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
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
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-
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
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
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
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-
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-
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-
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-
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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