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Date Last Updated: 20-Jan-2012

Am Yisrael Chai

Am Yisrael Chai - Guatemala

By Jacqueline Shields


The Beginnings

Documents in the archives of the Mexican Inquisition attest to the presence of Marranos in Guatemala during the colonial period. The origins of the present Jewish community, however, are from German immigrations who came to the country in the mid-19th-century. The community formed by these immigrants was small and isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, and its descendants are mostly no longer Jewish. The most prominent members of that community were the German Stahl family, which established cotton mills and for 30 years attended to the government's banking and financing needs.

Jewish immigrants, whose Jewish traditions are still present, arrived at the beginning of the 20th century from Germany and Middle East countries, followed in the 1920s by East European Jews. Many of the latter came via Cuba and considered Guatemala only a transit stop until they could obtain visas to the United States.

Guatemala was not favorably disposed to Jewish immigration, and it attempted to limit their arrival. In 1932, the government ordered the expulsion of all peddlers, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jewish; although the actual expulsion was averted, peddling was prohibited, and many Jews faced ruin and were compelled to emigrate. In 1936, under the influence of the substantial German community in Guatemala, legislation was enacted to curb immigration of all people of "Asian origin," among whom were included Poles, most of whom were Jewish. Due to the restrictive laws, the Jewish community was reduced to only 800 people in 1939. Although never formally abolished, these laws have rarely been enforced since World War II, and after the war many Jewish refugees entered the country. The majority of the Jews lived in Guatemala City, the remainder in Quezaltenango and San Marcos.

Modern Guatemala

Children's chapel, Centro Hebreo Synagogue

Approximatly 1,200 Jews live in Guatemala today, and the majority of them reside in the capital Guatemala City. The community comprises three main groups: the German, the Sephardi, and the East European, each with its own institutions, the Sociedad Israelita de Guatemala and Bet-El (Reform), Maguen David, and Centro Hebreo (Conservative/liberal Orthodox) respectively, each also with their own synagogue. Other organizations, unified under the Comite Central, include B'nai B'rith, Wizo, and two youth groups, the Maccabi, and Guafty, a Reform youth movement. The Organizacion Sionista de Guatemala comprises all Zionist groups. A

Jewish school, called Instituto Albert Einstein, founded in 1957, is authorized by the Ministry of Education and has an enrollment of 100 children from kindergarten through preparatory levels. The Jewish press is all but nonexistent. The Spanish-language monthly, which appeared previously, ceased publication, and only a single communal information bulletin is published occasionally.

Relations with Israel

Guatemala can boast of two firsts in Israeli history. It was the first Latin-American country to announce its recognition of Israel, by Jorge Garcia Granados in the UN immediately after the proclamation of the state. Guatemala was also the first country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, under the same Garcia Granados. Later, under international pressure, the embassy was moved to Tel Aviv.

Sources: Beker, Avi. Jewish Communities of the World. Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, 1998.

"Guatemala." Encyclopaedia Judaica.

Map: CIA World Fact Book

Photo courtesy Comunidad Judia de Guatemala