Following the brutal Hamas terrorist attack on the communities in southern Israel, we have seen a global increase in antisemitism, that has not been seen since World War II. In Colombia this may seem like a distant and foreign phenomenon, as if these things never happened here. But Colombia has a long and tragic history of antisemitism, stretching from before the country’s independence in 1810 to the present day.
It can be said that antisemitism arrived in Colombia along with the Spanish Empire and the Catholic Church. In the same year that Columbus arrived in America, 1492, the Spanish monarchy expelled all Jews from Spain through the Edict of Granada, giving them the option of conversion or exile. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain was for a long time the most traumatic event in Jewish history, and many of the Jews expelled from Spain ended up arriving in The Americas, and they were followed and persecuted by the Inquisition based in Cartagena. The historian Aliza Moreno – Goldschmidt has studied what this process of persecution and humiliation was like, with at least eight “infidels” killed in the city by the Inquisition.
This small Jewish population that arrived with Colon and the colonizers ended up assimilating with the rest of the Colombian population, and for many years the country had few Jews, mainly visitors from Curaçao, and no established community. This changed at the beginning of the century, with the arrival of Jewish migrants fleeing Europe after the First World War, with the famines and pogroms that it brought. Many of them, including my great-grandparents, carried out their first economic activities as clothing sellers, knocking door to door to sell clothes on credit, and democratizing clothing in the country by giving everyone access to quality clothing. For this they earned the hatred of jealous Colombian elites who did not want to dress the same as their counterparts with fewer resources, sowing the first seeds of hatred against “The Poles”, how Colombians used to call the Jewish immigrants in the country, who lent money and clothes.
Antisemitism took on a new dimension with the arrival of Hitler to power, and in parallel with a period known as the liberal republic in Colombia. In 1938 the infamous Evian Conference took place, in which the countries of the world met to discuss the crisis of Jewish refugees fleeing the clutches of Nazism in Europe. Colombia was part of this conference, through representative Jesús María Yepes Herrera, who in his speech limited himself to saying that Colombia could not receive Jewish refugees since they were “undesirable elements” who carried out economic practices in an unfair manner, and that only they would limit themselves to receiving migrants who went to work in rural areas, since urban migration would harm Colombians. From the Evian conference, the only country that received a significant number of Jews was the Dominican Republic, to whom we will be in eternal debt.
However, the most tragic and recognized episode of antisemitism in Colombia took place in 1939, when Foreign Minister Luis López de Mesa, who believed that Jews had a “parasitic orientation in life,” gave the order to stop issuing visas to Jews who sought to escape the barbarism in Europe. Historian Lina Leal says that more than 15,000 Visa applications were rejected, including those of jurist Hans Kelsen. During this tragic decision, other antisemitic voices also rose, such as that of Laureano Gómez, that he firmly believed that Jews were characterized by not having a homeland and being the internal enemy of Colombia. The then-senator even proposed a plebiscite for his expulsion in 1942, as Leal tells it.
All the bipartisan hate speech against the Jews in Colombia culminated with the night of broken glass in Bogotá, a tragic afternoon on May 8, 1946, in which, after an alleged fight between a Jewish merchant and another passer-by, an angry group of citizens went out through Bogotá to shout “Death to these foreigners” while attacking Jewish businesses and destroying part of the Centro Israelita de Bogotá and the synagogue located in the 30th street. Without a doubt, these events were the peak of antisemitism in Colombia.
Other tragic events followed, such as the terrible kidnapping of Benjamín Khoudari in 1998, which marked a before and after for the Jewish community already established in the country. Along with these several episodes of violence against Jews in the era of drug trafficking in Colombia, who under an old stereotype repeated to this day were characterized by having unlimited resources and power, thus being an ideal target for kidnappings. Additionally, we have been seeing neo-Nazi symbols for years in various cities in Colombia, even in Jewish monuments and institutions. And today, we see these same prejudices being repeated by the president, along with the flagging of Jewish businesses in the city, and a huge increase in online antisemitism. Without a doubt, 2023 will be studied as the rebirth of antisemitism in Colombia and Latin America.
Colombia is a country with a very small Jewish population, but it’s the perfect example of how antisemitism is a corrosive ideology that can impregnate almost all societies. Therefore, Jewish institutions worldwide should fight it not only on a physical level but also on an ideological framework. The events in Dagestan or the history of Colombia serve as testimony that societies can create a scapegoat even in contexts where there is no physical presence of those who “deserve” to be harmed.