Moroccan Jews in Latin America

Overview

Venezuelan Sephardic Jews gathering at the official opening ceremony of Synagogue Tiferet Israel Este in Caracas, Venezuela (Asociacion Israelita de Venezuela)

Moroccan Jews live in almost every country of South America as well as Panama and Cuba, with the greatest numbers in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. While there are no official statistics on the number of Moroccan Jews in South America, one researcher in 2017 estimated there were 7,000 in Brazil, 6,000 in Venezuela, 1,500 in Argentina, 600 in Colombia, 400 in Panama, 300 in Peru, 200 in Mexico and 100 in Cuba. In reaction to political and economic conditions, some of them move from country to country, as well as to Miami and Israel. Others continue to live in their home country and also visit their extended family in Morocco .

Most Moroccan Jewish immigrants came from northern Morocco, where they spoke Haketia (Judeo-Spanish), Judeo-Arabic and Spanish. The first Moroccan Jews arrived in Latin America in 1810 from Fez, Tangiers, Tetouan, Casablanca, Salé, Rabat, and Marrakesh. Some of them arrived as refugees after the Spanish-Moroccan war of 1859-1860.  Others moved in the mid-late 1800s and early 1900s to the Amazon region of Brazil and Peru in order to collect and trade rubber during the world rubber economic boom. Some arrived after the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco was declared in 1912.  An additional and larger wave of Moroccan Jewish immigration began in 1956, at the end of the Spanish protectorate of northern Morocco and the beginning of Moroccan independence.  

Moroccan Jews in the Amazon

Amazon Theatre (Opera House) Manaus, Brazil

In the mid-19th century, Moroccan Jews who wished to benefit from the rubber trade first settled in Belém, Brazil. As they moved up the Amazon River, they settled in small towns, including Santarém, Alenquer, Óbidos, and Manaus in Brazil and Iquitos in Peru. They established stores and used canoes to trade clothes, medicine, tobacco, and cachaca (sugar cane-based liquor) for rubber as well as fish, Brazil nuts and coconut oil. They also were able to gain Brazilian citizenship, which facilitated returning to or visiting Morocco.  

In Peru, a small Moroccan Jewish community was established in the town of Iquitos, a major center on the Amazon for rubber export by the Peruvian Amazon Company. The rubber boom also attracted Jewish adventurers from Europe, who helped found new Jewish and European institutions in Iquitos, including an opera house.  The 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo” by Werner Herzog portrays the lives of these adventurers and merchants in Iquitos.

Fitzcarraldo Trailer

Many Moroccan Jewish traders married indigenous women. Their descendants are of mixed ancestry and not accepted as Jews by most denominations. Since the late 20th century, some Peruvians of mixed indigenous and Moroccan Jewish ancestry in Iquitos have studied Judaism and formally converted with a Conservative rabbi. This step was necessary for them to be accepted as Jewish immigrants by the Israeli Government. Hundreds of them have emigrated to Israel, where they studied with an Orthodox Rabbi and undertook Orthodox conversions.

Jewish women of Iquitos, Peru reciting Shabbat prayers – from https://masorti.org/why-are-jews-stuck-in-the-amazon/

In 1824, Moroccan Jews organized the first Brazilian Sephardic synagogue, Eshel Avraham, in Belém. They created a second synagogue in Belém, Shaar Ha Shamaim, in 1835.  The first synagogue used the rites of the Jews who fled the Iberian peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries, while the second use the rites of the indigenous Arab and Berber-speaking Jews of Morocco.

Synagogue Beth Yacov Rebi Meyr in Manaus, Brazil

The Amazon city of Manaus flourished in the 20th century and has a population of about two million. Perhaps 800 Jews remain in the city. Beth Yacov, the first synagogue founded in Manaus in 1928, was initiated by Moroccan Sephardim, those who traced their ancestry to the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. Moroccan Jews of Berber and Arabic heritage created a second synagogue, Rebi Meyr, which was built in the 1930’s. As the Manaus Jewish community decreased in size, in 1962 the two synagogues merged to become the Synagogue Beth Yacov Rebi Meyr.

In 1908, the Grand Rabbi of Morocco Raphaël Ben Mordechai Ankawa (1848-1935) asked Moroccan Rabbi Shalom Imanuel Muyal to visit the Amazon to meet the needs of the Moroccan Jews. He lived in Brazil for two years prior to his death in Manaus in 1910. He was buried in a Manaus Christian cemetery, as no Jewish was yet in place. After his death, he was revered as a saint by local Catholics, who made pilgrimages to his grave to pray for miracles.

Tomb of Rabbi Shalom Imanuel Muyal, surrounded by plates from Christian pilgrims testifying they experienced miracles

In 1928, after the creation of a Jewish cemetery in Manaus, local Jews wished to move the remains of the rabbi to the new cemetery.  However, the Christian population was opposed. In the 1980s, Eliyahu Moyal, an Israeli Knesset Member who was the nephew of Rabbi Muyal, wanted to exhume the rabbi’s remains and rebury them in Israel. The leaders of the Jewish community refused to avoid disappointing the local Christians.

Other Moroccan Jews in Brazil

Bima of Sociedade Israelita União Paulista in Sao Paulo, Brazil

The number of Jews in Brazil in 2005 was estimated at between 96,700 and 130,000, of which Moroccan Jews were about 7,000. The main Jewish communities are located in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Porto Alegre, making up more than 80% of the Jews in the country, followed by Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Recife, and Salvador. In Manaus, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Natal, and Florianópolis, the Jewish communities numbered a few dozen families.

