Ilan Stavans: Latin America has a history of prejudice that is little known and increasingly worrisome

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. One of the stories in his collection The Disappearance (Northwestern University Press, 2006) has been made into the movie My Mexican Shivah, produced by John Sayles. Yale University Press has recently published his book, with Verónica Albin, Love and Language.]

... The Hispanic world, constituted by Spain, what I'll call Latin America (Mexico and South and Central America), the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and Equatorial Guinea in Africa, has a population of roughly 350 million. The Hispanic countries have a little more than 500,000 Jews. The three with the largest concentration of Jews are Argentina (with 250,000), Brazil (87,000), and Mexico (53,101). Most Hispanics never see a single Jew in their lives. Of course, that doesn't mean they don't have preconceptions about Jews.

Among the 43 million people who make up the Latino minority north of the Rio Grande, attitudes toward Jews have undergone changes in the last few decades as the process of assimilation has progressed. A survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2002 showed that 35 percent of Hispanics in the United States harbored anti-Semitic views, a substantially higher number than among other Americans (17 percent). What I found particularly interesting was that the survey suggested that, among Latinos, the percentage was higher among those who were foreign-born, at 44 percent. Hispanic-Americans born in the United States held anti-Semitic views at less than half that rate, 20 percent. No similar analysis is available for the Hispanic world in general. And the sample of respondents might not have been representative of the diversity among Latinos in the United States. Still, the high percentage of anti-Semitic views among foreign-born Hispanics seems to indicate that the northbound immigrant journey, and exposure to American values, lessens anti-Semitism.

A specific Hispanic anti-Semitism feeds the animosity, sometimes influenced by global events, but stemming from concrete historical, religious, and political forces in the Spanish-speaking countries and among Latinos in the United States. (I focus only on the Spanish-speaking areas because the roots of anti-Semitism in the Portuguese- and French-speaking countries of the Americas are different.) Each region and nation has its own idiosyncrasies, and anti-Semitic sentiments tend to be different from place to place. Cuba, for instance, had a small but thriving Jewish community before Fidel Castro's revolution. Half a century later, the community is smaller but still thriving, receiving financial support from American Jews. Chile also has a small Jewish community — of wealthy Jews, whom Gen. Augusto Pinochet kept close ties to, occasionally attending a synagogue event. In Argentina, during the Dirty War against its own citizens, the number of Jews who were among the desaparecidos was high. Yet there's enough continuity to recognize pan-Hispanic patterns. And those patterns, starting in the Middle Ages, point at the Jew as interloper, hypocrite, and agent of dissent.

There are three distinctive, albeit interconnected, emphases in Hispanic anti-Semitism: church-connected — and sponsored — animosity; a more secular ideological hostility; and attitudes relating to the conflict in the Middle East.

The source of the first type of anti-Semitism is the period known as La Reconquista, which began with the Umayyad conquest in the eighth century of the Iberian Peninsula — i.e., the quest to homogenize the territory under one religion, Christianity. Inquisitions to rid Roman Catholicism of heretics took place in Europe starting in the 12th century, but in 1478 the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, with the support of the pope, inaugurated the Spanish Inquisition under royal authority. It was aimed primarily at two of the three faiths that had coexisted in Spain for centuries — Judaism and Islam, in that order.

To this day, religiously based anti-Semitism in the Hispanic world revolves around a set of beliefs sponsored by Church fathers during the Inquisition to justify hostility to Jews. Among the claims: that Jews had betrayed Jesus, and that, as witnesses to his ordeal, their existence was proof of the authenticity of the Passion. In March 1492, the Edict of Expulsion was issued in Granada, written by Juan de Coloma on behalf of Isabella and Ferdinand. It "resolved to order all and said Jews and Jewesses out of our kingdoms and that they never return or come back to any of them."

I am distressed that the edict isn't better known. It was an intricate document, with the first portion devoted to justifying the expulsion. The sheer presence of Jews in the Iberian midst made "wicked Christians" misbehave, the edict said. That is, there were good Christians and bad Christians. A successful nation would endorse the former while rejecting the latter. The edict used the verb judaizar, which would feature in Hispanic lexicons for centuries to come: to judaize means to spread the evil gospel. In 1502, Muslims were also given an ultimatum: either convert or leave too....

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R.R. Hamilton - 2/10/2008

... the belief that the Spanish Inquisition had anything to do with Jews? It didn't. Look it up.

This author actually says it right -- the Spanish Inquisition was founded "to rid Catholicism of heretics" -- but then gets the rest all wrong. His problem: He doesn't know the difference between a heretic and an infidel. As Jews (and Muslims) were infidels, NOT heretics, the Inquisition had NO jurisdiction over them. The only Jews who suffered the wrath of the Inquisition were those whose claims of Christian conversion (which claims would bring them -- as Christians! -- under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition) were suspected to be false.

As a descendant of Protestants, who suffered many times more dearly than Jews from Roman Catholic persecutions, I have no reason to defend the Spanish Inquisition. It was terrible, and IIRC about 6,000 people (none Jews, except if they were found guilty of "false conversion") were killed by it. I'm just setting the record straight.

Btw, as for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492: As the author mentions, the "Reconquista" went on for about seven centuries. About every 100 years or so, the Jews in Spain would be expelled by the Christian or Muslim side and welcomed "home" by the other side. It was an unfortunate coincidence for the Spanish Jews that they happened to be on the Muslim side on the date of the final Christian victory. It wasn't as though Spanish Jews were specially protected by Muslims and persecuted by Christians uninterrupted for 700 years.