- Book Review Index
Pertenencia y alteridad: Judíos en/de América Latina: cuarenta años de cambios, edited by Haim Avni et al. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2011. 870 pp.
If any volume can claim to give a series of diverse snapshots of a discipline, it is certainly this hefty Spanish-language volume on Latin American Jewish studies. It is made up of an extensive editors’ introduction followed by thirty articles, almost all by well-known scholars. Topics covered include the comparison of Latin American Jewry with other Jewish communities throughout the world; political developments as they have affected Jews of Latin America; Jewish education, demography, organizations on that continent; and Jewish writers from there in Spanish, Portuguese and Yiddish. (For this Yiddishist, the last-mentioned piece, by Perla Sneh, is a particularly welcome component, since Latin American Yiddish literature has been greatly under-studied.)
Latin American Jewish studies has become a significant, if necessarily marginal, subfield of both Latin American studies and Jewish studies. This dual identity of the discipline is reflected in the title of volume, which translates as “Belonging and Otherness: Jews in/of Latin America: 40 Years of Change.” The subjects of study are thus portrayed as caught between belonging to and feeling a sense of otherness from Latin America; but the volume also explores their identification with and alienation from various components of Jewish identity (Jewish peoplehood, the Jewish religion, local Jewish community institutions, Zionism as an ideology, and the actual state of Israel). The en/de in the title (“Jews in Latin America” versus “Jews of Latin America”) is, as the editors themselves admit, a rephrasing of the old conundrum of whether Jews are, first and foremost, Jews or members of the societies where they live. Thus another book by one of the contributors to the volume, Raanan Rein, is entitled Argentine Jews or Jewish Argentines (Boston: Brill, 2010). This question becomes epistemologically self-reflexive because, as Rein cogently sets forth, the field itself is loosely divided between two kinds of researchers: (1) those whose work falls squarely within Jewish studies (considering such topics as the impacts of antisemitism or the relationship of local communities to world Jewish organizations and the state of Israel); and (2) those whose production fits in better with Latin American or diaspora studies. The latter scholars regard Jews as constituting one among several minority groups (such as Italians or Armenians in Argentina or Lebanese in Mexico) in a continent of basically “monistic” societies (Pertenencia, p. 244) that do not subscribe to ideologies of pluralism and diversity characteristic of their neighbors to the north. (Incidentally, de in Spanish means “from” as well as “of,” so that “judíos de Latinoamérica” may, as “Jews from Latin America,” imply an even greater distance than “judíos en Latinoamérica.” In fact, many of the contributors to this volume are themselves Latin Americans who have emigrated to Israel, and one of the many topics studied is the community that olim from that continent make up—or do not quite coalesce into.)
The “forty years of change” in the title refers in part to the burgeoning research in a field that has benefited much from the vogue first of ethnic studies, then of cultural studies. More importantly: the last forty years are when Latin America went from mostly authoritarian régimes to democratic ones, but also saw great economic instability. The effect on Jewish communities was often quite direct. Thus the Argentinean dictatorship led many Jews to emigrate (to Israel, Western Europe, the United States and other Latin American countries), and the involvement in leftist politics that put many Jews at risk was often accompanied by an idealization of the collectivist strain of Zionism—even while Israel refrained from criticizing the régime in Buenos Aires. (The issue is further complicated by pressure exerted by Israel in favor of Jewish prisoners, the most famous case being that of journalist Jacobo Timerman.) However, democratic elections have sometimes brought to power populist leaders who are staunch critics of Israel such as Evo Morales in Bolivia or, more spectacularly, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela; in the latter case, government relations with the local Jewish community have deteriorated significantly.
Among the many excellent contributions to the volume are articles on the complex relations between Argentine Jews and Zionism (the piece by Batia Siebzehner explores how Argentinean olim foreground ideological factors to explain their move to Israel, often neglecting the general decline in Jewish living standards that certainly was a major motivation), or on the challenges to Venezuelan Jewry posed by their government (a topic analyzed by Luis Roninger). Mario Sznajder offers an exhaustive panorama of the political changes throughout the continent and their repercussions on Jews, who “found themselves on ‘almost’ all sides” of the conflicts (p. 235). Another contribution, by Eliezer Ben-Rafael, teases out insightful parallels and contrasts between Jewish communities in Latin America and Europe. And the usefulness of the book is enhanced by onomastic and thematic indexes.
Unfortunately, the work is marred by two flaws. Clocking in at 870 pages, it is unwieldy; such length would be justifiable in something truly encyclopedic, a reference tool. However, this compendium of articles on related but diverse topics seems more a giant Festschrift or several journal issues sewn together than it does a completely coherent volume. Such miscellany may well reflect the fact that there is no journal yet devoted exclusively to Latin American Jewish studies. EIAL—the partial acronym of the Spanish for “Interdisciplinary Studies on Latin America and the Caribbean” published by Tel Aviv University, though it often features articles on Jewish subjects, is a more general Latin Americanist review. The nearest thing there is to a periodical on the subject is the series Judaica Latinoamericana, put out by the Magnes Press of the Hebrew University, and compiling edited papers on Latin American topics that are read at the World Congress of Jewish Studies held every four years in Jerusalem. Indeed, those volumes (six so far have been published) are of very diverse content—as befits proceedings, but not a book like the one being reviewed.
Secondly, the humanist writing here finds it cumbersome, to say the least, to wade through sociologese in too many of the articles before arriving at meatier substance. A particularly egregious example is the following, from the editors’ introduction:
“Understood in its fullest sense, this implies being familiarized with the conceptual resources, the already existing literature, the visions and problematics that a group constructs in its definition of the “we” as it delineates the contents and perimeters of its collective identity. This is the construction site of the problematics pertaining to a collective, which means that ignoring them cannot be a justified academic virtue, all the less so in terms of an externality as a requisite for a supposed objectivity”. (pp. 77–78)
Luckily, there is much in this book that redeems such jargonistic moments. The balance sheet is globally quite positive for this collection featuring informative articles by some of the finest scholars of Latin American Jewish studies.