While the overt and sometimes deadly antisemitism that is rife in Argentina is well documented and widely known, few people are aware that the Jews of neighbouring Uruguay have lived harmoniously and in peace with their fellow citizens for over 100 years.
Now numbering approximately 25,000, the community dates back to the late 19th century with the arrival of David Moron, who was most probably a “hidden Jew” or Converso, as were many others who followed him.
Although Uruguay formally recognized Palestine as a state, Gabriel Catz, a retired architect who served as our guide, told us this was done to placate Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, of whom the government is wary. Its otherwise pro-Israel and pro-Jewish stance are confirmed in the capital city Montevideo by the Golda Meir Plaza and modern sculpture in the centre of the old city, and the very moving and frequently visited Holocaust memorial – the largest in South America – that occupies a wide swath of beachfront
The majority of Uruguayan Jews live in Montevideo, but there is also a small well-organized Jewish community in Paysandu, the country’s second-largest city. Most of the early Jewish arrivals were from Argentina, Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. However, it was not until 1917 that the first formal synagogue was established by Ashkenazim, who began trickling into the country in the early years of the 20th century.
Most of the Ashkenazim who subsequently arrived did so in the post World War I years in the 1920s and ’30s.
Catz was born in Argentina but moved to Uruguay as a child when his parents decided to settle in the then more peaceful and welcoming country. He teaches English and construction in order to supplement his meagre retirement fund.
As we drove through the city, Catz pointed out the many now-closed retail stores that had belonged to Jewish entrepreneurs but fell victim to spacious new shopping centres. Moreover, as is true in many other communities, children of these shop owners have shown little interest in joining the family business and have become professionals instead. In addition, most Jews moved out of the old city centre to the newer Mocitos neighbourhood.
As recently as 20 years ago, Uruguay’s Jewish population was approximately 45,000 (out of a total of 3.2 million people), Catz told us, but has significantly been reduced primarily because of economics.
Young people, including Catz’s own 20-something son, are unable to find jobs in the country and seek opportunities elsewhere. Moreover, the allure of Israel has been very strong, and it is estimated that since 1948, approximately 10,000 of the country’s Jews have made aliyah, by far the largest proportion of immigrants from western countries.
Among other changes to the community, this population loss has resulted in the closing of several synagogues. One of the oldest synagogues is now open only on the High Holidays. Two of the previous four Hebrew day schools have also closed, and the one that Catz’s children attended is now a private college. Of the two remaining schools, one is Orthodox and the other traditional/cultural, equivalent to the Conservative schools of North America. A former kosher food market is now an Asian community centre.
Punta Del Este, a posh summer resort a short ride from Montevideo, attracts wealthy Argentines and locals, including many Jews. Its year-round population of 8,000 balloons to 500,000 during vacation season. The vacationers occupy luxurious private homes, condos and hotels.
Marcello Litmann, an Argentine Jew, was Montevideo’s first and largest developer and promoter.
The region’s international film festival is organized and supported by Jewish residents, who also support a small but active synagogue named Beit Yaacov.