GUATEMALA


GUATEMALA, Central American republic, population 14,280,596 (2004); Jewish population 833 (1999).

Community History

Documents in the archives of the Mexican Inquisition attest to the presence of *Crypto-Jews in Guatemala during the colonial period. The first known immigrants to the country were German-speaking Jews entering Guatemala at the end of the 19th century. Most of them settled in Quetzaltenango and engaged in the sale of clothes and textiles in the coffee plantations. Following the earthquake of 1902 and the fall of coffee prices, the German Jews moved to Guatemala City, where they established in 1913 the Sociedad Israelita de Guatemala in order to provide for their religious and social needs. The community formed by these immigrants was small and isolated from the Jewish world, and its descendants are no longer Jews.

The origins of the present-day Jewish community date from the second decade of the 20th century. According to the data collected in the census survey made in 1999, the Jewish immigrants to Guatemala came from Syria, Iraq, Jerusalem, Panama, Jamaica (originally from England), and Turkey. The list extends also to Jews from Lebanon, Egypt, Poland, Russia, and the United States. The Sephardi Jews settled in Guatemala during the first and second decades of the 20th century. They started as poor peddlers in the provincial towns, and gradually moved to Guatemala City, where in 1923 they founded the Sociedad Israelita Maguén David. The East European Jews arrived in the 1920s following the restrictions on immigration imposed by the United States. Most of them were poor artisans, and they were assisted by the local Jews, particularly by the Maguén David. Jewish immigration in the 1930s consisted of Czechs and Germans as well as Jews from Jerusalem, Panama, and Poland.

At the beginning of the 20th century the liberal Guatemalan governments favored the immigration of foreigners who wished to settle in the country, allowing them to develop economically, socially, and culturally. This motivated the first groups of Jewish immigrants to Guatemala. Policy took a negative turn in 1944, when the president of the Republic, General Jorge Ubico, promulgated Decree No. 1241 of the Law of Foreigners, whose First Article prohibited "the entrance and permanent settlement in the country of foreigners occupied as peddlers" (para. 21–22), this being the trade of many of the Jews who had just arrived in the country.

Centers of Jewish settlement in Guatemala. Centers of Jewish settlement in Guatemala.

Laws limiting immigration were rarely enforced after World War II, when Polish, Czech, and German Holocaust survivors entered the country. From the 1950s (through to the early 21st century) the Jews who immigrated to the country arrived from the most varied areas of the globe, with the main reason being marriage to members of the Jewish community of Guatemala or occupational mobility.

Demography

In 1999, there were 833 Jews in the country (400 women and 433 men), with a fertility rate of 2.7 children. The number of Jews in Guatemala never exceeded 1,200 (data calculated by the members of the community in the 1950s).

A singular characteristic is that 36% of Guatemalan Jews between 18 and 45 years live abroad (mainly in the United States). This is caused by two factors: (1) most of those who lived abroad for many years embarked on their professional careers in the country where they received their higher education, settling there permanently (66% of those who emigrated pointed to the lack of economic opportunity as the main cause of their emigration); (2) marriage: 38% of marriages with Jews from other countries resulted in immigration of the Guatemalan Jew to the country of residence of his or her spouse.

According to the 1965 census, the community had 74 mixed marriages, accounting for 27.2% of the Jewish population. In the 1999 census, only 6% of the members were married to non-Jews, while 12% were married to men and women who had converted to Judaism.

Communal Life

The first synagogue, inaugurated on August 11, 1938, was constructed by the Sephardi community Maguén David and provided for the religious needs of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews alike. In 1941 the Ashkenazi Jews founded their own organization, the Associacion Centro Hebreo, which opened its Shaaréi Biniamín synagogue (Orthodox) in 1968. Between 1969 and 1989 the Bet-El Synagogue (Conservative) operated, with a majority of members of West European origin. Centro Hebreo and Bet-El merged in 1989 under the name of the former.

The first organization that represented the Guatemalan Jews vis-à-vis the national and international authorities was the Sociedad Israelita de Guatemala (founded 1913). In 1968 it was replaced by the Comité Central de la Comunidad Judia de Guatemala. In 1981 the Comunidad Judía de Guatemala (called since 1994 Comunidad Judía Guatemalteca) or Guatemalan Jewish Community (GJC) was founded as the representative organ and the Jewish umbrella organization, responsible for the Jewish educational institutions (Gan Hillel, Tarbut, Talmud Torah, Mechon Noar, Maccabi ha-Ẓa'ir), social, sports, and cultural activities, the organization of groups of all the ages, the cemeteries, relations with local and international institutions (Jewish and general), and every matter related to the communal life of Guatemalan Jews.

Education, Culture, and Zionism

Between 1958 and 1976 there was a Jewish day school called the Albert Einstein (later Salomón Blenkitny). In the early 21st century there was a daily kindergarten, Gan Hillel, and supplementary schools that are open from one to three times a week. These are Tarbut, Talmud Torah, Mechon Noar, and the Machon leMadrijim.

