Jewish Issues to Watch in Latin America in 2022

amia latin america

Photo credit: Reuters

January 12, 2022

Latin American countries have struggled to keep up with economic pressures, which had started prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and were exacerbated by the health crisis. Furthermore, political polarization seems to have permeated across the region with elections that appear to favor populist far left and far right candidates.

What will this all mean for the Jewish communities in the region in 2022?          

The Jewish communities of 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 seek to work with all governments regardless of their political leanings. Issues such as security, economic stability, health, education, and basic human rights are front and center on the agenda of all Latin American Jews. Jewish institutions are active in fighting antisemitism, discrimination, xenophobia, and racism. They also work to strengthen relations with Israel, stand up to BDS, fight terrorism and secure religious freedoms.

Political Challenges

2021 saw contentious elections in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Honduras where the tug between far left and far right candidates pointed to significant political polarization amongst the population and the challenges of governing. In 2022, key elections will be held in Brazil and Colombia, two countries that may also move the political pendulum from right to left and lead to increased fears of an alliance with Venezuela’s populist regime.

While each country has its own unique issues to tackle, we can comfortably assert that political divisions and polarized societies have historically been detrimental to the well-being of Jewish communities in Latin America as elsewhere around the world, and increased instability can impact individual and communal security as well as migration patterns.

Influence of Iran & Hezbollah

The influence of Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah, which allegedly operates narco-money laundering activities in parts of Latin America, continues to pose an ever-present threat to Jewish communities as these entities have a long record of plotting violence against global Jewish targets. While historically Hezbollah activity  was largely centered in the Triple Frontier between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, it  is now  alleged by some analysts that such operations  have expanded to other countries, such as Venezuela.

ADL has long supported efforts to pressure Latin American governments to prevent Islamist extremists from operating in their borders and to fully designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. 2021 proved to be a year that many governments, including Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras  designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and so has the Organization of American States.

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 seven years ago of Alberto Nisman, the AMIA bombing case prosecutor, continue to loom  over Argentina’s past and present. ADL continues to advocate that justice be pursued for victims of all these terrorist crimes. Indeed, 2022 will mark 30 years since the Israeli Embassy bombing and 28 years since the AMIA attack, and the perpetrators and masterminds of these deadly attacks have yet to be brought to justice.  The return of Former President Cristina Kirchner to politics raised further tensions with the Argentinean Jewish community who remained opposed to the Memorandum of Understanding Kirschner signed with Iran, which essentially absolving Iran of responsibility for the attacks.

Two of the Iranian cabinet members in Ebrahim Raisi’s administration, Ahmed Vahidi and Moshen Rezaei, have Interpol Red Alerts issued against them by the Argentinean judicial system for their alleged role in the AMIA attack. While the government of Argentina has made public condemnations of these appointments and recently repudiated the presence of Rezaei at the inauguration of the Nicaraguan autocrat Daniel Ortega, Argentina’s effectiveness in acting on those alerts and preventing Vahidi and Rezaei from freely traveling across the region is questionable.

Adoption of the IHRA Definition

In 2019, Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) announced the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism for OAS. This was a seminal moment for the region and provides an opportunity for other countries to adopt IHRA to provide a guidance for judicial systems in the region in helping them better understand alleged antisemitic and anti-Zionist incidents in their countries. We have already seen some progress in the region as the government of Uruguay adopted the IHRA definition on the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. Argentina and Guatemala have also adopted the definition and Brazil joined the IHRA as an observer state in November 2021.

Relations with Israel

Jewish communities in Latin America are ardently Zionist, with strong loyalty to their home countries along with an 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 antisemitic incidents when tensions rise as was the case in May 2021 during the conflict  between Israel and Hamas.

Guatemala and Honduras are the only countries in the region to have their embassies in 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. Brazil has signaled its willingness to move its embassy but has yet to fully implement the decision.

Venezuela and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Delegitimization of Israel

BDS and other forms of delegitimization of Israel have yet to make a significant impact in Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela and Chile, which has the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East, at approximately 400,000 people.  The Jewish community of Chile 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, such as proposing a bill that seeks to strip away the Chilean citizenship of any adult who volunteers to serve in the Israeli army.  In addition, there is a pending bill in Congress to penalize individuals and companies who do business in “Illegal Settlements in Occupied Territories” - referring to Palestinian Territories. Unfortunately, the newly elected President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, supports such bill, and has made problematic statements in the past claiming Israel is a genocidal state and putting the onus on the local Jewish community to demand from Israel the return of Palestinian lands. We hope that the Boric administration will understand that such statements and actions may lead to expressions of antisemitism and put the local Jewish community at peril.

Religious Freedom

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

Antisemitic Attitudes and Incidents

In October 2021, the region hit an important milestone when the OAS appointed Fernando Lottenberg as its first Commissioner to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, an appointment that ADL warmly welcomed.

While there is no centralized database of antisemitic incidents across Latin America, ADL monitors and condemns antisemitism including instances of Holocaust glorification and analogies; verbal attacks targeting Jews, vandalism at cemeteries, slurs uttered in soccer, online harassment, Spanish language antisemitism on Facebook and other troubling manifestations of hate. In 2022, ADL will continue to work with the Jewish communities of Latin America to fight antisemitism and hate across the region.