Jewish presence in Bolivia started at the very beginning of the Spanish colonial period. The origins of Jewish settlement in Bolivia can be traced back to the colonial period, when Marranos from Spain arrived in the country, which at the time was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Some Jews worked in the silver mines of Potosi, others were among the pioneers who founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1557. A safe haven destination for Sephardic Conversos during the Spanish Colony was Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Many Crypto-Jews from Paraguay and Buenos Aires joined Ñuflo de Chávez and were among the pioneers who founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.Indeed, certain customs still maintained by old families in that region, for example lighting candles on Friday nights and sitting on the ground in mourning when a close relative dies, suggest possible Jewish ancestry. The only extant documents from the period are those of the Inquisition, which was established in Peru in 1570, and whose appearance signaled the incipient demise of the Marrano community.
During the 16th century, several marranos settled in Potosi, La Paz and La Plata, but soon gained economic success in mining and commerce and faced persecution from the Inquisition and local authorities. Most of these marrano families also moved to Santa Cruz for it was the most isolated urban settlement and because the Inquisition did not bother the Conversos of Santa Cruz for this frontier town was meant to be a buffer to the Portuguese and Guarani raids that threatened the mines of Peru. Several of them settled in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its adjacent towns of Vallegrande, Postrervalle, Portachuelo, Terevinto, Pucara, Cotoca and others.
Several of Santa Cruz oldest Catholic families are in fact of Jewish origin; some traces of Judaic practices are still alive among them and have also influence the rest of the community. As recent as the 1920s, several families preserved seven-branched candle sticks and served dishes cooked with reminiscing kosher practices. It is still customary among certain old families to light candles on Friday at sunset and to mourn the deaths of dear relatives on the floor. After almost five centuries, some of the descendants of these families still acknowledge their Jewish origin, but practice Catholicism (in certain cases with some Jewish syncretism).
From independence in 1825 to the end of the 19th Century, some Jewish merchants (both Sephardim and Ashkenazim) came to Bolivia, most of them taking local women as wives and founding families that merged into the mainstream Catholic society. This was often the case in the eastern regions of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, where these merchants came either from Brazil or Argentina.
It was not until the 1900′s that substantial Jewish settlement took place in Bolivia. In 1905, a group of Russian Jews settled in Bolivia and were followed by another group from Argentina, and later by several Sephardi families from Turkey and the Near East. The Jewish community nonetheless remained minuscule. It was estimated that in 1917 only 20 to 25 Jews lived in the country, and by 1933, at the beginning of the Nazi era in Germany, there were only 30 Jewish families. Outside of La Paz, the community of Cochabamba, which had a Jewish population of about 600 in the mid-1900′s, was the second largest in the country. Its history is inextricably linked with its founder, an Alexandrian Jew named Isaac Antaki, who arrived in the 1920s. He established a large textile factory and also built a synagogue to serve the Ashkenazi and Sephardi community.
The first tide of Jewish immigration came in the early 1930s, with an estimated 7,000 new immigrants by the end of 1942. Approximately 2,200 emigrated, from Bolivia by the end of the 1940s. Those who remained settled in La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Santa Cruz, Sucre, Tarija, and Potosi and by 1939 communities had arisen in outlying cities such as Cochabamba, Oruro, Sucre, Tarija, and Potosi. These years in the Jewish community were marked by difficult economic conditions, especially for those who did not own businesses. Between January 1939 and December 1942, $160,000 was disbursed for relief by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and by the Sociedad de Proteccion de los Inmigrantes Israelitas.
