jewish immigrants. Together, the two only children “decided to do something for the Jewish population” and bore five children, four daughters and a son, he said.

Asked about anti-Semitism, Goldenberg said it was not a major problem in Peru.

In fact, he pointed out, the government is quite mixed in this multiethnic nation.

Not only Fujimori, but Jaime Yoshiyama Tanaka, the very popular speaker of Congress, come from non-indigenous ethnic groups — in their case, Japanese families.

And he rattled off a list of names of government figures with clearly non-Hispanic names.

He acknowledged that about half of Peru’s former Jewish population of 5,000 had left the country in recent years following a series of kidnappings by terrorists, after which families paid large ransoms.

But he said he had heard that many of those who fled are now considering returning.

And he reminded those at the meeting that “Peru was always very friendly to Israel.”

Peru was “among the first to agree to vote to rescind the U.N. measure equating Zionism with racism, and the first to vote” at the United Nations in Geneva to consider anti-Semitism a human rights violation.

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