Newspaper article International New York Times

Latin America's Dark Danger

Newspaper article International New York Times

Latin America's Dark Danger

Article excerpt

The region isn't particularly anti-Semitic, but there are signs it may become so.

Besides its grim toll in human misery and ever more bitter divisions, the war in Gaza has awakened the sleeping monster of anti- Semitism in Europe. I would not say the same for Latin America, though there are signs that the beast is perhaps stirring.

Some Latin American governments have signaled their dissatisfaction with Israel's actions. Chile and Brazil have recalled their ambassadors, Fidel Castro has accused the Israelis of genocide, and governments favorably disposed to Venezuela's populist revolution have all publicly condemned Israel for the war.

While such political rejection is not anti-Semitic, something new is emerging in Spanish-language social media, mostly among young people, where condemnation of Israel is often accompanied by anti- Semitic diatribes. Latin America is not particularly anti-Semitic, but there is a danger it may become so.

In 1938, Jorge Luis Borges described Argentine anti-Semitism as "facsimile" anti-Semitism, based on European models. This had been true for decades, not only in Argentina but elsewhere in Latin America, where anti-Semitism was based on two imported hatreds: the ancient anti-Judaism of the Spanish Catholic tradition and the modern European racism of the 19th and 20th centuries. In recent years, however, such feelings have been heightened by a third influence -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and developed into a new, unexpected prejudice: an anti-Semitism of the left.

From the earliest days of the Conquest in the 16th century until the middle of the 17th century, waves of Jewish immigrants from Spain and Portugal arrived in the New World. Since Judaism and Islam were banned on the Iberian Peninsula after its reconquest by Christian armies, these immigrants were known as "conversos," or converts, who often masked their continued practice of Judaism and thus were called "marranos," or secret Jews.

The scholar Jonathan Israel has described this early migration to the New World and its effects. These educated exiles established an impressive financial and commercial net that spanned continents. But when they were cut down in the 17th century by the Inquisition, these generations vanished from popular memory, leaving only a few cultural traces, like the many largely Portuguese Jewish names that are scattered across Latin America. Perhaps because of their rapid disappearance into the general population, no native variety of anti- Semitism toward them ever developed.

In Spain, the story is somewhat different. There were Jews in Spain before the birth of Christ and, though they were officially expelled in 1492, their presence had been so vital to the country that it continued to impress itself on Spain right down to the present. The old anti-Judaism is still alive in daily speech, in popular legend and among influential sectors of public opinion, but its positive counterpart is no less alive in a cult of respect for the heritage of the Sephardim (the ancient Spanish Jewish community) and a liberal tradition of interest in Jewish traditions.

At the end of the 19th century, the countries of post- independence Latin America received new waves of Jewish migrants. Many fled persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, and most headed for Argentina. When anti-Semitism energized by Nazism arose in Europe, thousands of Polish Jews (among them my parents and grandparents) came to Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. …

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