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Around the Jewish World As South America Turns Toward the Left, How Are Jewish Communities Affected?

July 21, 2006
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South American Jewish communities are surveying their surroundings anew after elections across the continent in recent years have been dominated by left-wing or center-left parties. Among the changes:

In 2002, Luis Ignacio “Lula” DaSilva, a union leader from a poor background, was elected president of Brazil as a candidate of the Worker’s Party.

Nestor Kirchner, who won the Argentine presidency in 2003, has turned his left-leaning Peronist Party into a powerhouse by championing economic austerity and straightening out a country that was in bankruptcy just five years ago.

Michele Bachelet, a socialist and the first woman elected president in South America, seems to be singlehandedly changing Chile’s historically conservative and traditional society.

Tabare Vazquez, a Uruguayan socialist, led his Broad Front party to a historic victory last year, the first time in over a century that a candidate from outside Uruguay’s two traditional parties won the presidency.

Evo Morales, an indigenous coca farmer and leader of the coca grower’s union, won a wide triumph in Bolivian national elections last December. Morales is closely allied with leftist parties throughout Latin America, and is personally close both to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan radical Hugo Chavez.

Alan Garcia, whose APRA party in Peru is part of the International Socialist alliance, defeated left-wing indigenous leader Ollanta Humala in a runoff election earlier this year.

Ecuador a few years ago elected a left-wing president, Lino Gutierrez, who embarked on a more conservative program than he had promised in his campaign. After a popular uprising led by students and indigenous leaders, Gutierrez was forced to resign and flee the country. A center-left or indigenous party is expected to win presidential elections later this year.

In Venezuela, Chavez has been elected twice since 1999 and probably will win a third term in December. With his blatant anti-U.S. rhetoric, Pan-American vision, close relations with Castro and other leaders of what the U.S. State Department considers rogue regimes, meddling in other nations’ internal affairs and grand designs for development, Chavez has struck a chord with many left-wingers and the poor in Venezuela and elsewhere in South America.

The only chief executive in the region who doesn’t fit the mold is Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, a center-right politician who recently won re-election by a wide margin.

Most South American Jews arrived from Europe between 1880 and 1940. Most countries in the continent — with the exception of Argentina and, to a lesser degree, Uruguay — have small Jewish populations that are highly successful in terms of political, social and economic power.

Some say the situation is sufficiently different in each country to make generalizations useless.

“One must differentiate and classify these new governments, rather than use a broad brush when describing South America’s turn to the left,” said Ram Tapia Adler, B’nai Brith’s director in Chile.

Bachelet, Lula and Vazquez “are pragmatic leftist presidents,” he said, while Chavez, Morales and Humala are “populist leaders who are not very trustworthy.”

Sergio Widder, Latin American director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, perceives more problems in left-wing grass-roots movements than in the governments. The Wiesenthal Center has produced a 10-minute video called “Another World?” on anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum’s left-wing anti-globalization gatherings held in Latin America in recent years.

The Peruvian Jewish community illustrates divergent reactions to the new South American left.

Before Humala narrowly lost the June election, Guillermo Bronstein, head rabbi of Asociacion Judia 1870, the largest and most influential of Lima’s three main synagogues, said: “There is fear of Humala and his xenophobia, and a greater fear among Jewish businessmen and intellectuals that Peru under a Humala government could turn into another axis of anti-U.S. and anti-European attitudes, as in Chavez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia.”

But in that same election, Isaac Mekler, a leader of Peru’s Jewish community, was elected to the House of Deputies on the Humala slate. The about-face by Mekler — a scathing critic of Humala until he was offered the position on his slate — caused tremendous divisions in the small Peruvian Jewish community. The community is waiting to see what positions Mekler will take on Jewish issues in Parliament.

Many analysts believe Chavez’s interference in the Peruvian election — he supported Humala and baited the eventual winner, Garcia — may have cost Humala crucial votes in what ended up being a very close election.

Wariness of Chavez — an ally of Iran and, lately, a fierce critic of Israel — is also evident in Bolivia, where Jewish community leader Gabriel Hercman earlier this year expressed concern about Chavez’s influence over Morales.

That wariness was evident at an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee conference that brought more than 1,000 Jewish leaders to Argentina in May. Some Venezuelan delegates expressed dismay at actions of the Chavez government, including a 2004 police raid of a Jewish school.

Not everyone shares the concern over the advent of the left. Considering that many South American Jews lived for decades under right-wing military dictators who flirted with fascism or under governments where anti-Semitism was prevalent, some feel the recent changes are positive.

“We in South America are passing through a wonderful moment. I am absolutely thrilled with the changes that Latin America is going through: These are the dreams we grew up with in our youth being put into practice,” said Daniel Goldman, chief rabbi of Bet-El of Buenos Aires, Latin America’s largest Jewish congregation. He was referring to aspirations for democratically elected governments that at least talk about pursuing more equitable social policies.

“It’s time we looked at the capacity of individuals, not by their religious origin,” he continued. “We have had Jews participate in some of Latin America’s most horrendous governments. We must think that if a government is positive for human beings, it is positive for the Jewish community.”

Regarding the changes in Argentina, Goldman believes that Jews “have a place just like any citizen of this country, and we have to separate the feelings of the community at large from the Jewish leaders who were always closely associated with authoritarian governments. Our leaders were not up to the circumstances of leadership even when 2,500 Jews disappeared during the military dictatorship.”

Isaac Rudnik is one of the heads of the Argentine Foreign Ministry’s Latin American Affairs Department. He was named Argentina’s special ambassador to Bolivia during that country’s political crisis last year mainly because he had developed a close friendship with Morales during Rudnik’s years of left-wing activism.

After studying in Israel as an adolescent, Rudnik returned to Argentina for law school and became a student activist in the mid-1970s. The military ultimately detained him in a provincial concentration camp, where he spent seven years.

Israel ultimately helped Rudnik leave Argentina for medical care. He returned after the dictatorship fell, and continued working for social change.

“I hear criticism of Evo Morales and Chavez being anti-Semitic and I find it absurd, especially in the case of Evo,” Rudnik said. “This is a coca farmer from Bolivia who is trying to change centuries of slavery of his people. How does anti-Semitism even enter the discussion?”

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