Among Israel’s many immigrant communities, one felt particularly embattled during the latest round of fighting in the Gaza Strip. Around 120,000 South American Jews call Israel home, and for many of them Operation Protective Edge proved to be a double whammy.
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For starters, there was the very real physical threat many of them faced. Several of the kibbutzim on Israel’s border with the Strip, including Kissufim, Nir Am, Nirim and Bror Hayil, were founded by and are still populated by South American Jews, many of whom were members of Zionist youth movements in Argentina and Brazil. That proximity made them more vulnerable than many other Israelis to Hamas rockets and tunnels. Indeed, one of the most familiar faces of the war for Israeli television watchers in recent weeks has been that of Argentinean-born Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, where many of these kibbutzim are located.
Attacks from Gaza have been a fact of life for this community for years. But what caught Israel’s Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking immigrants off guard this time around was the assault from a completely different direction – their birthplaces overseas.
Since Israel launched its ground incursion into Gaza, five Latin American nations — Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Peru and El Salvador — have recalled their ambassadors, harshly condemning Israel for the latest round of violence. Last week Bolivia, which in 2009 severed diplomatic ties with Israel over Operation Cast Lead, canceled a long-standing visa-exemption for visiting Israelis.
This virtually unprecedented backlash has shaken up Latin American Jews to the point, they say, that they feel terribly let down, almost betrayed. Many noted the complete failure by governments in Latin America to express concern for the safety of tens of thousands of their nationals living in Israel.
“There’s a very deep concern about all this,” says Rabbi Mauricio Balter of the Eshel Avraham Conservative synagogue of Be’er Sheva, home to roughly 7,000 Argentinean immigrants. “For me, what’s different this time is that it’s all the countries ganging up on Israel together.”
Balter, who was born in Uruguay but raised in Argentina, believes the growing anti-Israel wave in Latin America has provided an excuse for latent anti-Semitism to rear its head. Chile, as he notes, has a very large Palestinian community, but he says he had never before heard of Jews in that country living in fear.
“Now I’m hearing reports of anti-Semitic graffiti in Jewish cemeteries in Chile and of Jews being verbally attacked in supermarkets. Chileans aren’t like Argentineans, they’re much more subdued,” he says, “which is why this is especially worrying.”
In Mexico, reports Balter, a new Facebook group was created calling for the expulsion of the local Jewish community. And although Argentina has yet to recall its diplomatic envoy, he and many others were appalled when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner tweeted about her concern for the safety of an Argentinean priest residing in Gaza, without mentioning a word about all the Argentineans living in Israel.
According to Leon Amiras, the chairman of Olei, an organization representing Latin America immigrants, of the 120,000 in Israel today, about 80,000 are from Argentina and 30,000 from Brazil, with the rest mainly from Uruguay and Chile.
“When I hear about countries like Venezuela or Bolivia behaving like this, it doesn’t shock me,” he says. “There was always anti-Semitism in these countries. What is shocking is when you hear about it happening in places like Brazil and Chile, which have always enjoyed good relations with Israel and where there was never a problem of anti-Semitism.”
Amiras estimates Latin America’s Jewish population today at about half a million, including some 300,000 in Argentina and 100,000 in Brazil.
For many South American Jews in Israel, who maintain close ties with friends and relatives in their home countries, it was not only the fierce condemnations and diplomatic sanctions that surprised them, but also, as some noted, the strong positions taken with respect to a conflict that doesn’t affect most South Americans.
“There’s a lot of disinformation out there, and my people in South America don’t know what to believe and what not to believe,” says Amiras. “For example, they have no idea these are our sons, brothers and husbands serving in the IDF. They think it’s a mercenary army.”
Jaime Spitzcovsky, a journalist and director of institutional relations at the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, goes so far as to describe the reaction in Latin America to the war in Gaza as “absurd.”
“They’ve been more vocal than even the Arab countries,” he notes.
In recent weeks, he adds, there have been anti-Semitic incidents in Brazil, for the first time. “This isn’t yet France, but it’s beginning to make us feel uncomfortable, to say the least,” he says.
Andre Lajst, a 28-year-old immigrant from Sao Paulo who has been helping out this summer with Israel’s public diplomacy campaign aimed at Portuguese-speakers, organized a protest last Friday outside the Brazilian embassy in Tel Aviv with about 150 participants. “We wanted them to know how we feel about them recalling the ambassador and also that we think their decision to blame just Israel and not Hamas is unacceptable.” Lajst will be heading out in the coming days on a lecture tour to Brazil, where he says he hopes to train young members of the Jewish community to advocate on behalf of Israel.
A group of prominent Chilean Jews living in Israel this week sent a letter to President Michelle Bachelet, protesting her decision to recall the country’s envoy in Israel. “Instead of pulling out the ambassador, we wrote her that she should have been thanking the Israeli government for the Iron Dome, which is protecting so many Chileans who live in Israel,” according to Dr. Rafael Gorodischer, a retired physician and member of the community who signed the letter.
Will the backlash against Israel and the apparent rise of anti-Semitism spark a new wave of immigration among South America’s Jews? Spitzcovsky doesn’t think so, not in Brazil at least. “This is a country with a very short memory,” he notes.