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Bolivia’s politics has Jews packing

Bolivia's only mikveh is located in downtown La Paz, the capital city that once had 12,000 to 15,000 Jews but now has about 180.  (Larry Luxner)

Bolivia’s only mikveh is located in downtown La Paz, the capital city that once had 12,000 to 15,000 Jews but now has about 180. (Larry Luxner)

LA PAZ, Bolivia (JTA) – More than any other single event in recent years, the future of Bolivian Jewry may be determined by the outcome of the country’s upcoming national referendum on a new constitution.

The proposed constitution calling for increased state control of private-sector enterprise is being fiercely opposed by many middle- and upper-class Bolivians, including the country’s Jews. Four of Bolivia’s wealthiest provinces have launched autonomous movements in response to the proposal.

The referendum is scheduled for May 4.

Bolivia’s Jewish community has shrunk considerably in the past decade. Young Jews are seeking larger Jewish communities, and both old and young have left to find professional opportunities unrestricted by the policies of Evo Morales, the socialist who became Bolivia’s president in 2005.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is staunchly anti-American and has endorsed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s call for an anti-American “axis of good” comprised of Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba.

Ricardo Udler, the president of the Israeli Circle of La Paz, the country’s main Jewish organization, says Bolivian Jews are increasingly uncomfortable about the direction the country of 9 million is taking under Morales.

“Since Evo was elected there’s been a radical change,” Udler said.

Though there is no overt anti-Semitism in Bolivia, he said, Bolivia’s approximately 350 Jews feel threatened by Morales’ close ties with Chavez and his growing relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Things could get worse for Jews in Bolivia,” Udler warned.

Since Morales took office, the Jewish population of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the home of its largest Jewish community, has fallen by some 10 percent. That has a significant impact on a community of approximately 180.

Bolivia’s Jews find themselves in a predicament not unlike Jews in South America’s socialist leader, Venezuela, which has lost approximately half its Jews since Chavez took power. As in Venezuela, Jews in Bolivia fear increased state control of their businesses and lives.

Morales’ increasingly close relationship with Iran hasn’t helped. Last September, Ahmadinejad on a visit to Bolivia pledged to invest $5 billion in the country over the next five years, including in the natural gas and oil industries. Those industries already receive support from Chavez.

The Morales administration also has announced the possibility of Iran opening an embassy in La Paz.

Due to these developments, said Bolivian Jewish businessman Joe Epelbaum, “a lot of Jews are planning to leave.”

“This is a fast-shrinking community,” he said.

The upturn in Jewish emigration from Bolivia represents a surprising reversal for a country that during World War II was among the few in South America that offered visas to Jews fleeing Europe. Jewish immigrants settled in La Paz as well as the cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, establishing communities that thrived in the postwar years.

During the 1950s, La Paz had between 12,000 and 15,000 Jews, according to Udler.

Harald Schoengut, the president of the Israeli Association of Cochabamba, said his city’s Jewish population reached 2,000 half a century ago. About 110 Jews now live there.

In La Paz, some two dozen Jews recently attended Shabbat services at the Israeli Circle of La Paz building on a Friday evening. At a dinner later that night attended by about the same number of people, the host noted with chagrin that one-tenth of La Paz’s once-booming Jewish community could fit under a single roof.

Most of those leaving the country are third-generation Bolivian Jews seeking better educational and professional opportunities in the United States, Israel and Europe.

“We’re trying to avoid this by enticing the younger generations to study here in Cochabamba,” Schoengut told JTA. Despite this effort, most young Jewish high school and university graduates continue to leave the country. “The future is very uncertain.” he said.

Udler said a similar exodus is taking place among young Jews in La Paz.

“We have a big problem that our children go to study abroad and they don’t come back,” he said. “My sons, for example, won’t come back to Bolivia,” from Israel, where they have moved, “because there isn’t a Jewish community here. In Bolivia they don’t have a Jewish future.”

Since Morales came to power, older Jews also have been leaving in greater numbers than ever, according to Epelbaum, who owns a large textile factory here with two brothers-in-law.

“Families with bigger, more profitable businesses that are harder to leave behind are staying,” said Epelbaum, 57, who was born in Poland and immigrated to Bolivia with his parents when he was 7. “But there’s no future as a Jew in Bolivia even if you have a business that’s doing well.”

Jews in the country’s textile industry have been hurt by Morales’ unpredictable labor and trade policies, Epelbaum said. Morales has limited exporters’ access to international markets and restricted foreign investment in Bolivia.

Epelbaum’s textile store, on a busy commercial street in the center of La Paz, is crowded with rolls of colored fabrics. A photograph of Epelbaum’s three daughters hangs on the wall behind the counter at the back of the store. All of them have left the country.

“I’m basically still here for economic reasons,” he said. “Eventually, though, I don’t see myself staying here.”

The professionally and socially driven emigration of Bolivia’s younger Jews coupled with the politically driven emigration of its more established members means the days of Bolivian Jewry are numbered, Udler said.

“In the next 10 to 20 years,” he said, “there will be no more Jews in Bolivia.”

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