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Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil
Cláudia Andréa Prata Ferreira é Professora Doutora - Categoria: Associado IV - do Setor de Língua e Literatura Hebraicas do Departamento de Letras Orientais e Eslavas da Faculdade de Letras da UFRJ.



terça-feira, 5 de fevereiro de 2008

The Twisted Roots of Hispanic Anti-Semitism

The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated February 8, 2008

The Twisted Roots of Hispanic Anti-Semitism

Latin America has a pattern of prejudice that is little known but increasingly worrisome


In caracas in 2006, after the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, the most vocal anti-American leader in the Southern Hemisphere since Fidel Castro, delivered a speech against the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, anti-Semitic graffiti were scribbled on the central Sephardic synagogue. "Zionism=Terrorism," one slogan read. Another, "Jews Assassins." The periodicals Diario Vea and Temas Venezuela, loyal to the regime, included cartoons with swastikas, Stars of David, and American flags juxtaposed. Unfortunately such messages aren't uncommon in Venezuela, where the socialist leader is building strong ties with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a proud axis to counterbalance American weight worldwide. Every time the Middle East is embroiled in another explosive episode, the effect on the streets in Chávez's country is foreseeable.

It would be a mistake to underestimate such incidents. In fact, while Venezuela represents the most fertile ground today for this type of hatred, Mexico and Central and South America as a whole have a history of anti-Semitism that is little known, yet increasingly worrisome. In 2005 the fence of a Jewish cemetery in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was sprayed with Nazi slogans — the second time in recent years. Similarly, two years ago, swastikas were drawn on the Hebraica Club in Montevideo, Uruguay. Other anti-Semitic acts have taken place not only in cities with active Jewish communities but also in towns without Jews. At times neo-Nazi groups are blamed, but the incidents are also committed by communist groups. In Valparaíso, Chile, after a documentary on neo-Nazi activities made by the country's television station was broadcast, the network's office was vandalized. In Argentina, arguably the Latin American country where anti-Semitism is most common and vociferous, the list of occurrences is lengthy.

It's time to conceptualize Hispanic anti-Semitism on its own terms. Seeing it just in a global context, as one more sign of anti-Semitism around the world, doesn't offer a full picture. It is a phenomenon with a complex, multifaceted history.

Before I go further, a word about the term "anti-Semitism." A few months ago, I delivered a lecture on the subject at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prior to my visit, I received several e-mail messages complaining about the use of "anti-Semitism" in my title. A couple of messages suggested that the term refers to aggression against people of Semitic background. Jews are among them, but so are Arabs. Those correspondents proposed "anti-Judaism" as an alternative. But anti-Judaism is abhorrence of the Jewish religion. Another correspondent wondered, So how about "anti-Jewishness"? But that is equally loose, since Jewishness is generally understood as the secular culture of Jews in Western civilization. My response: The word "anti-Semitism" is ubiquitous at the global level. Its semantics might be vague, but the public always understands its focus on Jews.

Among the audience at the talk were a dozen representatives of the United Nations from different parts of the Hispanic world. They were all educated, middle or upper-middle class, with an average age of 50, and none of them (to the best of my knowledge) were Jewish. I was struck by a number of comments during the question period. Some in attendance said they had never witnessed an anti-Semitic remark in the Hispanic world or, for that matter, anything more physical. My impression was that as official representatives of their respective nations, they were eager to condemn, at least on paper, any form of such hatred. Given a bit more time, though, a number of the group suggested that misconceptions about Jews did indeed exist in their countries. Still, they were skeptical that those amounted to any orchestrated phenomenon.

That skepticism isn't surprising. The Hispanic world, constituted by Spain, what I'll call Latin America (Mexico and South and Central America), the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and Equatorial Guinea in Africa, has a population of roughly 350 million. The Hispanic countries have a little more than 500,000 Jews. The three with the largest concentration of Jews are Argentina (with 250,000), Brazil (87,000), and Mexico (53,101). Most Hispanics never see a single Jew in their lives. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't have preconceptions about Jews.