Beginning in the 20th century, Moroccan Jews were considered members of the Brazilian Sephardic community. The larger cities had both Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues. In 1956–57, about 1,000 Jews from North Africa (mainly from Morocco) entered Brazil, joining many other Sephardic immigrants and inhabitants.

Program at Porto Alegre Centro Hebraico Rio Grandense

In São Paulo, four new Sephardic synagogues were founded in the 1960s. Sephardi Jews became politically active in the community and leaders of some of the more important Jewish institutions in the city and also in the country, holding positions such as the presidency of Confederação Israelita do Brasil. In Porto Alegre, the local União Israelita was founded in 1909 by Ashkenazi and Sephardi immigrants together. Sephardim founded the Centro Hebraico Rio Grandense in 1922.

The political environment for Jews has been consistently excellent for 130 years, even during periods of military and autocratic rule and human rights abuses. The new constitution adopted by Brazil in 1891, after the country became a republic in 1889, abolished all traces of religious discrimination, ensured the civil rights of all citizens, and provided for the introduction of civil marriage and the establishment of nonsectarian municipal cemeteries. The principles of freedom of conscience and religion and equality before the law have been retained in all the constitutions subsequently adopted by Brazil. Multiple governments have fought antisemitism, regardless of their relations with Israel and Palestine.

Brazilian Jews have experienced considerable economic mobility. The peddlers of the early twentieth century eventually became wholesalers and retailers, and some also became industrialists. Beginning in the 1960s, a significant number of Brazilian Jews became physicians, administrators, engineers, university professors, journalists, publishers, psychologists and other professionals.

Moroccan Jews in Venezuela

The former building of the Sephardic Tiferet Israel Synagogue in Caracas

Venezuela, with a Jewish population of 15,000 – 25,000 in 2009, has a Moroccan Jewish population of less than 6,000. While dozens of Moroccan Jews from Tetouan, Casablanca and Fez moved to Caracas and other towns in Venezuela before World War I, most arrived after the War. Restrictions on creating religious institutions forced many of them to live and organize prayer services in their shops. Moroccan-trained itinerant rabbis served the Caracas community as well as Jewish communities in other countries.

Moroccan Jews established the first of the Jewish commercial companies that later prospered in Venezuela. In 1930, Moroccan Jews created the Asociación Israelita de Venezuela (AIV), which established a Moroccan Jewish synagogue, El Condé. It was replaced in 1963 by the Great Sephardic synagogue Tiferet Israel. In 1998, AIV’s Center for Sephardic Studies created the Sephardic Museum Morris E. Curiel, named after a prominent Moroccan Jewish banker of the early 1900’s, to promote interest in Venezuela’s Sephardic Jewish history and culture.

Morris E. Curiel Sephardic Museum of Caracas

More Moroccan Jews arrived after Moroccan independence in 1956 and prospered in Venezuela’s growing economy. Like other Venezuelan Jews, they attended universities and became doctors, engineers, lawyers, and economists and served in national government positions.

As Venezuela’s economy and political environment has deteriorated in recent years, many Moroccan Jews have emigrated to other Latin American countries and Miami as well as to Israel.

Moroccan Jews in Argentina

By liberalizing its immigration policy, Argentina welcomed Jews beginning in the late 1800’s. The largest community of Sephardic Jews came from Syria. Other Sephardic Jews came from areas controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The Moroccan community, primarily from the cities of Tetouan, Larache and Tangier, was third in size.

Immigrants from Morocco established new communities in Santa Fe and Chaco provinces in 1886. Other Moroccan Jews arrived through the 1920’s. Many others arrived after Moroccan independence in 1956. Often, they became farmers, peddlers, artisans and shopkeepers.

Buenos Aires Sociedade Israelita Sefaradi Or Torah

The French Jewish community-sponsored Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) supported the Jewish Colonization Association, which established schools and agricultural colonies in Argentina.  Some Moroccan Jewish AIU graduates worked in the schools. Moroccan Jewish women established Sociedad de Damas de Sión, the Society of the Women of Zion, in the late 19th century. By the 1950’s, Moroccan Jews created several philanthropic organizations, such as the Costurero Marroquí, the Moroccan Tailors Association, and the Cooperadora Pro-Templo, a religious philanthropy. The main Moroccan Jewish philanthropic organization Hessed Vehemet, Kindness and Truth, became a women’s organization.

In 2010, estimates of Jews in Argentina varied from 180,000 to 250,000, of which Moroccan Jews constituted about 1,500. Jews are active in all sectors of Argentine society and many are prominent figures in the arts, film, music and journalism. Others have invested in and manage banks, fur, textile, chemical, electronics and auto industries.

Patricia Benmergui, an Argentinian whose father was a Moroccan Jew, took advantage of a law to gain Spanish citizenship as a descendant of the Sephardim who were forced to leave Spain in the 16th century (from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-38328490)

While severe economic problems, political instability, antisemitism and the 1992 and 1994 Iran and Hamas-supported terrorist bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center led to emigration, Argentine Jews maintain strong communities. Despite continuous pressure from the Jewish community and foreign governments, the Government and courts of Argentina have put in place many obstacles to the investigation and prosecution of the two bombings. Investigations have made halting progress. As of 2021, the Argentine Government continues to cover up the crimes and resist prosecutions.