There has been a significant revitalization of Jewish life among the Jewish communities of Latin America although they are shrinking, mostly due to emigration processes.
Over the course of two generations, Latin American Jewry has transformed from mostly immigrants and immigrant communities to rooted communities of locally-born citizens and, simultaneously, of emigrants and expatriates.
Latin America has become an exit region for wide social sectors. In parallel to processes of growing pluralism – political, institutional, and cultural – and the ensuing affirmation of civic commonalities, recurrent failures of modernization processes, followed by economic crises, political instability, high levels of public violence and lack of security have had a negative impact.
Migration waves from Latin America in the last 40 years have been of diverse nature and scope; they have encompassed forced migration and exiled individuals under high risk (such as politically involved activists and intellectuals); voluntary household mobility motivated by safety, security, and economic considerations; and movement of professionals prompted by opportunities and entrepreneurial expansion in the context of increasingly interconnected markets. Indeed, there has been a sustained movement of professionals in privileged occupations, who operated businesses and sought education; Jews have constituted a high proportion of these.
Simultaneously, under the impact of globalization processes and the move toward social and institutional pluralism, Jewish individuals have increasingly entered the political sphere and assumed high-ranking public roles, while organized Jewish communities have attained prominent positions as a result of increased top-to-bottom citizenship participation. Thus, the twofold complex process of the erosion of a national ethnic narrative and the greater recognition of religious and ethnic minorities have conferred increasing visibility and legitimacy to Jewish communities. At the same time, there have also been exclusionary initiatives directed against minorities.
Jewish presence in Latin America’s public sphere is defined by a new agenda in which citizenship-building and collective identity seek to converge. Thus, in Mexico and Argentina, Jewish communities take an active role in regard to general civic issues such as fighting poverty and advancing democracy.
Democratization in Argentina has involved a subtle but significant transformation: a shift from an overwhelming focus on persisting differences of a single center-linked diaspora to a broader focus that encompasses emerging civic commonalities and transnational links as well. The concept of integration into the country has been transformed from complete assimilation to a process of becoming similar to other citizens as well as similar to those Jews fully integrated into plural Western democracies. As more Jewish institutions have participated in the public sphere demanding justice after the two terrorist attacks perpetrated in 1992 and 1994, they have been increasingly viewed and valued as citizens deeply involved in fighting for democracy and against impunity.
In the more traditional Mexico, a new concern with civil society and the public sphere also became a claim among both intellectual sectors and leadership. Local Jewish communities have increasingly joined the commitment to social causes, the fight against poverty, attention to educational needs, and the fight for human rights and democratization in the society at large.
Community arrangements, actors, flows, and narratives of collective belonging also point to new ascription and self-ascription: a collective affirmation of being, firstly, Mexican citizens and thus sharing civic commonalities and the national interest, while being perceived as bearers of transnational links and loyal to a transnational center. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s June 2017 tweet regarding the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States, the community’s reaction, and his subsequent September 2017 visit highlight some of the new dynamics that have impinged upon traditional patterns of relation. Collective Jewish identity gains a renewed importance both in its own spaces as well as in the public sphere.
Globalization and economic liberalization have led to increasing gaps in national societies and within Jewish communities that reflect economic polarization. Notwithstanding, globalization is twofold. On the one hand, it has generated a crisis of the middle classes, impoverishment and unemployment of professionals, a decline of manufacturers who had previously enjoyed the protection of autarchic industrial policies, deterioration in the economic standing of various sectors of the Latin American communities, and poverty among the lower classes. These sectors, however, have been experiencing a slow recovery in recent years. On the other hand, segments of the upper middle class have succeeded to incorporate themselves into the most dynamic venues of transnational links: commerce, high tech, real estate, services, sciences, academic institutions, and finance.
Indeed, although Latin American Jewry has historically grown out of an immigration capable of establishing powerful and original patterns of Jewish life and community organization, in recent decades, the net direction of migration flows has tended to be from Latin America to other destinations. It is estimated that in the past 40 years between 150,000 and 250,000 Jews emigrated, mainly to Israel, the United States, and to a lesser extent, countries in Western Europe (Spain) and Canada. While during the 1970s, violence and authoritarianism were determinant factors of regional and international emigration and political exile, especially in South America, a decade later re-democratization was a pull factor for Jewish exiles and emigres to return to their homelands. However, since the late 1980s and 1990s, the intertwined complex of economic crises and security problems again pushed Jews into a global international migration pattern.
Latin American Jewish migration to the United States has shown higher rates. Although we do not have precise figures on the number of Latin American Jews in the United States, estimates range between 100,000 and 156,000. Mobility and relocation set the stage for the potential reconstitution of an enlarged, redefined ethno-religious and national/transnational diaspora. Latin Americans Jews do not simply replicate social relations transferred from country of origin to destination society; rather, their subjective and socially expressed experiences are quite diverse. Resulting from the interaction between the organized American Jewish communal spaces, migrants’ associational initiatives within their everyday life spheres as well as prevailing patterns of home attachments, the social capital of both American and Latin American Jewry is being restructured and enriched, in a context that displays aspects of both mobility and permanence. The outcome of such interactions are reflected in the education, religion, and communal dimensions.
Migration from Latin America has not been unidirectional. There are known instances of return migration, of repeated and circular migration, and of bi-local or multi-local migrants. All of these features have contributed to the diffusion of transnational networks and identities, as well as to a complex array of trends where tacit disagreement and even disputes regarding the frontiers of identity and its collective expression take place. The emergence of new models of relations between communities and with Israel shed light onto common trends in the Jewish world and singular developments in Latin American Jewish communities. New meanings of center-home (spiritual, symbolic, material) and transnational ideational motives develop redefining systems of relations among communities that keep differentiated, modified and strong links among them and with Israel.
Differing and even contradictory trends coexist in Latin American Jewish life. Decline in historical criteria of belonging coexists with a diversified Jewish life displayed along religious, sub-ethnic, and political differences. Communities are facing the challenge of offering the appropriate and differentiated spaces to reduce the dis-affiliation as an elective option. Thus, policies should be developed and refined regarding inclusion measures for entering Jewish peoplehood, while greater attention should be given to defining whether a threshold exists for exiting Jewish peoplehood, and what it is.
Varying degrees of collective order of Jewish life show a diversified Jewish communal configuration. Affiliation rates differ from between 45 and 50 percent in Brazil, with a Jewish population of around 100,000 and in Argentina, with over 180,000 Jews, to 85 percent in Mexico, with a population of 40,000.
The conjunction of economic upheaval and leadership failures in Argentina have led to an overall decline of the community, whose affiliation rate is under 50 percent. Brazilian Jews, however, while showing equally low rates of affiliation have reinforced their perception of a growing social integration and confronted the old concept of kehila with the need of a more pluralistic approach to the community’s institutional arrangements.
While Brazil and Argentina represent models of centrifugal communities, Mexico shows a high structural and institutional proliferation. The last socio-demographic studies (2000, 2006, 2015) pointed to a continuous increase of membership rates, while its inner communal composition also shows radical changes. Out-marriage rates are 10 percent in Mexico while in both Brazil and Argentina they reach 50 percent.