The Jewish presence in Brazil is more than 500 years old. Gaspar da Gama — a Jew by birth who was forcibly baptized — accompanied Portuguese admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral when he landed in Brazil in 1500. Other New Christians or conversos were aboard the ships.
Jews began settling in Brazil once the Inquisition reached Portugal in the 16th century. In 1624, the Dutch — who were tolerant of Jewish migration and open practice of religion — took over portions of northeast Brazil. In 1637, Jews built the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue in Recife, which was closed by the Portuguese when the Dutch were expelled in 1654. (It was re-opened in 2002 and now stands as the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas, housing a Jewish cultural center and museum.)
In 1773, a Portuguese royal decree finally abolished discrimination against Jews and, in 1824, the first Brazilian constitution granted freedom of religion. A stream of Moroccan Jews began arriving, and set up in the Amazon region.
The population increased by waves of Russian and Polish Jews escaping pogroms and the Russian Revolution, and again during the 1930s during the rise of Nazis in Europe. In the late 1950s, another wave brought thousands of North African Jews.
Although they make up roughly only .06 percent of Brazil’s population, Brazil’s Jews play an important role in many different fields and activities in the country, including politics, academia, banking, industry, culture, entertainment, and sports.
The identity of Brazilian Jews
Brazil’s Jewish community is mostly comprised of Ashkenazi Jews of Polish and German descent, but there is a sizable community of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews of Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Moroccan ancestry.
Most of Brazil’s Jews identify themselves as secular and Zionist. Until the 1930s, under the influence of the Eastern European immigrants, the main religious stream was Orthodox. With the arrival of Jews from Central Europe, the Reform movement was introduced as well. Today the largest synagogues are Conservative and Reform: Sao Paulo’s CIP and Rio’s ARI. In recent years, the Chabad movement has grown significantly.
With ties to the Conservative and Reform movements, the Congregacao Israelita Paulista — founded by German refugees in 1936 — is Brazil’s largest synagogue with 2,000 affiliated families. (Courtesy of CIP)
The results of a global survey on anti-Semitic sentiments, released by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014, ranks Brazil among the least anti-Semitic countries in the world. It’s the third-lowest on the “Anti-Semitic Index” in the Americas, only behind the U.S. and Canada.
In Brazil it is illegal to write, edit, publish, or sell literature that promotes Antisemitism or racism. However, in the last decade antisemitism has increased with the bandwagon of conspiracy theories in the internet. This issue is reason for concern as those conspiracies are tie with two sticky worldviews that complement each other. In one hand the replacement theology selling the anti biblical, anti-Zionist and antisemitic view of Israel and the Jews. The other hand the socialist worldview, ingrained in the educational system by socialists after three decades of leftist public policies. The new government already is working with Israeli authorities to combat antisemitism and to keep the educational system free from any political ideology.
Relations Brazil and Israel
Brazil has had ties with Israel since its inception: Brazilian diplomat Oswaldo Aranha presided over the United Nations General Assembly session that voted for the partition of Palestine and for the creation of a Jewish state in 1947.
The friendly relationship between Brazil and Israel was interrupted by Lula, the socialist populist who turn his back to Israel gradually to the point of causing a rupture during the first mandate of his successor, Dilma Roussef. The left in Brazil only grew radical and became hostile to Israel.
After 16 years in power, Lula and his successor severely damage Brazilian economy with huge corruption scandals. The economic disaster caused by the socialists and communists forced many to make aliyah. The number of Brazilian Jews making aliyah more than doubled between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, nearly 500 individuals immigrated to Israel from Brazil, compared with only 191 in 2011.
Today, with the first conservative Brazilian government in 30 years, the relations between Brazil and Israel is the best ever. The cooperation has returned along friendship and exchange of technology.