Among the 43 million people who make up the Latino minority north of the Rio Grande, attitudes toward Jews have undergone changes in the last few decades as the process of assimilation has progressed. A survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2002 showed that 35 percent of Hispanics in the United States harbored anti-Semitic views, a substantially higher number than among other Americans (17 percent). What I found particularly interesting was that the survey suggested that, among Latinos, the percentage was higher among those who were foreign-born, at 44 percent. Hispanic-Americans born in the United States held anti-Semitic views at less than half that rate, 20 percent. No similar analysis is available for the Hispanic world in general. And the sample of respondents might not have been representative of the diversity among Latinos in the United States. Still, the high percentage of anti-Semitic views among foreign-born Hispanics seems to indicate that the northbound immigrant journey, and exposure to American values, lessens anti-Semitism.

A specific Hispanic anti-Semitism feeds the animosity, sometimes influenced by global events, but stemming from concrete historical, religious, and political forces in the Spanish-speaking countries and among Latinos in the United States. (I focus only on the Spanish-speaking areas because the roots of anti-Semitism in the Portuguese- and French-speaking countries of the Americas are different.) Each region and nation has its own idiosyncrasies, and anti-Semitic sentiments tend to be different from place to place. Cuba, for instance, had a small but thriving Jewish community before Fidel Castro's revolution. Half a century later, the community is smaller but still thriving, receiving financial support from American Jews. Chile also has a small Jewish community — of wealthy Jews, whom Gen. Augusto Pinochet kept close ties to, occasionally attending a synagogue event. In Argentina, during the Dirty War against its own citizens, the number of Jews who were among the desaparecidos was high. Yet there's enough continuity to recognize pan-Hispanic patterns. And those patterns, starting in the Middle Ages, point at the Jew as interloper, hypocrite, and agent of dissent.

There are three distinctive, albeit interconnected, emphases in Hispanic anti-Semitism: church-connected — and sponsored — animosity; a more secular ideological hostility; and attitudes relating to the conflict in the Middle East.

The source of the first type of anti-Semitism is the period known as La Reconquista, which began with the Umayyad conquest in the eighth century of the Iberian Peninsula — i.e., the quest to homogenize the territory under one religion, Christianity. Inquisitions to rid Roman Catholicism of heretics took place in Europe starting in the 12th century, but in 1478 the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, with the support of the pope, inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition under royal authority. It was aimed primarily at two of the three faiths that had coexisted in Spain for centuries — Judaism and Islam, in that order.

To this day, religiously based anti-Semitism in the Hispanic world revolves around a set of beliefs sponsored by Church fathers during the Inquisition to justify hostility to Jews. Among the claims: that Jews had betrayed Jesus, and that, as witnesses to his ordeal, their existence was proof of the authenticity of the Passion. In March 1492, the Edict of Expulsion was issued in Granada, written by Juan de Coloma on behalf of Isabella and Ferdinand. It "resolved to order all and said Jews and Jewesses out of our kingdoms and that they never return or come back to any of them."

I am distressed that the edict isn't better known. It was an intricate document, with the first portion devoted to justifying the expulsion. The sheer presence of Jews in the Iberian midst made "wicked Christians" misbehave, the edict said. That is, there were good Christians and bad Christians. A successful nation would endorse the former while rejecting the latter. The edict used the verb judaizar, which would feature in Hispanic lexicons for centuries to come: to judaize means to spread the evil gospel. In 1502, Muslims were also given an ultimatum: either convert or leave too.

There has been much debate among historians as to the true function of La Inquisición. Was it designed to persecute Jews? Was it set up, instead, as a mechanism against an emerging class with powerful influence — economic, political, and cultural — the conversos who had publicly adopted Christianity to avoid persecution? Has the role the Inquisition played in Hispanic society been overemphasized? Whatever the answers, it is undeniable that the Inquisition's sheer authority projected a long shadow on every aspect of life.

