There are more than 200,000 Latin American Jews who live in the US. A 3% of the 6.7 million American Jews.
As minority groups, Latinos and Jews often join forces to create coalitions that wield substantial political expertise, influence, and reach. Beyond their historical connections and ideological affinities, both communities share interests such as support for immigration reform, opposition to hateful rhetoric and behavior, and advocacy for native or ancestral homelands in Latin America and Israel.
Most of the Jewish Latinos are U.S. citizens or residents, and they are particularly well educated – 92% are university graduates. Interestingly, they not only preserve emotional ties with their native Latin American countries, but they also tend to define themselves in terms of their country of origin rather than as Americans.
The vast majority, 81%, comes from Mexico, Argentina, or Venezuela, countries that have undergone socioeconomic and political crises over the last five decades. Their Jewish identity stems from their ties with Israel, not from their synagogue attendance, making them very different from other American Jews. They are committed to passing down their Jewish identity and Latin American heritage to their children. Speaking Spanish and repeatedly traveling to Latin America and Israel are part of their inter-generational cultural heritage.
Jewish immigration to Latin America began with seven sailors arriving in Christopher Columbus’ crew. Since then, the Jewish population of Latin America has risen to more than 500,000 — more than half of whom live in Argentina, with large communities also present in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Latin American Jews are not necessarily Sephardic Jews, those whose families originally came from Spain. Many Latino Jews in the U.S. are Ashkenazi, descended from German and Eastern European Jews.
The history of the Jews in Latin America began with conversos who joined the Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to the continents. The Spanish permitted only Christians to take part in New World expeditions after its Crown expelled the Jews in 1492.
After the expulsion, many Sephardic Jews migrated to the Netherlands, France and eventually Italy, from where they joined other expeditions to the Americas. Others migrated to England or France and accompanied their colonists as traders and merchants.
By the late 16th century, fully functioning Jewish communities were founded in the Portuguese colony of Brazil, the Dutch Suriname and Curaçao; Spanish Santo Domingo, and the English colonies of Jamaica and Barbados. In addition, there were unorganized communities of Jews in Spanish and Portuguese territories where the Inquisition was active, including Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru. Many in such communities were crypto-Jews, who had generally concealed their identity from the authorities.
More Jews immigrated to Latin America as part of the massive emigration of Jews from eastern Europe in the late 19th century. During and after World War II, many Ashkenazi Jews emigrated to South America for refuge.
Most Latin American nations were relatively open to immigrants from 1918 to 1933. After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, however, as the search for refuge intensified, both popular and official resistance to the acceptance of European Jews and other foreigners increased. Latin American governments officially permitted only about 84,000 Jewish refugees to immigrate between 1933 and 1945, less than half the number admitted during the previous fifteen years. Others entered these countries through illegal channels.
It is estimated that in the past 40 years between 150,000 and 250,000 Jews have emigrated from Latin American countries, both inside and outside the region, mainly to the United States, Israel, and to a lesser extent, countries in Western Europe (Spain) as well as Canada. There has been a significant drop in the number of Jews in the region – from 514,000 in the 1970s to 392,000 today. Argentina still hosts the largest Jewish community on the continent in spite of its significant demographic reduction – from an alleged half a million in the 1960s to 390,000 a decade later, and subsequent radical drops. Today, its core population numbers around 180,000.
About 200,000 Latin American Jews live in the U.S. today. A similar number migrated to Israel and up to 20,000 to other places. Latin American Jewish life in the U.S. should be seen within the broader Latino context of immigration to the U.S.
Latin American Jews have relocated mostly to Miami-Dade county in Southern Florida and San Diego in Southern California. Cities with large Latin American population, and large Jewish population, which make the transition of Latin American Jews into their new country easier. Latin American Jews have migrated in waves associated with political and economical pressure in Latin American countries. In Miami and San Diego, stable Jewish educational settings, which are also socially cohesive, have attracted Latin American Jews.
Latin American Jews have incorporated into different “American” milieus while maintaining their socio-cultural distinctiveness, both with respect to their culture of origin and their Jewishness. Jewish collective models have been transferred to and recreated into educational institutions and communal organizations in the United States while hybrid models are also part of the new scenarios. In a global Jewish world characterized by high institutional and organizational density, Latin American Jews can incorporate and even integrate into different host communities by displaying multiple identities – as Jews, as Latin American Jews, as Latin Americans or Hispanic/Latinos, as Mexicans, Colombians, Argentines or American-Israelis. Their increasing arrival numbers and their demands for inclusion test conventional boundaries and mutual perceptions of similarity and difference.
A survey, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, of Americans who are both Latino and Jewish aims to shed light on this minority within a minority, who number more than 200,000 people. Among the conclusions of the recently released study: Latino Jews are proud of their dual identities, but also distinct within the larger communities of American Jews and Latino Americans. The study also found that the group feels strongly connected to Israel and their families’ Latin American homelands, even if they weren’t born there.
Latino Jews said they related to the Latino American community through the Spanish language and a shared love for close families, great parties and the entrepreneurial spirit. They cited class and socio-economic differences as barriers between Jewish and non-Jewish Latinos.
Latino American Jews are determined to have a positive impact on relations between their current, native, and ancestral home countries, even decades after departing the region. Many of them remain deeply appreciative of their countries of origin—some which are still dealing with the same serious problems that caused their own emigration—for originally allowing in their families when many others did not.
According to the survey, Latino American Jews feel very connected to the American Jewish community through Jewish culture and ritual. At the same time, focus groups members consistently described American Jews as more formal in their social and religious practices, “making it difficult to relate at a personal level.” Many Latino American Jews doubted that most American Jews knew of their presence in the U.S.
In the survey, many specifically said they want to play an active role in building bridges between Latino and Jewish communities. This group wants to be at the table when it comes to Jewish advocacy. Their experiences, personal and professional relationships, and passion for Israel can be applied to advance any number of particular organizational programs or efforts.
Pro-Israel activity by the Latin Jewish American Community in Miami
Leopoldo Martinez, the Latin America director of the Israel Allies Foundation, speaks at the recent Second Annual Latin America Summit on Israel in Miami.
IAF Latin America director Leopoldo Martínez organized the summit and is spearheading a rapidly expanding program in the region. Martinez noted the “tremendous opportunity for Israel in Latin America” especially with recent political changes in countries like Argentina and in his home country of Venezuela.
During the Israel Allies Foundation’s Latin America summit, held March 6, 2016, parliamentarians from 13 Latin American and Caribbean nations signed a resolution in support of Israel and against BDS. The declaration’s signatories stated their “support for the Jewish people to live in peace, safety, and security in the Land of Israel,” emphasizing that “strong relations between the Western Hemisphere and Israel are crucial to the spread of freedom, democracy, and justice around the world.” The resolution also said that the BDS movement contributes to anti-Semitic attitudes, which is “detrimental to a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and must be rejected by all actors that seek peace.”
- Latin American Jewish life in the 21st Century: The paradox of shrinking communities, and expanded – revitalized Jewish life.
- The Jewish Week
- Latino Jews in the United States – AJC