In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Jewish Presence in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • History of Latin American Jews
  • Latin American Jewish Culture

Latin American Studies The Jewish Presence in Latin America
David William Foster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0085


There has been (essentially unproven) speculation that Jews reached the Americas with Columbus’s voyages. It has even been alleged that Jews paid in part for Columbus’s voyages in order to ensure their transport out of Spain. Yet, the best historical facts have Jews first arriving with early settlers as conversos (also called New Christians; Jews who had agreed to convert to Christianity in order to escape expulsion from Spain and Portugal and persecution by the Inquisition) or as crypto-Jews (also called marranos, Jews who feigned conversion to escape the mandate to convert but who continued to practice Judaism to one degree or another, in one form or another). Although conversos were legally prohibited from migrating to the New World, many in fact did. Sincere conversos were often accused of being crypto-Jews and, with the reach of the Inquisition into Latin America, frequently suffered persecution. But individuals of Jewish descent were scattered all over Latin America, although it is true that the greatest concentration was to be found in the great colonial centers such as Mexico, Lima, and San Salvador de Bahia, and in lesser cities such as Bogotá, Santiago de Chile, and Buenos Aires. Scattered Jewish immigration occurred between the colonial period and the late 19th century. The greatest immigration of Jews into Latin America, however, was during the fifty-year period between 1880 and 1930, as part of the combined effect of the flight of Jews from Europe as a consequence of poverty, discrimination (including brutal pogroms), and the rise of Nazism. These were dominantly Ashkenazi Jews. There was also a smaller migration from northern Africa and the Middle East, preponderantly Sephardic Jews. These Jews, while they eventually settled all over Latin America, arrived in particularly large numbers in those countries that had an open immigration policy: Argentina and Uruguay and, to a lesser extent, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. The rise of Nazism promoted additional migration in the 1930s, although nationalistic policies in many countries hindered migration numbers; there were also groups that arrived as refugees after World War II. A diaspora of Jews from Latin America has occurred with the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its active policy of aliyah (return) of world Jews to the biblical homelands. This diaspora has been swollen by recurring military dictatorships, especially authoritarian/neofascist ones in the Southern Cone, in the mid-20th century and by recurring economic crisis. While many of the Jews who have left Latin America in the second half of the 20th century and later have gone to the United States and Europe, Israel undoubtedly continues to exercise a strong draw. In this context, however, it is important to underscore how there is a sentiment among some Latin American Jews that they must stick it out in Latin America and not repeat the diasporic history of their foreparents. Today, there are approximately 500,000 Jews in Latin America, with by far the greatest concentration in Argentina, with Brazil and Mexico somewhat distant seconds, and a third tier consisting of Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, and Panama. It is important to note here that a major issue of Latin American Jewish studies is the determination of reliable statistical evidence, especially in the face not only of aliyah, but also the diaspora of Latin American Jews to other Latin American countries and outside Latin America. The degree of assimilation or integration varies widely from country to country, although in all cases Jews have played prominent roles in commercial and industrial life and in important sectors of the cultural and academic communities. The author wishes to acknowledge advice from Naomi Lindstrom in the preparation of this essay. The author’s research assistants Ileana Baeza, Arturo Jiménez, and Francisco Serratos also contributed to this project. Statistics on Jewish population in Latin America are drawn from World Jewish Population, 2010, prepared by Sergio DellaPergola for the Berman Institute–North American Jewish Data Bank at the University of Connecticut. It is important to note that the Berman Institute statistics may be considered rigorously conservative.

History of Latin American Jews

Contemporary research protocols have placed an increasing emphasis on the need to speak of Latin American Jews, rather than Jews in Latin America, a move that places important emphases on the ways in which Jewish life has adjusted to Latin American sociohistorical realities, especially in conjunction with other groups of related ethnic origin (Klich and Lesser 1998, Lesser and Rein 2008, Mate and Forster 2007, Rein 2008). Concomitantly, the insistence of speaking, for example, of Jewish Argentines rather than Argentine Jews or Jews in Argentina serves to underscore the particular coordinates of the Argentine experience and to highlight the ways in which that experience differs from Jewish life in any other country of Latin America or elsewhere (Sheinin and Barr 1996). This is particularly true when speaking of differing degrees, circumstances, and policies of anti-Semitism; variously inflected forms of nationalism and nativism; the presence of neofascist, anti-Semitic military dictatorship; and (although less of an issue today than in the mid-20th century) the continuing influence of Nazi ideology and the legacy associated with Axis refugees, particularly in Brazil and the Southern Cone (Milgram 2003). The foundation of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association (LAJSA) in 1982 has served to bring together those interested in Latin American Jewish communities, with a focus on scholars in Latin American, the United States, and Israel (Avni, et al. 2011). Elkin’s research (Elkin 1998) is some of the first to be associated with the founding of LAJSA. The earliest work, however, goes back to the 1950s (Shatzky 1952). AMILAT, the Israeli organization dedicated to Latin American Jewish Studies, sponsors the Judaica Latinoamericana series, published by the Magnes Press of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Graff Zivin 2014 examines the figures of Jewish conversion and torture in Latin American culture.

