Jews in South America are a small, though distinct, ethnic and religious minority. The Jewish population in the ten South American countries where they live was as follows in the late 1980s: Argentina, 228,000; Bolivia, 6,000; Brazil, 150,000; Chile, 17,000; Colombia, 7,000; Paraguay, 900; Peru, 5,000; Suriname, 350; Uruguay, 44,000; and Venezuela, 20,000. Jews in South America are mostly Ashkenazim descended from Jews who arrived in South America from Germany, eastern Europe, and Russia. Sephardic Jews (descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal) form a minority of the Jewish population, constituting 50 percent of the Jewish population in Venezuela, 20 percent of that in Brazil, 15 percent of that in Argentina and Peru, and 12 percent of that in Uruguay. The Sephardic community is composed both of descendants from early settlers from Spain and Portugal and those whose Sephardic ancestors came later from Middle Eastern nations such as Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon. Sephardic identity remains an important marker of social identity within the Jewish community.
The first Jewish settlers were Conversos (Marranos), who accompanied the earliest Spanish and Portuguese explorers to South America. Forbidden from practicing Judaism in Spain and Portugal, some of the settlers formed practicing Jewish communities in the New World. With the exception of a few communities in Brazil, however, most of these early Sephardic settlers were eventually assimilated into Christian European society in South America. The major influx of Jews came in the period from 1880 to 1914, when many arrived from both the Middle East and eastern Europe and settled in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Most Jews in South America are descendants of these people, with their numbers increased somewhat by refugees who arrived in the 1930s from Germany and eastern Europe. Jewish settlement in South America compared to North America is characterized by a high outmigration rate, especially to Israel. This reflects, perhaps, the less-than-full acceptance of Jews in South American society. The Jewish community is aging and decreasing in size as a result of out-migration, a high intermarriage rate, and a rejection of Jewish values by some in the younger generations.
The earliest Jewish settlers tended to establish themselves as small-scale traders and craftsmen. Over the generations, these activities expanded into ownership of large-scale industries and wholesale and retail outlets and, later, into employment in the professions and service industries. Despite the economic success of some, Jews have never dominated any economic sector in any South American nation. Although some individuals have achieved personal political influence, Jews as a group have never been a political force, in part because of their small numbers. Unlike the situation in North America, there is a marked tendency in South America for Jewish economic success to be accompanied by assimilation into Christian European society. Until recently, religious belief and practice rigidly followed the Orthodox tradition. Only since the 1970s have Conservative and Reformed traditions been accepted.
Jews have been the frequent target of anti-Semitism, which in South America is part of the popular culture, has often been supported by right-wing political movements and governments, and of late has also been adopted by some left-wing organizations that sympathize with the Palestinian cause in the Middle East.
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