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Around the Jewish World Bolivian Jews Keep Low Profile Amid New Anti-government Violence

October 22, 2003
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Bolivia’s Jews are keeping a low profile in the midst of the worst bloodshed the landlocked, desperately poor country has seen in 20 years.

Last Friday, Bolivia’s 73-year-old president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was forced to resign following weeks of anti-government protests in La Paz that left at least 65 people dead and hundreds injured.

It was the country’s most widespread political violence since the overthrow of Bolivia’s military dictatorship in 1982.

The new leader, former vice president and TV journalist Carlos Mesa, has pledged to hold a referendum on the issue that sparked the immediate crisis: the building of a $5 billion pipeline to export natural gas via Bolivia’s archenemy, Chile, to the United States and Mexico.

Mesa, 50, also promises to give the Latin American country’s Quechua- and Aymara-speaking native peoples a bigger voice in the government, which has historically been run by wealthy Spanish-speaking whites of European descent.

Alberto Senderey, director of Latin American programs for the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said he’s been in contact with community leaders in La Paz — which had been under martial law during the protests — and that not a single Jew in Bolivia was harmed.

Bolivia has about 700 Jews.

“There was no looting of shops, just demonstrations against the government,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a high priority for people to attack the Jews, since it’s such a small community and not very prominent at all. The big landowners in Bolivia are all non-Jews.”

On the other hand, the leader of Bolivia’s indigenous movement, Evo Morales, is seen as a possible threat to Jewish interests.

The coca farmer turned politician, who came within 1 percent of defeating Sanchez de Lozada in last year’s presidential election, led many of the violent protests that finally forced his political adversary out of office last week.

“Morales is a populist figure, and unfortunately, one aspect of populism is anti-Semitism,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “He represents the kind of person who looks upon foreigners as devils using the country’s own national wealth to conspire against Bolivia.

“In a sense, Jewish communities throughout Latin America want predictability,” he said. “They want to be assured that they won’t be singled out.”

So far, Morales — much like Venezuela’s populist president, Hugo Chavez — hasn’t specifically mentioned the Jews in his frequent diatribes against imperialism and globalization.

But Gabriel Hercman, executive director of the Circulo Israelita, noted that last year, Morales received a $50,000 “peace prize” from Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

“We don’t know why, and it’s not clear,” Hercman said in a phone interview from La Paz. “But acts like these, along with the closing of the Israeli Embassy at the end of this year, make us feel afraid.”

Long before the current unrest began, Israel announced that it would shut its diplomatic missions in Bolivia and Paraguay by Dec. 31 for budgetary reasons.

That could further isolate the Jewish community of Bolivia, which already is one of the smallest in South America.

According to Hercman, around 500 Jews live in La Paz, the administrative capital of the country, with another 150 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city. In addition, 50 or so Jews live in Cochabamba, which was once home to hundreds of Jewish families and boasts Bolivia’s most beautiful synagogue.

The country’s Jewish presence — which began in the 16th century and reached its zenith right after World War II — has been dwindling for decades.

Started by Marranos arriving from Spain to work in the vast silver mines of Potosi, the Bolivian Jewish community never grew very large. As late as 1933, there were still only 30 Jewish families in the entire country.

But after the rise of Hitler, Bolivia became a haven for Jews fleeing the Nazis. Unlike neighboring Peru, which kept a tight lid on immigration before and during World War II, Bolivia granted thousands of visas to stranded German, Polish and Russian Jews in search of refuge. After the war, between 1946 and 1952, another wave of Jews — Holocaust survivors from as far away as Shanghai, China — settled in Bolivia.

But besides becoming a home for Jews, Bolivia also opened its doors to some Nazi war criminals, stoking fears of anti-Semitism among the country’s Jews.

“During World War II, there was very strong anti-Semitism here, even a Nazi political party,” said Marek Ajke, a Polish-born Jew and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Now, acts of anti-Semitism are very rare. Sporadically, people put swastikas on the walls, like when they showed ‘Schindler’s List.’ Happily, this is disappearing.”

Nevertheless, Jewish institutions in Bolivia — like their counterparts in much of Latin America — keep a very low profile, with armed guards protecting unmarked Jewish buildings and visitors carefully scrutinized before being allowed to enter.

A typical Friday night service at the Circulo Israelita in La Paz attracts no more than 30 or so men speaking Spanish and Yiddish, most of them well over 60 years old. They pray in an old sanctuary on the building’s fourth floor. Behind the synagogue is Bolivia’s only mikvah, or ritual Jewish bath.

The well-known Jewish school Colegio Boliviano Israelita, founded in 1940, counts only 20 Jews among its 500 students — the result of emigration by many Bolivian Jews to Argentina, the United States and Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.

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