In 1939, Bolivia’s liberal immigration policy was modified, as it had been in other Latin American countries. This move kept with the policy of barring entry to nationals of the Axis powers. In May 1940, all Jewish visas were suspended indefinitely; nevertheless, immigration did continue. After World War II a small wave of Polish Jews who had fled to the Far East after 1939, but abandoned Shanghai in the wake of the communist takeover, arrived in Bolivia. The major part of the group remained in La Paz, and was incorporated into the existing community. In addition, a certain amount of discontent was engendered with the discovery that most of the Jewish immigrants who had entered the country on an agricultural visa were actually involved in commerce and industry. By the fall of 1939, when immigration had reached its peak, organized Jewish communities gained greater stability in Bolivia. The first organization to be founded was the Circulo Israelita (1935) by East European Jews, followed by the German Comunidad Israelita. Under the auspices of the Comite Central Judio de Bolivia, various communal services were established: the Hevra Kaddisha, the Cementerio Israelita, Bikkur Holim, the house for the aged, WIZO, and Macabi. The La Paz community started and maintained the Colegio Israelita, a comprehensive school with kindergarten, primary, and secondary grades. Its student body became mixed because the high level of the school attracted non-Jewish students. In the 1950′s and 1960′s there was a mass emmigration by Jews from Bolivia due to political upheaveal, and Jewish education was one of the prime victims of the emigration trend; Jewish student enrollment, especially in the lower grades, declined drastically.
Today, there are approximatelly 600 Jews living in Bolivia. Bolivia’s 350 Jews mostly live in the capital, La Paz (180), where there are two synagogues, but there are smaller communities in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba (110). In Cochabamba the Associacion Israelita de Cochambamba maintains a synagogue, a va’ad for kashrut, a cemetery, and a Macabi team. The Colegio Boliviano Israelita in La Paz has a kindergarten, primary school and secondary school, but today, most of its pupils are not Jewish. The Jewish press in Bolivia consists of sporadic papers and bulletins published by the Colegio Boliviano Israelita, B’nai B’rith, and the Federacion Sionista Unida.
These communities have all shrunk considerably in recent years, largely as a result of the 2005 election of Bolivia’s current socialist president, Evo Morales, and his restrictive policies on private-sector enterprise. Though anti-Semitism in Boilivia is not overt, there is also worry over Morales staunch anti-American stance and ties to both Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The recent wave of emigration from Bolivia is the combination of younger generations of Jews seeking better educational and professional opportunities offered in the United States and Europe and more established members of the community leaving for political reasons. Since Morales took office, Bolivia’s largest Jewish community of La Paz has decreased by some 10 percent and community leaders expect that in the next 10 to 20 years there will be no more Jews in Bolivia.
As of April 23, 2009, Bolivian Raids on Chabad House ‘Unexplainable’: Bolivian police have forcibly closed a Chabad House in an area popular with foreign backpackers. A Foreign Ministry official said Thursday that there were no Israeli citizens caught up in the raids, but other reports indicated that several Israelis were arrested. The Chabad House targeted by Bolivian law enforcement is located in Rurrenabaque, in the northeastern part of the country. Rabbi Aharon Fraiman, a Chabad emissary in the town, told the Chabad.info website that local police have not presented any official closure order, nor have they provided a reason for the raids. The rabbi further claimed that several Israelis were arrested by police and that one of them had already been kicked out of the country.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor called the raid “unexplainable” and said that the developing incident “is preoccupying [the Foreign Ministry]“. However, he emphasized that his office currently has no information on any Israeli citizens taken into custody. A formal deportation order would have required some formal contact with Israel, according to Palmor, but there has been no such request from Bolivian officials. Bolivia cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in early 2009, in the wake of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against the jihadist regime in Gaza. According to Rabbi Fraiman’s statements to Chabad.info, local rumors in Bolivia have it that the Chabad House was targeted in a drug raid or in connection with an assassination plot targeting Bolivian President Evo Morales. On Sunday Morales accused the United States embassy in La Paz of being behind a plot to kill him. Last week, three men accused of conspiring against the government of Bolivia were shot to death by police in a hotel in the city of Santa Cruz. The three were of Bolivian, Irish and Romanian nationality. Two other people, a Bolivian-Croatian and a Hungarian, were arrested.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti, he had an interpreter, Luis de Torres. Luis was one of the first Jews to settle on Haiti in 1492. When Haiti was conquered by France in 1633, many Dutch Jews came from Brazil, who has arrived in 1634. Most of these Jews were Marranos. Many became employees of French sugarcane plantations and further developed the industry. In 1683, the Jews were expelled from Haiti, and the other French colonies. But a few remained as leading officials in French trading companies. In the mid-1700s the Jews that were expelled returned. In 1804, during the slave revolt of Toussaint L’Ouverture, much of the Jewish community was murdered or expelled from Haiti. A few years later, Polish Jews arrived due to the civil strife in Poland. Most Jews attempted to settle in port cities.
