Jewish Issues to Watch in Latin America in 2020

  • January 30, 2020
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Photo credit: Reuters

2019 was a year of unexpected political shifts in Latin America.  What will this mean for the Jewish communities in the region and their priority concerns in 2020?           

The Jewish community in Latin America experienced the same challenges and opportunities as their fellow citizens and are not alone in wondering how these political shifts will affect their daily lives. The organized local Jewish communities are apolitical and work with all governments regardless of their political leaning. Issues such as security, economic stability, health, education, and basic human rights are front and center on the agenda of all Latin American Jews. Latin American Jewish institutions are active in fighting anti-Semitism, discrimination, xenophobia and racism; strengthening relations with Israel, standing up to BDS, fighting terrorism and securing religious freedoms.

Political Challenges

2019 ended with major political protests in some Latin American countries primarily on the back of demands for economic equality. While each country has its own intrinsic issues to tackle, political divisions and polarized societies have historically been detrimental to the well-being of Jewish communities and increased instability may have an impact on their individual and communal security.

Influence of Iran & Hezbollah

The influence of Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah, in the region continues to pose an ever-present threat to Jewish communities in Latin America as the terrorist group allegedly operates narco-money laundering activities in parts of the region. While Hezbollah activity may originate in the Triple Frontier between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, it also has alleged operations in other countries such as Venezuela. ADL has long supported efforts to pressure Latin American governments to prevent Islamist extremists from operating in their countries and designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The two terrorist attacks in Argentina in the early 1990s, largely believed to have been perpetrated by Hezbollah with support from Iran, plus the alleged murder of the AMIA case prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, five years ago hover over Argentina’s past and present. July 18, 2019 marked 25 years since the AMIA attack, and the perpetrators and masterminds of this deadly terrorism have yet to be brought to justice.  The return of Cristina Kirchner to politics raised tensions with the Argentinean Jewish community who remain opposed to the Memorandum of Understanding she signed with Iran, which essentially absolved Iran of responsibility for the attacks. ADL continues to urge that justice be pursued for the victims of the AMIA and Israeli Embassy bombings as well as the alleged murder of Prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

Argentina, Paraguay and Honduras have already designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and 2020 can be a defining year where other countries such as Guatemala follow suit, especially as tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to escalate.

Adoption of the IHRA Definition

In 2019, Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States (OAS) announced the adoption of the  IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism for OAS. This was a seminal moment for the region and provides an opportunity for other countries to adopt the IHRA definition as a way to provide a framework for judicial systems in the region to prosecute alleged anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incidents in their countries. We are already witnessing some progress in the region as the government of Uruguay adopted the #IHRA definition on the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.

Relations with Israel

Jewish communities in Latin America are ardently Zionist, with strong loyalty to their home countries along with a strong affinity for the State of Israel. Issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and broader issues in the Middle East directly impact local Jewish communities in the region, with noticeable spikes in anti-Semitic incidents when tensions rise.

The re-establishment of relations between Bolivia and Israel after the departure of former President Evo Morales is a promising sign of a reversal of that country’s anti-Israel political stance over the past decade. In Latin America, only Venezuela and Cuba continue to have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Guatemala is the only country in the region to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Paraguay briefly moved its embassy in May 2018 under the presidency of Horacio Cartes, but the move was reversed a few months later by President Mario Abdo Benitez. Honduras and Brazil have signaled their willingness to move their embassies but have yet to fully implement the decision.

Delegitimization of Israel

BDS and other forms of delegitimization of Israel have yet to make a significant impact in the Latin American region, with the exception of Chile, which has the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East, at approximately 400,000 people.  The Jewish community numbers approximately 17,000. For the most part, these communities have been living side-by-side in harmony. However, there is a vociferous anti-Israel group led by the Chilean Palestinian Federation that employs a systematic campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel, which puts pressure on the local Jewish community to act against their Zionist beliefs.

Religious Freedoms

Religious freedoms are likely to be maintained by Latin American governments and, except for Venezuela, the region’s Jewish population numbers should remain stable.

Anti-Semitic Attitudes and Incidents

In November 2019, ADL updated its Global 100 Poll: An Index of Anti-Semitism of anti-Semitic attitudes sampling 18 countries, including Brazil and Argentina, home to approximately 70-75% of the Jewish population in the region, with Argentina being the 6th largest Jewish community in the world and Brazil being the 10th largest. While Latin America is not monolithic - with some differences in culture, social and political systems, size of population and historical backgrounds - a snapshot of attitudes vis-a-vis Jews in these two larger Jewish communities provides a window into some of the prejudices facing Jews across the region.

In both Argentina and Brazil, anti-Semitic attitudes rose in 2019. Overall, 30% of Argentinians (up from 24% in 2014) and  25% of Brazilians (up from 16%)  surveyed do hold anti-Semitic attitudes. While there are 11 survey questions in the Index,  the most notable upswing was attributed to the “dual loyalty” charge with 70% of Brazilians (up from 42%) and 57% of Argentinians (up from 42%) saying they believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their own country.

Anti-Semitic incidents in Latin America have been harder to systematically track. However, anti-Semitic harassment occurring online remained a serious problem, according to community officials and reports. According to a report issued by the DAIA, the political branch of the Argentine Jewish Community, online anti-Semitic incidents in that country accounted for almost 71% of all incidents reported in 2018. More data collection and analysis of online anti-Semitic incidents are necessary to make broad conclusions on regional trends.

ADL will continue to work with the Jewish communities of Latin America to fight anti-Semitism and hate across the region. 

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