QUINCENTENARY Colonial Legacy of Anti-Semitism

September 25, 2007

Six thousand meters up Mt. Acon- cagua in southern Argentina a graffito proclaims: "losjuden son cerdos" (yids are pigs). The plaque commemorating Argentine mountaineer David Eisen- berg's climb is defaced with swastikas. Eisenberg himself receives anonymous hate messages in the mail, such as "You shitty Jew, you won't take Aconcagua away from us." Anti-Semitism flourishes in Latin America despite the negligible size of its Jewish population. In all the territory south of the Rio Grande, there are fewer than half a million Jews-perhaps 35,000 in Mexico, 100,000 in Brazil, 233,000 in Argentina, the rest scattered in handfuls about the map. The product of nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigration, Latin American Jews to- day have only one link to the colonial past: the mythology that defines their lives. The Spanish Crown prohibited Jews and New Christians (converts to Ca- tholicism, or conversos) and their de- scendants from settling in the Indies. Any who came did so illegally. The absence of flesh-and-blood Jews in the Americas left a vacuum that the Span- ish filled by a mythical anti-Jewish cari- cature of the Jew fabricated by the medi- eval Catholic Church, and subsequently projected onto the New World. This image continues to define the space within which Jews are permitted to live in Latin America today. The status of contemporary Jews is as closely linked to the Conquest period as is the status of those other New Christians, the Native Americans. Co- lonial policy, by marginalizing entire ethnic groups and prohibiting the ex- pression of non-conforming ideas, left a problematic legacy for all dissidents and for society as a whole. The Colonial Roots By the fifteenth century, Jews had lived in Spain for a thousand years, from the time before Christians were there. Always a minority, they experi- enced both the joys and vicissitudes of an outgroup caught between the major contending powers of Catholicism and Islam, and manipulated by both. Peri- ods of convivencia, during which Jew- ish scientists, translators and statesmen made notable contributions to the ad- vancement of knowledge, alternated with periods of persecution and forced conversion. Ultimate deterioration of Jewish sta- tus began in 1391 when pogroms broke out, first in Seville and then throughout the peninsula, leaving entire Jewish communities massacred in their wake. Forced conversion to Catholicism was supplemented by voluntary conver- sions of Jews persuaded that God had deserted them, so that by 1492, when the Spanish Crown expelled the Jews, a substantial class of New Christians re- sided in the country. The expulsion or- der split the Jewish people: some left their homeland in order to remain faith- ful to their religion; others gave up their religion in order to retain their home- land. Conversos expected to be integrated into the rest of the population. But from the mid-fifteenth century, various ju- risdictions passed laws that excluded anyone with a drop of Jewish or Moorish "blood" from positions of honor in the professions, the Church, the military and the government. These laws of limpieza de sangre, codified by Philip II (1556-1598), turned New Christians into pseudo-Christians. Conversion, it turned out, made one not a Catholic, but a converso-an albaraico in the slang of the day, a half-breed neither Christian nor Jewish. The indelibility of Jewish ancestry changed the percep- tion of Judaism from the mother reli- gion of Christianity to a genetic flaw passed down through the generations that disqualified one from participating in the community of true Christians. To REPORT ON THE AMERICAS Judith Laikin Elkin is a research scien- tist at the University of Michigan and founder of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association.this day, Jews are widely viewed as a race in Latin America, despite the obvi- ous incongruence of the term. The agents of state and Church trans- mitted this conception of Jewishness to the Americas. In her first instruction to Nicolhs de Ovando, the governor of the colony of Hispaniola, Isabella the Cath- olic forbade from settling in the Indies Jews, Moors, heretics, New Christians and persons penanced by the Inquisi- tion, as well as their descendants. This legal prohibition continued throughout the period of Spanish rule, the last such order being promulgated early in the nineteenth century. Many conversos (and some Jews) succeeded in settling in the Indies any- way, entering through legal loopholes -as seamen, as servants of licensed immigrants, with forged baptismal cer- tificates, or with licenses purchased from the Crown itself. But theirpresence was illegal, and an avowed Jewish exist- ence was contrary to policy and law. The perception of conversos as false Christians took root in the Americas, and conversos remained vulnerable to denunciation to the Inquisition as "judaizers"-practitioners of Jewish rites in secret. In 1528, Hernando Alonso, a black- smith who helped build the ships that Hernmn Cortds sailed to the American mainland to lay siege to Tenochtitlhn, was convicted ofjudaizing and burned at the stake. The Catholic Church ac- cused him of baptizing an infant in wine and telling his wife not to attend church while menstruating. That Alonso, whose religious beliefs, if any, cannot be de- termined, was on the losing side of infighting between pro- and anti-Cortes factions underscores the fact that charges ofjudaizing were to become a convenient way of getting rid of politi- cal enemies. The execution of Alonso was some- thing of a rogue operation. But once the Church settled into a routine, Edicts of Faith were published regularly, listing telltalejudaizing practices which had to be reported on pain of severe penalties to be carried out by the state. The fun- damental tenets of Judaism, such