By the end of the 19th century, Jewish families immigrated from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. These Jews brought their Sephardic culture. In 1915, there was a population of 200 Jews in Haiti. During the 20 years of American occupation, many of the Jews left to the United States. In 1937, the government issued passports and visas to Eastern Europe, to escape the Nazi persecution. During this time, 300 Jews lived on the island. Most of the Jews stayed until the late 1950s. Today, only 25 Jews remain, mainly in Port au Prince.
Jews tended to settle along the shoreline, in port cities. Most Jews were involved in commerce and trade, therefore, establishing communities in major industry centers. A few years ago, archaeologists discovered an ancient synagogue of Crypto-Jews in Jeremie, the only one discovered on the island. Several Jewish tombstones have also been uncovered in port cities such as Cap Haitien and Jacmel. By the end of the 19th century, approximately 30 Jewish families arrived from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. During this period, a French law was enacted that gave French citizenship to minorities in the North American region; therefore, many Jews from the Middle East felt secure moving to Haiti. These Jews brought with them their Sephardic customs and traditions. By the time of the American occupation in 1915, roughly 200 Jews lived in Haiti. During the 20 years of American occupation, many Jews left Haiti for the United States and South America.
In 1937, the Haitian government began issuing passports and visas to Eastern European approximately 100 Jews escaping Nazi persecution. At its peak, almost 300 Jews lived in the country. Most of these European Jews remained in Haiti, grateful to the government, until the late 1950s. Many of the Haitian Jewry left, however, so their children could marry Jews and not assimilate, and to find greater economic opportunity. The 21st century witnessed a continued departure of Jews from Haiti, for the United States and Panama because of the poor economy and civil violence. Even after so many decades of living in Haiti, Jews are still considered foreigners in the country. Today, only 25 Jews remain in Haiti, predominately residing in Port-au-Prince.
The community is led by Gilbert Bigio, a retired well-to-do businessman. Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, services are held in his house. The last Jewish wedding in Haiti occurred 10 years ago, Bigio’s daughter, and the last bris was Bigio’s son, more than 30 years ago. Bigio owns the only Torah in all of Haiti, which he provides to the community for services.
Israel and Haiti maintain full diplomatic relations. In 1947, Haiti voted for the United Nations’ partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. Many Haitians have a lot of admiration for Israel and its struggles. The Israeli ambassador in Panama represents Israeli interests in Haiti. Israel maintains an honorary consulate in Port-au-Prince. Currently, George Bigio is the honorary consul of Israel in Haiti, and flies a massive Israeli flag outside his home. Archaeologists discovered a synagogue of Crypto-Jews in Jérémie. In Cap-Haitien and Jacmel, a few Jewish tombstones have been uncovered.
Jews in Venezuela dates to the middle of the 17th century, when records suggest that groups of marranos (Spanish and Portuguese descendants forced conversion Jews suspected of secret adherence to Judaism) lived in Caracas and Maracaibo. The Jewish community, however, did not become established in Venezuela until the middle of the 19th century. In 1907, the Israelite Beneficial Society, which became the Israelite Society of Venezuela in 1919, was created as an organization to bring the Jews who were scattered throughout the country together. Jewish prayer and holiday services took place in small houses in Caracas and towns like Los Teques and La Guaira.
By 1917, the number of Jewish citizens rose to 475, and to 882 in 1926. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish community began to develop with the arrival of North African and eastern European Jews. Jewish immigration from Eastern and Central Europe increased after 1934 but, by then, Venezuela had imposed specific restrictions on Jewish immigration, which remained in effect until after the 1950s.
