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«Latin American Jews: A Transnational Diaspora Judit Bokser Liwerant In: Eliezer Ben Rafael, Yitzhak Sternberg with Judit Bokser Liwerant and Yossi ...»

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Latin American Jews: A Transnational Diaspora

Judit Bokser Liwerant


Eliezer Ben Rafael, Yitzhak Sternberg with Judit Bokser Liwerant and Yossi Gorny (eds.)

Transnationalism. Diasporas and the advent of a new (dis)order

Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2009: 351-374

The concept of transnationalism has acquired multiple meanings according to diverse

theoretical approaches and their specific focus on the variables of space and time. Both

the transcendence and transformation of borders as well as the temporal dimension have elicited a debate that seeks to clarify if the current expressions of transnationalism are related to new contemporary dynamics or/and if historical precedents or analogues can be traced. Transnationalism has thus become, as many contemporary social concepts, a contested one.

Aware of this concept’s multidimensional nature, it is our aim to underscore its contributions both to the analysis of ongoing changes and as of yet uncertain developments, as well as to the understanding of past trends with a fresh perspective. The concept’s concurrent relevance to the past and to the present can appear to be enhanced by our perception of bordered and bounded social and communal units as transnationally constituted spaces interacting with one another.

Transnationalism refers indeed to the new conditions derived from the changes brought about by the processes of globalization. Time and space seems to cease having the same influence on the way in which social relations, identities and institutions are structured (Waters, 1995; Scholte, 1998). It involves the de-territorialization of economic, social, cultural and political relations; they depend neither on distance nor on borders, 2 and lack similar influence on the final shaping of institutions and social relations (Giddens, 1994). Social interaction may be organized and structured with the global dimension on the horizon. The role of countries and borders between States become diffuse, porous and permeable and global connections are intensified by virtue of the fact that they are shared with great velocity in multiple places.

Amidst this multidimensional and multifaceted global arena, transnationalism stresses that flows of interactions and relationships continue to be developed notwithstanding the presence of international borders with all the laws, regulations and national narratives they represent. It points to new and complex patterns of interaction and network building; of social groups and collective identities, underscoring the complex dynamics of encounters and articulations that transcend national frontiers (Kahgram and Levitt, 2008).

While its essential connection with globalization processes has beenstressed, one may also discover the fertility of the concept for new readings of past conditions and experiences, mainly associated to migratory flows of Diaspora communities. It is precisely this characteristic that has shaped the historical Jewish condition worldwide and specifically in Latin American, defining and redefining its contemporary profile. In this sense, and following Vertovec (1999), transnationalism may provide a conceptual tool that allows us to make use of its implications for social morphology as expressed in the changing character of social/communal formations. In the area significant historical changes have taken place. Thus, we must trace both the common and the singular, the shared and the specific of the different processes built through continuity and ruptures.

It is our contention that transnationalism may be seen both as a key concept for approaching the historical development of Latin American Jewish ethno-national Diasporas and their present changing condition. Jewish life in Latin America has been related, from its inception, to external centers and it is precisely this connection that has marked its character.

Following Sheffer (1986) and Safran (1991), one of the main characteristics of Diasporas as social formations is the triadic relationship between globally dispersed yet collectively self-identified ethnic groups; the present territorial States and contexts where such groups reside; and the homeland States and contexts their forebears arrived from.

3 Homeland(s), in this case –and its interaction with exile both in its sociological and theological meaning- must be analyzed in the light of its changing referents.

Contemporary Jewish history lies behind the unique dialectic between place/Home of origin and the spiritual and ideological elected place of residence /home. Taking these factors into consideration, it can be asserted that Latin American Jews have been marked by the unique features of transnationalism.

While conditions in their place of origin marked the migratory flows to the region framed by an expanding and changing Jewish world of solidarity and support, for Latin American Jews the Zionist idea and the State of Israel would determine their organizational profile and inner dynamics both as an axis for institutional development and as an referent for identity. Its development as a Diaspora was historically associated simultaneously to a new transnational center as well as to parallel relations with the Jewish world which marked frontiers and fluxes of interactions and asymmetries.

Globalization processes today allow for new patterns of interaction. If we look at transnationalism as a current expression of ethnicity, ethnic diasporas -which Tololyan refers to as “exemplary communities of the transnational moment”- and specifically the Jewish Diaspora, become paradigmatic. The markers that define the latter’s transnational links have evolved, concurrently expressing and shaping the overlapping domains of Jewish life, its local, regional and global interactions and the plurality of collective realities

A transnational trajectory

Transnational conditions marked the experience of Latin American Jews from its very beginnings. The founding immigration and colonization waves as well as their future development were signed by a constant process of being attached to different shifting and overlapping external Jewish centers, both real and imaginary, concrete and symbolic. Latin American Jews shaped their communal life, built their associational and institutional profile and their collective consciousness as part of a broader feeling of peoplehood and a sense of belonging that expressed itself as well through global political 4 interactions. A sustained yet changing transnational condition shows the singular dynamics of contemporary Jewish history in the region.

Initial relations with external centers of Jewish life were tinted by complex dynamics that marked simultaneously strong transnational solidarity connections and a dependent or peripheral character of new communities in the making (Senkman, 2008;

Bokser Liwerant, 2007, 2008). This twofold characteristic of transnational interaction was sustained through successive redefinitions and changing formulations.