Fear — and the assumptions feeding it — spread widely. To be a Jew and to be a judaizante were different things: The former resisted conversion and, hence, was a lost cause; but the latter was all the more dangerous, surreptitiously undermining the foundation of Iberian civilization. The terms castizo and honrado, in vogue at the time of the trans-Atlantic colonial enterprise in the 16th century, are apropos. Neither is readily translatable into English. They make reference to the pure blood in one's family, to the difference between a cristiano viejo and a cristiano nuevo, an old and new Christian. At the time of the colonial enterprise, that hierarchy, based on ancestry, shaped the Americas to the core.

Spain was left mostly without Jews. For centuries a fascinating development took place: anti-Semitism without Jews. Just as Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice without having been exposed to Jews, who had been expelled from England in 1290, so some of the authors of the so-called Spanish Golden Age, like Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645), imagined Jews without direct contact with them. The same goes for their successors, like Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920). In Spanish literature of the 16th century and onward, Jews are big-nosed money lenders. Even today in Spain, on occasion one still stumbles on anti-Semitic remarks, especially among soccer fans.

In Latin America, anti-Semitism has been grounded in the phobias that arrived from the Iberian Peninsula with the conquistadors, explorers, and missionaries. The ghosts of the Inquisition are pervasive. Conversos sought to escape the Spanish Inquisition and emigrated in large numbers. (According to specialists in onomastics, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of the region's patronymics, from Espinoza to Pérez, have Jewish origins.) They believed that the colonies across the ocean were a safe haven, but in major urban centers like Lima and Mexico City, cases like that of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, accused of proselytizing the "Mosaic" religion in 1596 in Mexico City, were not uncommon. Like many others, the governor's nephew and heir succumbed to torture and named other judaizantes among the colonists.

To meditate on anti-Semitism in the Hispanic world, and particularly in Latin America, without invoking the victims of the Inquisition is to decontextualize the phenomenon. Even though conversos are rarely mentioned in textbooks, their plight is the pillar on which subsequent hatred has been built. They were anti-models: Burned at the stake in ceremonial gatherings attended by the masses, they underscored the message that to be different was a sin. When the independence movements began to emerge in Latin America from 1810 onward, the revolutionary figures were often accused of being Jewish conversos. To do so was to discredit their cause.

Ideology became the fountain of anti-Semitism in Latin America in the last third of the 19th century. As in North America, Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in Latin America between 1880 and 1930, Argentina their primary destination. The presence of the new immigrants triggered an outbreak of xenophobia among the local population. More and more, Jews were seen as threatening agents of change. For some who feared them (especially those inspired by The Protocols of the Wise of Zion, a fraudulent screed published in Europe around that time, purporting to show that Jews and Freemasons were planning to overthrow Christian society), Jews were seen as part of an international capitalist campaign. For others, they were communist infiltrators working to undermine the foundations of capitalist society. Either way the response was filled with hatred, not toward the Jewish religion, but toward the Jews as an ideological menace.

Among the chapters in the history of this type of ideological anti-Semitism is the Semana Trágica, the Tragic Week, in Buenos Aires in 1919. Some commentators have described it as the first, and so far only, pogrom on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. More than anything else, it was a symptom of labor unrest. As Argentina underwent industrialization and workers sought to organize, labor unrest coalesced around anti-Jewish sentiment because, as happens so often, immigrants were seen as taking jobs and despoiling the preindustrial landscape.

