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In Mexico City, Anti-semitism Gains a Hold in Market and Salons

September 9, 2005
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At the Lagunilla flea market, a longtime Sunday staple in Mexico City, you can buy antique furniture, musical instruments, post cards, cameras, dishes and movie stills — and, at one stall that bears a swastika flag, books with titles such as “The Anti-Christian Conspiracy” and “The Holocaust Under the Magnifying Glass.” The latter, by Jurgen Graf, purports to debunk the “myth” of the diary of Anne Frank, insisting that it’s a fictional story written by American-Jewish novelist Meyer Levin.

The five young men working the stand say they can provide Spanish translations of “Mein Kampf,”

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and “The International Jew” — but buyers better come early, because they sell out fast.

“The Holocaust didn’t happen,” says one of the men, who gives his name as Adolfo. “The numbers are greatly exaggerated. There couldn’t possibly have been 6 million Jews who died.”

Two stalls down, a man named Manuel sells Nazi paraphernalia. Vintage swastika pins fetch the equivalent of $150 to $250, while an Iron Cross in its original case is worth $1,500.

“Whether the Holocaust happened or not isn’t my concern,” Manuel says. “Probably it happened and it’s a tragedy. But you know what? I’ve got my own problems.”

One of those problems is the Jews who periodically come to his stall, shouting insults.

“I tell them, ‘If you want to burn that Nazi flag, go ahead. It costs 2,000 pesos. Give me the 2,000 pesos and you can burn it right here.’ “

There may be few anti-Semitic incidents in Mexico City, but anti-Semitic sentiments are expressed freely and readily accepted among the intellectual and educated classes.

The left-wing newspaper La Jornada published a supplement that included the myth that there were no Jews in the World Trade Center on the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Days after the bombing of Madrid train lines in March 2004, conversation at one gathering turned to the fact that the U.S. stock market fell once it became clear that the attack had been the work of Al-Qaida.

“The gringos are just like the Jews,” a Chilean artist sniffed. “They think they’re the only ones who have suffered. If one of them dies they think it’s worth 10 of anyone else.”

Most of the guests agreed with her — including the host, a Jewish photographer.

But Mauricio Lulka, director of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community of Mexico, downplays such remarks, considering them declarations of prejudice and stereotypes rather than outright anti-Semitism.

“It’s one thing to express an opinion, quite another to turn that into a public manifestation — a rally, defacing property with graffiti, or aggressive behavior,” he says. “In Mexico, as in any other country, there are people who express negative, as well as positive, stereotypes about the Jews.”

There are only 40,000 Jews in this country with a population of 104 million, of whom more than 90 percent are Catholic.

Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews have been encouraged to immigrate to Mexico at various points, but Jews also have felt their position to be tenuous here at times.

In 1948, Mexico abstained from the U.N. vote that led to the creation of the State of Israel, and in 1975 voted in favor of the U.N. resolution denigrating Zionism as racism.

But Lulka points out that there have been very few serious anti-Semitic incidents in Mexican history .

In the early 1930s, at the height of the worldwide Depression, a Mexican nationalist movement known as Pro-Raza staged street against Chinese, Jews and various other “undesirable immigrants.” Jews were “invited” to leave the northern state of Sinaloa — unlike the Chinese, who were forced to leave.

In one isolated incident in 1979, a swastika was painted in a Jewish cemetery, and some gravestones were desecrated.

Still, if Jews perceive Mexico as ambiguous in its position toward them, Mexican Jews are widely seen as being only partly assimilated into the wider society. Most Jews here send their children to exclusive Jewish schools, and intermarriage is rare. Some have little contact with non-Jews other than store employees, university or work colleagues and servants.

The Jews’ affluence relative to the majority of the population is another source of tension.

Compounding the problem is Mexican Jewry’s steadfast support of the State of Israel in a country whose intellectual elite is staunchly pro-Palestinian. Gloria Carreno, technical coordinator for the Research and Document Center of the Ashkenazi Community, acknowledges that among intellectuals and academics it’s not nice to be perceived as pro-Israel.

On the other hand, it isn’t nice to be perceived as anti-Semitic either, so “some people disguise their anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism,” she says.

Lulka looks at the part of the glass that’s full, pointing out that in 2003 Mexico passed a federal law against discrimination that specifies, among other things, a repudiation of anti-Semitism. Various Mexican bishops, as well as Cardinal Norberto Rivera, recently toured Poland and Israel with Jewish groups.

Still, Carreno says, “symbols can harm us. People form doctrines that can be dangerous.”

Mexican anti-Semitism may be minor-league, she says, “but you have to cut each seed. Once they grow, there’s no way to dig them up.”

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