By Sarah Szymkowicz
Age of Exploration
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.
Origins of the Modern Jewish Community
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.
Modern Jewish Community
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.
Sources: ORT, Encyclopedia Judaica
Map from CIA World Factbook