  • Avni, Haim, Judit Bokser de Liwerant, Sergio DellaPergola, Margalit Bejarano, and Leonardo Senkman, eds. Pertinencia y alteridad Judíos en/de América Latina: Cuarenta años de cambios. Tiempo Emulado 13. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2011.

    Some of the most important scholars in Latin American Jewish scholarship (and a central core of the membership of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association) contribute an essential report on work in the field, in thirty-one essays. Eight parts: “Introducción,” “América Latina en Perspectiva Comparativa,” “Transiciones Políticas, Contextos Nacionales y Tendencias Regionales,” “Demografía, Migraciones e Identidad,” “Organizaciones Judías Mundiales y Cmunidades Latinoamericanas,” “Cuarenta Años en la Educación Judía,” “Nuevas Pautas de Identidad y Religiosidad Judía,” and “Transformaciones Lingüísticas y Creación Cultural.”

  • Elkin, Judith Laikin. The Jews of Latin America. Rev. ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1998.

    Originally published in 1979, Elkin’s work remains the basic starting point for a comprehensive history of Latin American Jews, continuing to exercise an important organizing role in the field. Elkin is founding president of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association.

  • Graff Zivin, Erin. Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture, and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univeristy Press, 2014.

    Focusing on the question of Jewish conversion to Christianity, the author examines a wide array of cultural production in which torture is examined vis-à-vis the search for truth, which is seen as problematical, unstable, circumstantial, and ultimately always elusive. In Spanish as Inquisiciones figurativas: Conversión, tortura y verdad en el Atlántico luso-hispano, trans. Paola Cortés Rocca (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones la Cebra, 2017).

  • Klich, Ignacio, and Jeffrey Lesser, eds. Arab and Jewish Immigrants in Latin America: Images and Realities. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998.

    Twelve essays by diverse authors on the relationship, contrasts, and similarities between Jewish and Arab immigration to Latin American societies. Of importance is the attention to social subjects who are both Arab and Jewish (along with other ethnic identities).

  • Lesser, Jeffrey, and Raanan Rein, eds. Rethinking Jewish-Latin Americans. Diálogos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

    Twelve essays by diverse authors that examine Latin American Jews in terms of Latin American and ethnic studies. The unifying goal of the essays is to examine Latin American Jews in terms of their specific relationship to Latin American republics and to break with the traditional view that sees them as an underdifferentiated minority society that happens to reside in Latin America.

  • Mate, Reyes, and Ricardo Forster, eds. El judaísmo en Iberoamérica. Enciclopedia Iberoamericana de Religiones 6. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2007.

    Ten essays of considerable depth by various authors on Latin American Jewish culture. The volume is noteworthy because of the emergence of a new Spanish concern for Judaic studies, in part as the consequence of Latin American Jewish political refugees in Spain since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975.

  • Milgram, Avraham, ed. Entre la aceptación y el rechazo: América Latina y los refugiados judíos del nazismo. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2003.

    Ten essays by diverse authors, surveying the differing political and humanitarian response of the various Latin American republics to needs of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. The general proposition is that such a response could not be predicted based only on governmental ideologies, but other forces must be taken into account as well.

  • Rein, Raanan, ed. Árabes y judíos en Iberoamérica: Similitudes, diferencias y tensiones. Collección Ánfora 4. Seville, Spain: Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo, 2008.

    Groundbreaking collection of seventeen essays by diverse authors on comparative/contrastive issues regarding Jewish and Arabic communities in Latin America.

  • Shatzky, Jacob. Comunidades judías en Latinoamérica. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones del American Jewish Committee, 1952.

    Important early, country-by-country survey of Jewish communities in Latin America, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The preface recognizes that the statistics presented are only “approximate.”

  • Sheinin, David, and Lois Baer Barr. The Jewish Diaspora in Latin America: New Studies on History and Literature. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1968. New York: Garland, 1996.

    Eighteen essays by diverse authors focusing on mid-20th-century Jewish culture in Latin America, with an emphasis on newer issues and concerns in the field. Haim Avni stresses in his introductory essay the important contrast between a new Jewish diaspora from Latin America, for economic and sociopolitical reasons, and the way in which now-well-established communities are “settling in” as an integral part of national societies.

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