as monotheism, were not mentioned in the Edicts. But changing one's shirt on Friday, cooking with olive oil rather than lard, or sweeping the floor from the center of the room toward the door could lead to imprisonment, pauper- ization of one's family, and in extreme cases, burning alive. Missionaries dedi- cated to the spiritual conquest of indig- enous populations singled out the Jews as tormentors and killers of Christ. Their teachings took root in the minds of Native Americans who had never met a Jew. The Charge of Subversion Primary among the charges levelled at those who were "sospechos en lafe" was subversion. Popular opinion held that subversion by conversos was re- sponsible for the Dutch defeat of the Portuguese on the sugar coast of Brazil in 1630. It was alleged that New Chris- tians assisted the invaders because they hoped to return to Judaism under the Dutch policy of religious toleration. Anita Novinsky and Stuart Schwartz, historians of Brazil, convincingly show that New Christians in Bahia, far re- moved from their Jewish origins, re- acted to invasion in the same ways as their Old Christian neighbors: some supported the Portuguese; others, the Dutch. In fact, it was the flight of the bishop of the province that broke the morale of the Portuguese defenders. The canard of Jewish subversion was employed again to spook the resi- dents of Lima in 1635. The Inquisition arrested the entire converso commu- nity overnight in an operation that went down in history as "la gran complicidad." Interestingly, neither the Inquisition's interrogators nor those who preached at the auto-da-fd of 1639 when the conversos were incinerated found any evidence of conspiracy. The prisoners were charged instead with judaizing-following "the dead law of Moses," in the cant phrase of the time. The Lima branch of the Inquisition, having expropriated the property of their prisoners, emerged as the wealthiest in the world, leading one to ask: Who con- spired against whom? Portuguese revolt against Spanish rule in Iberia and fear that Portuguese colonists in New Spain would collabo- rate in attacks on the colonies triggered the severest period of repression against Mexican conversos from 1642 to 1649. The ensuing xenophobia led to a crack- down on Portuguese conversos, 212 of whom were arrested on charges not of treason, but the criminal heresy of judaizing. This stereotype of Jews as subversives persists today, even in secu- lar countries such as Argentina. The generals who led Argentina's dirty war (1976-1983) attacked Jews as quintes- sential subversives. Had not Jews, they argued, produced Marx, Freud and Marcuse? (Jesus did not make their list.) In an eerie replay of the Inquisi- tion, the old charge of being a Jew and therefore a subversive was levelled against numerous people, the most fa-mous of whom was journalist Jacobo Timmerman. If the generals did not burn anyone at the stake, they did use instruments of torture identical to those used by the Inquisition against sus- pected subversives, including Jews who constituted a suspect category in them- selves. Nor is anti-Semitic paranoia limited to the uniformed elite. Plan Andinia, an original Argentine contribution to the literature of anti-Semitism, outlines a bizarre plot on the part of "the Jews" to amputate the southern region of Patago- nia and turn it over to Israel to be used as a giant refrigerator to hold the pro- duce which Jewish genius knows how to grow on Argentine soil. (Hence the paranoid delusion about the Jews se- questering Mt. Aconcagua.) The pam- phlet sells well in the streetcornerkiosks of Buenos Aires alongside the czarist forgery, Protocols of the Elders ofZion, Henry Ford's discredited International Jew, and "Information concerning ma- sonry and other secret societies," a re- hash of eighteenth-century notions about international conspiracies. Today, almost alone among Catho- lic Church hierarchies worldwide, Latin American church leaders continue to ignore the determination of Vatican II that Christian theology does not re- quire that congregants be taught that "the Jews"-neither Jesus' contempo- raries nor their descendants-are re- sponsible for the death of Jesus. The teaching of contempt for Jews has not ceased. Likewise, liberation theology, which is based on a Jewish text-the Book of Exodus-and professes to be concerned with the liberation of the oppressed, ignores the need to reevalu- ate the attitude of the Catholic Church toward Jews, to lift from Christian con- sciences the burden of hatred. Queried on this point, Father Gustavo Guti6rrez, one of the leading theoreticians of lib- eration theology, replied, "In my coun- try (Peru) I don't have the opportunity to meet people from this minority com- munity." The Charge of Secrecy The paradox of excluding conversos from society and thereby preventing their assimilation led to the emergence of myths concerning the crypto-Jew, the dissimulating Christian who pre- tends to be one thing while actually being another. Crypto-Judaism, the con- tinuance of Jewish behaviors in private by persons baptized into the Catholic faith, came to be seen not as a valiant attempt on the part of persecuted indi- viduals to remain faithful to their be- liefs, but as a plot on the part of false Christians to subvert the Church. The enforced disguise of origins necessitated by the laws of limpieza de sangre and the Inquisition's merciless pursuit of the descendants of conversos has led over the centuries to continual prying into the ancestry of prominent people--Columbus, Antonio Jos6 de Sucre, Francisco Madero, Jorge Luis Borges, the entire population of the Colombian province of Antioquia- with the intent to discredit them by finding a Jewish "stain" on their es- cutcheon. Reciprocal revelations of sup- posed Jewish ancestry of certain well- known anti-Semites keep alive the ap- prehension that one never