Commentary Magazine

Jews of the Latin American Republics, by Judith Laikin Elkin

Latin Diaspora

Jews of the Latin American Republics.
by Judith Laikin Elkin.
University of North Carolina Press. 298 pp. $17.00.

Since 1945 the numerical bulk of the world’s Jewish population has resided in the Western hemisphere, and a far from negligible portion of that majority lives south of the Rio Grande, in the twenty-odd republics of Latin America. Even those, Jews and non-Jews, for whom this part of the world holds no special interest must frequently have wondered at the origins and destiny of the Jews there, particularly in recent years when the world press has chronicled the activities of Latin American public figures with such uncharacteristic names as Teitelboim, Timerman, and Bar Gelbard. The idea that descendants of the very people expelled from Spain and Portugal may be “returning” to these ancient cultures in New World venues is a theme rich with romantic (not to say, historical) possibilities. Yet until now there has been very little serious literature, particularly in English, about this forgotten remnant of the Diaspora.

It is not difficult to imagine why. The historian of Latin American Jewry must control an enormous amount of material in at least six languages; the complex history of the Jewish people in its varied cultural expressions; the history of Spain and Portugal; and not least, the history of nearly two dozen independent republics. A formidable undertaking, not embarked upon lightly. Judith Elkin, however, has managed it all—with grace, insight, and really astonishing erudition. Jews of the Latin American Republics is even—rarest of things—a scholarly monograph that is a genuine pleasure to read.

This book approaches its subject through the exploration of various themes or “arcs,” which run the full course of the narrative and often overlap with one another. The first is the encounter between the Iberian and Jewish peoples. This was a partnership which, after centuries of joint achievement, was broken off abruptly and artificially by Ferdinand and Isabella’s Edict of Expulsion (1492). The coincidence of dates between Columbus’s discovery of America and the decision—for reasons of state—to rid Spanish society of the Jewish presence has been fraught with meaning for Latin America. In those remote provinces, the concept of the “Jew” has been exclusively filtered through the twisted lenses of the Inquisition of the 16th and 17th centuries.

“The Christian legend on which Iberian society had based its drive for purification,” Mrs. Elkin writes, “was that there existed two inexorable enemies of Christ: the devil and the Jews. Inevitably, it was assumed there was an alliance between the two.” The transplanting of this medieval legend to New World soil meant that anti-Jewish sentiments—transmitted, among other things, through the elaborate rituals of Holy Week—could flourish in remote Indian villages where a Jew was never to be seen. More ominous still was the persistence of this diabolization of Jews in highly sophisticated urban societies, well into our own time.

Nor did the “voluntary” conversion of many Jews to Catholicism in Spain (and, later, Portugal) end the troubles of those who opted for the path of least resistance. Instead, controversy over religious differences resurfaced under a new and even more sinister guise—“purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre). Under this rubric, certain professions and distinctions were closed to persons of identifiable converso origin, and a context was established for periodic witch-hunts. Even after their visible Jewish communities had been purged, Iberians continued to find “Judaizers” (that is, secret practitioners of Judaism) among conversos or their descendants. Not a few of these were members of an embryonic middle class, the persecution of whom eventually deprived the peninsular societies of the entrepreneurial skills necessary to compete with the rising mercantile and industrial societies of Northern Europe. In Latin America, the tendency to blacken one’s opponents by reference to presumed Jewish ancestry has traveled in the van of a more or less uninterrupted assault on bourgeois values—savings, industry, and the accumulation of wealth through honest labor.



The second theme explored by Mrs. Elkin is the persistent Jewish presence throughout Latin American history. Although conversos were explicitly forbidden from migrating to the New World, the prohibition could not be successfully enforced, though how many converso immigrants were actually Judaizers cannot be known.

The emergence of independent republics (and of a monarchy in Brazil) between 1810 and 1830 opened the door to successive waves of Jewish immigration, largely to countries like Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico, where religious toleration was an established fact. The first wave (1830-80) consisted mainly of French, Alsatian, and German Jews—that is, products of societies where most civil disabilities had already been lifted. The readiness of these newcomers to move about freely in their adopted countries, their cosmopolitan connections, their small number, and their invaluable skills (most were professionals, bankers, or engineers) meant a ready acceptance by local elites, but with a curiously self-defeating outcome for long-term Jewish settlement: through intermarriage, their descendants disappeared into the predominantly Catholic environment.

The second wave (1889-1914) was the most numerous—approximately 100,000 men and women drawn from the Russian empire, Poland, and Rumania. Nearly 90 percent settled in Argentina, with complements scattered (in descending order of importance) in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and Cuba. It was these immigrants who imparted to Latin American Jewish life the distinctively Eastern European quality it was never to lose—perpetuated through a network of synagogues, schools, cultural centers, libraries, and mutual-aid and burial societies. The preference for Argentina was a reflection of the self-same features which had attracted to that country the bulk of Western European immigration as well—a secular political culture, abundant natural resources, and (before 1914) a truly phenomenal rate of economic growth.