Businesses were destroyed. Some sources say close to 700 died, and thousands were injured. A number of them were Jews. Since then, anti-Semitic attacks based on ideology have been sporadic, used by various political figures to their advantage, their tone depending on circumstance. When I was growing up in Mexico in the 1970s, I remember reading comic strips and watching television shows in which Jews were depicted as controlling major businesses. In 1982, when President José López Portillo nationalized the banking industry, he threatened to publish a list of those Mexicans who had taken money out of the country, a threat that remained just that. It was said that the list had a preponderance of Jewish last names. Similar rumblings have been heard from Peru to Costa Rica. All of that isn't surprising, considering that The Protocols of the Wise of Zion is still sold throughout Latin America in inexpensive editions on magazine stands.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, and particularly after the Six-Day War in 1967, the third basis of anti-Semitism has materialized. It goes by the name of anti-Zionism and springs from the left. On campuses across Latin America, more intensively than on their North American counterparts, Israel is portrayed as a merciless aggressor whose only purpose is to annihilate the Palestinian population. The rhetoric reaches higher intellectual circles. Some years ago I was engaged with the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist José Saramago in a polemical discussion in Boston about the military policies of the state of Israel. After his visit to Ramallah, Saramago equated the Palestinian situation with Nazi genocide. I told Saramago that I shared his unhappiness with the situation, but that comparing Israel's attitude with Hitler's approach to the Jews was ridiculous. Saramago's opinions aren't exceptional. In fact, as of late, even center-right intellectuals like Mario Vargas Llosa, once left leaning, have taken a confrontational position toward Israel. But at least he's more cautious than the average izquierdista, or leftist, for whom Jews and Zionists have become interchangeable terms. In urban graffiti, the terms appear to be synonymous with the merciless capitalist usurpers who control Hollywood and the American news media and have strong influence in Washington. Signs also paint Jews, since they are seen as extensions of Israeli policy and American imperialism (Beware, for Jews are in cahoots with Yankees!), as supporters of the war in Iraq. That might not be a uniquely Hispanic spin to the ugly face of anti-Semitism, but as it connects with the religious and ideological components, it has a particular resonance among the Latin-American population.

On July 19, 1994, a terrorist attack left 85 people dead and hundreds injured in Buenos Aires. A truck with a bomb crashed into the building of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association, the Jewish community center. The entire building collapsed. President Carlos Menem ordered an investigation, which dragged on for years; in the end, it offered no conclusive data, although top-ranking Iranian officials and Iranian-backed terrorist groups remain prime suspects. Two years earlier, also in the Argentine capital, the Israeli Embassy had been the target of a terrorist attack.

Such incidents signaled the vulnerability of Jewish communities in Latin America. A drastic change in attitude followed. Up until then, Hispanic Jews hadn't seen the need for security, notwithstanding the strong religious and ideological anti-Semitism they faced. Almost 15 years later, prominent Jewish sites are tensely vigilant, especially during religious holidays.

It is crucial to understand the intertwined roots of this Hispanic anti-Semitism, not least because it has an impact among the growing Hispanic population in the United States. As I mentioned previously, the data released by the Anti-Defamation League suggest that Latinos born north of the Rio Grande increasingly reject anti-Semitic ideas. But fringe organizations like the Nation of Aztlan incite hatred, mostly through the Internet. The group draws on the views articulated during the Chicano civil-rights movement that began in the second half of the 1960s, arguing that Chicanos live under U.S. occupation of what was originally Aztlán. As its publication, La Voz de Aztlan, makes clear, the organization also denies the Holocaust and portrays Jews as abusive owners of assembly-line maquiladora, media manipulators, anthrax-spreading terrorists, and shrewd spies. It also supports the idea that Zionists were behind the attacks of September 11, 2001. Editorials, often reprinted in the Arab world, are intertwined with comments on poverty, voting rights, immigration, and bilingual education. It was clear in op-ed pieces published in Spanish-language newspapers and in radio discussions that the immigration marches last year provided a venue for the dissemination of such nativist opinions. Some of these attitudes can be linked to the type of rhetoric associated with Louis Farrakhan and other extremist African-American leaders. But their force and appeal also cannot be understood without reference to the anti-Semitism in Latin America.

Of course it is also important to consider the other side of the coin: anti-Hispanic sentiments among Jews, a topic that requires attention, especially in the United States. In spite of the compassion that flourishes on the surfaces, there's a deeply ingrained wariness about Latinos and a lack of interest among Jews in Latino culture — a topic for an essay of its own.

Here, the point is that the terrorist activities in Latin America and the anti-Jewish rhetoric among Hispanics north and south of the Rio Grande won't vanish. The only way to confront it is, first, to understand it.4

Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. One of the stories in his collection The Disappearance (Northwestern University Press, 2006) has been made into the movie My Mexican Shivah, produced by John Sayles. Yale University Press has recently published his book, with Verónica Albin, Love and Language.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 22, Page B10

The article, "The Twisted Roots of Hispanic Anti-Semitism"  will
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