knows who may be revealed to be a "Jew," a term divorced from any relation to the Jew- ish religion. REPORT ON THE AMERICASAnti-Semitism feeds on the putative mystery of the Christian who is not a Christian, the Jew who is not a Jew. The mystery arises because of the context within which Jews must live. To cite one modern example, Angelo Roncalli, apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece during World War II, issued blank cer- tificates of baptism to Jewish refugees, enabling them to find haven in Venezu- ela and other countries that required immigrants to show proof that they were Christians. The beneficiaries of the future Pope John XXIII became "secret Jews." But the theme of the secret Jew takes on an ominous cast in the work of several Spanish-language authors who regard secrecy as a choice Jews elect for their own nefarious pur- poses. In 1988, a survey of Buenos Aires residents by a University of Buenos Aires sociologist found over 15% de- clared themselves to be manifestly anti- Jewish, and 13.5% admitted to anti- Jewish feeling. "There is an extensive and generalized racist sentiment that reaches nearly one third of the popula- tion," the researcher concluded. While those who bomb synagogues are prob- ably in the first cohort, she said, toler- ance of vandalism comes from the more widespread acceptance of racist atti- tudes, including anti-Semitism. Within liberal circles (particularly in the universities and free professions, arts and sciences) throughout Latin America, Jews are accepted on their merits. In many nations-among them, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Panama and Honduras-people of Jew- ish descent are elected or appointed to public office during democratic inter- ludes. Once in office, however, some sectors of the population view Jewish politicians as the advance guard of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. For ex- ample, in Argentina the government of Radical Party leader Ratil Alfonsin (which included Jews) was taunted by right-wing critics as "la sinagoga radi- cal." Spanish-language dictionaries define sinagoga (technically, a Jewish house of prayer) as "conspiracy." Tradition makes anti-Semitism an acceptable philosophical position po- litically, socially and religiously, even for those who have Jewish friends, co- workers and spouses. A case in point is Juan B. Justo. A founder of the Argen- tine Socialist Party (along with his Jew- ish colleague, Enrique Dickman) and married to a Jewish woman, Justo pub- licly professed distaste for Jews in the aggregate in an article he wrote for Nuestra Vida in 1923. The mythical Jew created by Span- ish missionaries survives intact in some areas today. In Mexican Easter Week pageants, the red-painted men who rep- resent devils are called judios. Anti- Semitism in rural Mexico is so well known that my Jewish colleagues who travel there never identify themselves as Jews. A survey of the Peruvian press in 1986 found that offensive idiomatic expressions are routinely used to de- scribe Jews, while cartoons involving supposed Jews rely on caricatures with distorted evil faces. This hatred persists in regions where there are few if any Jews, and where the majority of the population also suffers from racial dis- crimination. The Suppression of Dissent Jewish immigrants arrived in Latin America too late to become latifundistas (large landowners), though many be- came tenant farmers. Nineteenth-cen- tury industry provided few jobs for immigrants, skilled or unskilled. The military cadres that conscripted Jews, along with other citizens, refused to commission them in the officer corps. And the other major employer, the Church, did not offer Jews a career. With these and other economic sectors closed to them, Jews carved places for themselves in commerce and cottage industries, roles for which their experi- ence in Europe and the Near East had equipped them. Today, having for the most part achieved economic security, Jews find themselves accused of responsibility for deteriorating economic conditions. Nationalist politicians use the code phrase "financial nation" to refer to Jews who (everyone knows) control the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. State Department and the world media. Behind an anti-Semitic smoke- screen, the military continues to loot the public treasury, legislators manage the national patrimony in their own self-interest, landowners abuse the poor, and the Church preaches that forgive- ness of human rights abuses should take precedence over justice. In target- ing Jews, authoritarian parties attack democracy at its most vulnerable point, knowing they can rely on the acquies- cence or passivity of many people for whom the new accusations resonate with the old. Spain, the Madre Patria, has repu- diated its historic policy with respect to Jews. Recognizing the damage done both to the exiles and the national fabric by the persecution and expulsion of the Jews 500 years ago, the present Spanish government apologized to the Jewish people in 1990 and has taken substan- tive steps to restore the Jewish presence in Spain. Paradoxically, as anti-Semitism re- cedes in Spain, the legacy of Spanish policy lives on in Latin America. The origins of racism in the Americas may be found in part in the colonial laws that evaluated human beings on the basis of whether or not their blood was "pure." The suppression of heterodox opinions as subversive of public order and pri- vate morality lies in a clear line of descent from the Edicts of Faith. Resis- tance to democracy is grounded in the Church teaching that disagreement with authority is immoral and subversive. Attacks on "the Jews," then, are veiled attacks on the freedom of speech and thought of all members of society.

Tags: quincentennary, anti-Semitism, colonialism, Jews, Argentina

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