A third and final wave (1918-39) consisted of Eastern Europeans who turned to Latin America after the United States imposed sharp entry restrictions after 1920, and, even more poignantly, those few German and Austrian Jews who were fortunate enough to pry visas out of consular officials in Berlin and Vienna during the late peacetime years of the Third Reich. Most of the countries to which these refugees from Nazism fled were notable more for the venality of their diplomats than for their traditional hospitality to newcomers. Bolivia seems to have been the destiny of a disproportionate number, but also the Dominican Republic, where (in a curious reversal of his other policies) Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo opened the doors of his ramshackle police state to people who were in no position to quibble. Since World War II there has been no significant Jewish immigration to Latin America. Although Mrs. Elkin does not dwell upon the point at any length, in recent years there has been a significant out-migration, to Israel, and especially to the United States.



This brings us to the third theme of the book—the difficult task of integrating Jews into economies and societies that were (and to a certain extent have remained) imperfectly and only hesitatingly modern. Most of the countries to which Jews migrated were agrarian, but due to preexisting patterns of land ownership, poor communications, and lack of credit, the new immigrants could not expect to flourish as farmers. This much was proven even in phenomenally fertile Argentina, where Jewish agricultural colonies, heavily subsidized by the German philanthropist Moritz Hirsch, were eventually abandoned by their members for urban life. Where some industry existed, as in Argentina (and to a lesser extent, Brazil and Chile), Jews entered the labor market as factory workers or as artisans, particularly tailors, shoemakers, or furriers. Others, especially single men, became peddlers—itinerant merchants who introduced a host of innovations into the pre-modern economies of the Latin American village, from kitchen utensils to consumer credit.

Through courage, tenacity, and sheer hard work these immigrants rose, occasionally to vertiginous heights of affluence, but more often to modest comfort. For most, mobility was limited by the level of economic development of the society as a whole. The result is that most Latin American Jews have become middle class: shopkeepers, small businessmen, or professionals who generally have enjoyed far fewer perquisites—economic and otherwise—than their North American counterparts. Few have really penetrated the highest reaches of society, where, despite the growth of industry since World War II, ascriptive norms and family connections still determine entry.

Hence the final point of Mrs. Elkin’s study—the nagging persistence of a “Jewish question” in Latin America. The very fact that such a topic could be regarded as worthy of discussion in 1980 indicates the degree to which the Latin American republics are still grappling with some of the issues that poisoned the political life of inter-war Europe. The harsh fact is that these countries are still in search of their cultural identity, and regardless of where they find it, Jews will have to be wary. One particular strand of nationalism, strong in the 1930′s and once again resurgent in the Southern Cone republics, emphasizes the Mediterranean heritage of conquest, and a peculiarly pre-Conciliar form of Roman Catholicism. But the “populist” alternative is no more attractive: in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru, where indigenism draws on nativist or folkloric racial and cultural roots, Jews are likely to be ruled out of the national community except as statistical oddities.



The hoary notion that “socialism,” by cutting across racial and religious lines, would provide a higher reference point for human community, simply has not held true. The coming of socialism to Cuba all but eradicated the economic basis of its small but vigorous Jewish community, long since departed to the United States, Mexico, or Israel. The Allende experiment in Chile (1970-73) witnessed the massive flight of Jewish entrepreneurs, whose holdings were seized by the state. As Mrs. Elkin points out, although some have subsequently returned, the loss to the Jewish community of some of its most important members was permanent and irreparable. True, Castro and Allende did not attack Jewish entrepreneurs as Jews; further, in spite of pressures from the Soviet Union (and others), the Chilean president—to his credit—actually attempted to pursue a moderately friendly policy toward Israel. Yet the fact remains that Jews in Cuba or Chile were deprived of their livelihood; under whatever high-sounding rubric, their property was confiscated.

Indeed, on this point Mrs. Elkin reaches what to some may be a most unwelcome conclusion:

Over the past twenty years, the size of Latin American Jewish communities has fluctuated with the rise and fall of governments favorable to the free-enterprise system. Jews have been attracted to, and have remained in, nations that offered free scope to the entrepreneurial spirit and have abandoned republics whose social policies included expropriation of private property. This has happened notwithstanding the fact that individual Jews have frequently been among the initiators and proponents of such policies.

This statement is amply supported by evidence offered up throughout the book. It is not that Jews have done particularly well under regimes of the Right in Latin America, but rather that in a universe in which political choices have been few, economic policies have been the crucial determinant. Hence, Jews have fared best in Brazil and Colombia, where liberal economic concepts (and, in the case of Colombia, a vigorous tradition of anti-clericalism) have prevailed, even though neither country conforms to Anglo-Saxon notions of democracy.

In the United States, where both political and economic freedom have been firmly established, Jews (and others) have had the luxury of going about their business without having to weigh distasteful alternatives. This point is made clearer in Mrs. Elkin’s final chapter, in which she compares U.S. and Latin American Jewry. To the degree to which Latin American states approximate the North American model, and only to that degree, can their Jewish communities look forward to a reasonably untroubled existence. The rather limited prospects for this development probably explain the cautious and somewhat uneasy note on which Mrs. Elkin closes.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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