In 1981, Meyer Bass, a former Philadelphia Jewish community worker, now retired in Albuquerque, approached the University of New Mexico’s Latin American Institute and suggested a conference on Latin American Jewry—a group which Daniel C. Levy calls “the major Third World center of Jewish population” (p. 157). This led to a meeting in 1984, sponsored by the university and the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, and to this collection of essays, which range from anthropology to demography, economics, education, history, literature, politics, religion, and sociology.
The most exciting qualitative study is Carlos Waisman’s concerning the Argentine case: “Capitalism, Socialism, and the Jews: The View from Cabildo,” an analysis of “the foremost nationalist publication since the end of the military regime. . .” (p. 234). The most exciting quantitative data are demographic, especially in Sergio DellaPergola’s “Demographic Trends of Latin American Jewry,” where one reads that “[o]nly in Argentina and Uruguay did the Jewish populations approach or slightly surpass 1 percent of the total population” (p. 5), and that the belief that Latin American Jews once totalled as many as a million was never accurate (p. 3). As of the end of 1982, the (dwindling) figure was 465,000, with the two largest communities numbering 233,000 in Argentina and 100,000 in Brazil (pp. 88, 90-91).
Jewish emigration to Israel also exhibits an interesting pattern. Between 1948 and 1983, more than 68,000 immigrants came to Israel from Latin America, almost 40,000 of them from Argentina. “Argentine Zionist youth movements contribute proportionately the most immigrants of any community in the world” (pp. 277-278). Additionally, there has been “less reemigration and a higher Israeli retention rate . . . from Latin America than from other Western countries . . .” (p. 123). Two other observations: (1) considering that Costa Rica is the only real democracy in Central America and one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, it is sobering to be reminded that just before and during World War II, anti-Semitism allowed practically no Jews to enter that country; and (2) given the absence of cultural pluralism in other lands of Latin America, it is refreshing to be reminded that in Brazil Jews are welcomed in all facets of national life, including politics and “the higher ranks of the armed forces” (p. 199).
Any book written by 16 people from Latin America, Israel, and the United States must be uneven in style and substance. (One article is completely unfathomable!) But since this is the only contemporary work on the subject, it should be bought and read.