In 1939 the steamboats Koenigstein and Caribia left Nazi Germany and docked in Venezuela. One Jewish refugee commented in the Venezuelan newspaper, La Esfera, “Imagine our joy at being free and far from a land in which everything threatened us with death. It is such a holy occurrence given that we were expelled from Germany and you have embraced us.”By 1950, in spite of immigration restrictions, there were around 6,000 Jewish people in Venezuela. The biggest waves of immigration occurred after World War II when a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Morocco arrived and settled mostly in the capital of Caracas.The Jewish population in Venezuela peaked at 45,000, largely centered in Caracas, but with smaller concentrations in Maracaibo. Most of Venezuela’s Jews are either first or second generation.
Venezuela was hospitable to Jewish life and Jews “developed deep ties to the country and a strong sense of patriotism, acculturating and settling into a “comfortable ‘live-and-let-live’ rapport with the government”.According the American Jewish Committee, Jews had developed an impressive communal infrastructure built around a central umbrella organization, La Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela (CAIV), with which the American Jewish Committee signed an association agreement. Fifteen synagogues (all but one Orthodox), and a Jewish all-in-one campus, Hebraica, combining Jewish nursery and day schools, a country club, cultural center, a verdant setting, and wide-ranging sports activities. Hebraica serves as the focus for much of the community.
The community is close-knit, in which the majority of Jewish children attend Jewish schools, the level of participation is high, identification with Israel is intense, and intermarriage rates are low compared to the United States or Britain. Venezuela’s Jews, have an obvious pride in being Venezuelan. They continue to appreciate the refuge the country provided, having come in search of safety and opportunity, but they also recognize the country’s postwar record of tolerance and relative absence of anti-Semitism, as well as its support of the 1947 UN resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state.
The American Jewish Committee stated, “the Jews have done well in Venezuela, and for Venezuela. They have built successful careers in a range of fields and have served as government ministers and ambassadors.” As of 2007, emigration has resulted in a drop of up to one-fifth of Venezuela’s 20,000 strong Jewish population amid concerns of rising allegations of anti-Semitism. The CAIV emphasized that the Jewish community in Venezuela had a national presence of more than 200 years of peaceful and democratic cooperation and denounced this new and unjustifiable act against the Venezuelan Jewish community. The Latin American Jewish Congress estimated that, due to many individuals moving to other countires, Venezuela’s Jewish community had decreased between 12,000 and 13,000, from the estimated 22,000 people when Chávez took office in 1999. In 2008, tensions exist between the government of Hugo Chávez and the Jewish community, and as much as a fifth of the community has emigrated in recent years.
NOTABLE VENEZUELAN JEWS
Baruj Benacerraf, Nobel Prize of Medicine (Venezuelan-born)
Amador Bendayán, Comedian Actor and Show Host (11 November 1920 – 1989)
Ilan Chester (born Ilan Czentochowski), singer and composer
Ricardo Hausmann, former Minister of CORDIPLAN (ministry of planning) and well-known economist
Karina, pop-ballade singer
Moisés Kaufman, playwright and media director
Moisés Naím, former Minister of Trade and Commerce and current editor of the magazine Foreign Policy
Moisés Naím, magazine editor
Ricardo Hausmann, professor, academic
Amador Bendayán, actor, comedian
Ilan Chester, composer
Manuel Blum, computer scientist, Turing Award (1995)
Andres Levin, keyboardist in Yerba Buena
Moisés Kaufman, screenwriter, director, founder of NY’s Tectonic Theater Project
Reynaldo Hahn, composer
Baruj Benacerraf, immunologist, Nobel prize (1980)
Teodoro Petkoff, ex-guerrilla, journalist and economist
Ivan Lansberg Henriquez, noted businessman (insurance), university professor and humanist.
Isaac Chocron, playwright.
Gonzalo Benaím Pinto, physician.
Jacqueline Goldberg, poet and editor
Enrique Capriles Radonsky, former Chacao Municipality Mayor and current Miranda State Governor