A youth organization was founded in 1943 under the name of Young Centro Hebreo, and two years later it affiliated with the Maccabi World Union, creating Maccabi Ha-Ẓair Guatemala, active until the present.

Between 1994 and 2004 the GJC developed large building projects: the construction of a Jewish Community Center (finalized in 1995), which united all the educational, social, religious, and Zionist organizations, and the Har Carmel project, being an enormous stretch of land with 200 lots earmarked for housing for members of the GJC.

Most Zionist organizations have a representative in the country as well as in some of the international ones: Keren Hayesod, Keren Kayemet, WIZO, Zionist Federation, Maccabi World Union, B'nai B'rith, and others.

It should be emphasized that 69% of Guatemalan Jews declare themselves Zionists, and that all the members of the GJC are affiliated with the above-mentioned institutions.

The following periodicals were published by the community organizations: Abucah ("Torch"), 1943–45; The Maccabee, 1959–60; Mabat, 1978–86; Kadima, 1992–99; and Beyajad, from 1999.

GJC'S RELATIONS WITH GUATEMALAN ORGANIZATIONS

The number of affiliations of the Jewish community, as muchon the individual level as on the institutional level, is very large. Guatemalan Jews are members, leaders, or cooperate in institutions such as Junkabal (Edgar Heinemann, chairman), the Guatemalan Red Cross (Max Russ, director), children's day care (Samuel Camhi, founder and benefactor; Enriqueta Engel, president), League against Cancer (Margot Halfon, deputy chairperson; Rosa Luchtan, director; Eduardo Halfon, director), volunteer and municipal fire departments (Max Russ, president; Max Trachtenberg, president; Moises Russ, director; Isaac Farchi, deputy chairman), Santa Lucia Orphanage (Sara Dreiffus, president), CACIF (Alberto Habie, president), Roosevelt Hospital (Irene Neumann and Sol Berkowitz, directors), Rotary Club (Tomas Rybar, president; Marcel Ruff, president), Municipality of Guatemala City (Roberto Stein, deputy mayor), Guatemalan Association of Journalism (Isidoro Zarco, president), Chamber of Commerce (Jaime Camhi, vice president; Moris Farchi, director), Chamber of Industry (Moises Russ, director; Alberto Habie, president; Joe Habie, director), National Congress (congressmen Isaac Farchi, Roberto Stein, Dr. Julio Sultán, Manfredo Lippman), ministries (Dr. Julio Sultán), embassies (Dr. Gert Rosenthal, ambassador at the UN; Moises Russ, ambassador in Israel), INCAP (Dr. Benjamin Torun, scientist, director of Research), Bricks for Guatemala City of Sanarate Reconstruction Committee (Margot Halfon, president; Marcel Ruff, general secretary), National Social Welfare Committee (Bella Russ, chairperson), YPO (Roberto Tenenbaum, president), Garden Club of Guatemala (Brenda de Rich, president), FUNDAP (Jaime Camhi, director), universities, volunteer groups in hospitals, FUNDESA (Manuel Yarhi, president; Jaime Camhi, president; Edgar Heinemann, president; Mario Nathusius, president), Cepal (Dr. Gert Rosenthal, secretary general), primary and secondary schools (Mario Nathusius, president; Saul Mishaan, president; Victor Cohen, director), National Bicycle Federation (Jaime Russ, president), as well as representing Guatemala in sports, science, chess, and more.

Four members of the Jewish community have been awarded the Vatican Order of Pope St. Sylvester: Moises Russ, Bella Russ, Margot Halfon, and Dr. Jacobo Sabbaj.

Relations with Israel

Guatemala had a crucial role in the vote on the partition of Palestine. The Guatemalan ambassador to the United Nations in 1947, Jorge García Granados, was a member of the UN Special Commission for Palestine (UNSCOP). Backed by the president of Guatemala, Dr. Juan José Arevalo, he worked tirelessly for the establishment of a Jewish state in a part of Palestine. His book The Birth of Israel was published in 1949. The two governments have engaged in various projects cooperatively. Guatemala demonstrated its support of the Jewish State in numerous votes in favor of Israel within the framework of the United Nations.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

F. Tenenbaum (ed.), La comunidad Jud ía de Guatemala (1963). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. García Granados, Así nació Israel (20032); C. Tapiero, La Comunidad Jud ía de Guatemala: Estudio sociodemográfico, e identidad cultural y religiosa (2000); S. Aldana and C. Siboni, Historia de la Comunidad Judía Guatemalteca, Primera parte: 18981944 (1995); J. Russ, Historia de la Comunidad Judía Guatemalteca, Segunda parte: 19452000 (2000).

[David Algaze /

Carlos A. Tapiero (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.