Today, the Jews of Latin America reside mainly in Argentina (250,000) and Brazil (130,000). Where did they come from, and when did they arrive? The answers to these questions are to be found on another continent altogether: Europe. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Inquisition was in full force in Spain and Portugal. Rather than submit to forcible conversion, some Jewish people chose to suffer torture and death. Others agreed to renounce their Jewish identity.
Those who converted were called Marranos or Conversos. Some, though publicly “converted,” still risked capture and death by continuing secretly to practice Judaism. Others who had agreed to give up Judaism seem to have genuinely put it aside to live – outwardly at least – as Christians.
The first Jewish people to arrive in South America around the turn of the 16th century were Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) Jews who were fleeing the Iberian Peninsula. They settled mainly in Argentina and Brazil, and these first Latin American “Jewish pilgrims” set the pattern for subsequent immigrants. Today the Jewish population in Latin America stands somewhere around 400,000 and is still to be found in these two countries.
The Jews of Argentina
In Argentina, this first wave of Jewish immigrants was soon swallowed up in the already existing culture. However, the “Latin American connection” was established. When Argentina became independent from Spain in 1810, one of the first acts of Bernardino Rivadavia, Argentina’s first president, was to end the Inquisition. Argentina then became a destination of choice for Jewish immigrants from Western Europe in the mid-1800s.
This trend continued into the late 19th century and beyond as Argentina’s willingness to accept immigrants led to the arrival of Russian and Eastern European Jews who were seeking to escape persecution and to better their lives. As the population increased, Jewish social institutions grew as well. The Jewish community formed synagogues and schools, along with newspapers and even a Yiddish theater in Buenos Aires.
However, the Jewish community in Argentina has seen its share of trouble. Political unrest and social upheaval throughout the decades have spawned intense periods of anti-Semitism. In recent years, Argentina’s Jewish community has been the focus of terrorist attacks. In April of 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed, killing 32 people. In 1994, Zhava and I were in Argentina when the Israelite Mutual Aid Association headquarters in Buenos Aires was bombed, killing more than 100 people and wounding at least 200 others.
In spite of these difficulties, the Jewish community has played an important part in the economic and cultural life of Argentina. However, change is once more on the horizon. Recent economic troubles have led to a new immigrant population-Argentine Jews departing to begin a new life in Israel. Now, 500 years after the Inquisition, these Jewish people are finally coming home.
The Jews of Brazil
Jewish history in Brazil dates back to 1500, when refugees from the Inquisition settled in Brazil. By the early 1600s, Brazil had acquired a population of about 50,000 Europeans-some of them descended from the Conversos. In 1624, part of northern Brazil came under Dutch rule. This was good news for the Jewish community, for the Dutch were sympathetic to the Jewish people and allowed Jewish immigration to continue.
The Jews in northern Brazil became established members of society. They prospered economically and built synagogues and schools. Some of the Jewish people then began to strike out in other directions. Some headed south, where they seem to have been absorbed into the native population. One recent startling development is the discovery of a tribal group in southern Brazil that keeps the custom of lighting candles on Friday night and avoiding the consumption of pork!
Things took a turn for the worse when the Portuguese reasserted their authority over the Dutch in 1654. Under renewed persecution, some Jewish people chose to flee. One group of escapees made their way to another Dutch town, New Amsterdam, which in time became New York City.
The 1920s saw a spike in Jewish immigration as about 30,000 Western European Jews came to Brazil. The following decade added another 17,500. As in many other places, the Jewish community prospered or suffered depending on the disposition of the government in power. A new constitution in 1945 helped secure the rights of Jewish citizens, and in 1947, Brazil cast its vote in the UN for the creation of a Jewish state. Today, the Jewish community in Brazil boasts a full spectrum of social and religious institutions.
New Fields in Latin America
Over the years, Chosen People Ministries’ evangelistic outreach has touched virtually every Jewish community in South America. Now the work in Latin America continues, with outreach among the Jewish people of Argentina and Mexico, and volunteer chapters throughout Latin America. We also hope to open a new work in Brazil. Please pray that we will find the right person to initiate this ministry.
The Jewish people of Latin America may seem a world away from us, but God has not lost sight of them, and neither should we. Although they dwell far from their roots, God has declared that “He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12).