Historical conditions of the late 19 and early 20 centuries compelled the organized Jewish world to look for new places of residence and thus both colonization and immigration led collective efforts to channel Jewish life into Latin America The Argentine and Mexican cases epitomize initiatives that produced strong local communal life while remaining connected and interacting with the transnational space, understood as territory and as social domain. The Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) of the Baron Maurice Hirsch in Argentina and international Jewish organizations in combination with the North American Jewish community of Texas, in the Mexican case, acted as external centers that fostered and supported Jewish life in these two Latin American countries (Avni, 1991; Bokser, 1991) Moreover, in the Mexican case, even the diverse diagnostics suggesting limited migratory flows were the product of transnational Jewish organizations that were supporting and coordinating shared efforts to help channeling Jewish emigration from the Ottoman Empire’s diverse areas at the turn of the 19 century and from Eastern Europe during the first decades of the 20 century.1 While the Argentine reality was clearly shaped at this phase by rules externally defined, Mexican Jewish communal life followed its own contested patterns. Differences in perceptions and representations of the future of both communities were reflected both in communal structures as well as in the realm of education where the dynamics of integration and isolation were discussed.

In both cases by keeping the transnational moment at bay while at the same time interacting with it, local environments and societal surroundings were called to play a central role in defining the character of the new Jewish communities. Host societies

–  –  –

offered different frameworks of normative search after homogeneity and tolerance towards ethnic minorities which influenced the processes of integration. While in EuroAmerica, multi-ethnic societies with a de facto tolerance towards minorities counterbalanced the primordial, territorial, and religiously homogeneous profile that the State aspired to achieve, in Indo-America, the conception of national identity was based on an ethnic-religious cultural model —mestizaje— defined by fusion, assimilation and the complete merging of Spanish-Catholic and indigenous populations. As a resource for identity-building and national integration, this model became a central criterion for evaluating the full incorporation of minorities.2 Both Argentina’s liberalism and Mexican mestizaje involved differing and common national homogeneous scenarios. Generally speaking, Latin America’s distinctive search of national identities, amidst its inner differentiation, rejected diversity as a menace and a risk to its recurrent aspiration towards homogeneity, understood as synonym of national integration and thus interpreted as part of its essential and recurrent quest to enter Modernity. The way Jews perceived and internalize this goal became part of a complex interplay between narratives and reality, between self-adscription and their social representation.

Transnationalism meant for Jewish life in the region both external and internal conditions linked in the definition of a shared destiny of a people. Collective life was seen as a group enterprise oriented by diverse external centers and their divergent expectations regarding the models to be developed. Substantive ambivalences and tensions accompanied these relations, due mainly to objective conditions and behavioral consequences of a pattern of solidarity and cohesion built on unequal terms of exchange.

(Shenkolevsky, 1988; Bokser Liwerant, 1991; Senkman, 2008) In these as in later contested relations, one may underscore parallel processes regarding the connection of Latin America as a region to external centers. Its distinctively Modern character was built through a permanent connection, though contested and ambivalent, to Western centers. Through diverse historical phases and as part of the 2 Significant differences exist between Indo-America, with countries such as Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, among others, where limited immigration emphasized the indigenous highly hierarchical composition of their populations, and Euro-America, with countries such as Argentina and Uruguay, that attracted mass immigration in the XIX and XX centuries. In both categories we may distinguish further differentiation between, for example, the homogeneous mestizo Chile and Colombia as opposed to Brazil, Cuba and some Caribbean areas where the complex multiracial societies have a pronounced Afro American element. (Eisenstadt, 1998; Avni, 1999) 6 West, Modernity became a referent. The cultural program of Modernity, which entailed ‘promissory notes’ that sought to define in new terms the meaning of human agency and its role in building social and political orders, acted permanently as a critical orientation vis-à-vis the center(s) (Eisenstadt, 2000; Wittrock, 2000). Its principles of freedom, equality and individual autonomy as substratum for association and community belongings; reflexivity as the basis for tolerance and pluralism and the centrality of public spaces for citizenship -building confronted Latin Americans with common and distinctive ways of becoming modern. Thus, the subsequent and alternative Western centers acted as a project to follow and to contest. Approaching it through the lens of Multiple Modernities may allow a better understanding of ambivalences, and conflicts (Eisenstadt, 2000). Shifting centers -and global foci of identity need to be recognized:

Spain and Portugal in the foundational encounter defined by asymmetry; France and England, later, as the Imperial balance of power changed; the United States, and the still current tensions and ambivalences.

Latin American Jewish life followed as well ulterior patterns of autonomous development nourished by new relations with external centers. Thus, the Eastern European immigration of the first decades of the 20th century gave birth to the Jewish kehilot in the region as replicas of original experiences overseas. With diverse degrees of intensity, regions and countries of origin were the defining organizational criteria. While the Sephardic world in Latin America developed communities on the basis of different countries of origin, reflecting the fragmented character of this complex ethnic group that was textured by different sub-groups, 3 Eastern European Jews as hegemonic community builders established the old/new communal structures. Contrary to what happened in the United States, the collective overshadowed the individual. In the United States the process of nation building implied the incorporation of separate components into a collective higher order, while the right to self-fulfillment saw normative support as part of the national ethos. Tolerant of diversity, American society promoted individual gratification. (Sarna,1997, 2004).

–  –  –

In Latin America, a highly differentiated evolutionary process of building communal structures both reflected and shaped collective Jewish life. This structural dimension acquired a significant centrality in terms of an institutional system that provided stability and a sense of continuity to the experience of social interaction.

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