Jews first arrived in Colombia in the 16th century. Today, the Jewish population in Colombia is approximately 2,500.
- Origins of Jewish Community
- Treatment of Jews
- Modern-Day Community
Origins of Jewish Community
The first Jews came to Colombia during the 16th century.
They came as settlers from Spain who practiced Christianity but were really Marranos.
In 1636, a huge group of Marranos were caught and put to death. There
was still a small group of secret Jews after this massacre, but they
slowly diminished. There are no practicing Jews left from this time
period in Colombia.
The first wave of practicing Jews came from Jamaica
and Curacao. These Jews started
practicing their religion openly at the end of the 18th century, even
though it was not officially legal to do so. Once Judaism was made a legal religion, the government granted the Jews a plot of
land for a cemetery.
During the early part of the 20th century Jewish immigrants
came in masses from the Eastern Hemisphere. Right after World War I
a large number of Sephardi immigrants from Greece, Turkey,
North Africa and Syria. Shortly
after, Jewish immigrants began to arrive from Eastern Europe. A wave
of Ashkenazi immigrants
came after the rise of Hitler in 1933. From 1939 until the end of World
War II immigration was put to a halt by anti-immigrant feelings
in the country. The Jewish population at that time was around 6,000.
After World War II, another 350 Jews entered Colombia.
Treatment of Jews
Since 1853 the government has taken measures to try
and make it easier to practice other religions besides Catholicism in
Colombia. In 1886, the liberal government reformed the Constitution
to restrict the Church's power in ruling the country. In 1991, the Church
was officially separated from the government. Religions with organized
public institutions were allowed to apply for tax exemptions, however
the Jewish community has not applied for this privilege.
While Colombia does not have an official religion
anymore, the character of the society and government is still largely
Catholic, making it difficult to be Jewish. Socio-economic conditions
also exacerbate the Jews' plight. The Jews of Colombia are largely upper-middle
class. The average person is Colombia is much poorer which breeds anti-Semitism.
In the last two decades about twenty Jews have been kidnaped and even
more violent incidents have been reported. These violent attacks come
from both right-wing and left-wing groups and is mostly due to the relative
wealth of the Jewish community.
Relations with Israel started off poorly but have improved over the years. Colombia was one
of the countries that did not vote for partition in 1947. When Israel was established in 1948, Colombia did not recognize
the State of Israel. It was not until the 1960s that Colombia and Israel
opened embassies. Relations improved tremendously in 1988 when major
trade agreements were signed between Israel and Colombia.
Most Jews in Colombia are not observant and generally
not active in religious Jewish life. Emphasis is on social gatherings
and only a handful of Jews keep kosher.
Despite the low-level of ritual observance, however, many Colombians
send their children to day school and the intermarriage rate is only
around 10 percent.
The Jews in Colombia are concentrated in a few professions. Most Jewish
immigrants started out and are still involved in commerce and business.
Jews have played a large role is developing new industries in Colombia
since World War II. Some Jews tried farming when they first came to
Latin America, but failed in their efforts.
Most of the Jews in Colombia are concentrated in Bogota.
There are small communities in Cali, Barranquilla and Medellin. The
size of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi population is about the same. There
are nine synagogues throughout
the country. In Bogota the Ashkenazi, Sephardi and German Jews each
run their own religious and cultural institutions. One organization,
Confederacion de Asociaciones located in Bogota is the central organization
that unites all Jews and Jewish institutions in Colombia.
Due to the unstable economy and violence against Jews,
many Jews have left Colombia. In the mid-1990s the population was 5,650
and, in the early twenty-first century, the Jewish population has decreased
to 4,200. Most of the Jews that have left have gone to settle in Miami
and other parts of the United States.
Map from CIA
Photo Credit: Sunset in Cartagena