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Jeffrey Lesser's invaluable book tells the poignant and puzzling story of how earlier this century, in spite of the power of anti-Semitic politicians and intellectuals, Jews made their exodus to Brazil, "the land of the future." What motivated the Brazilian government, he asks, to create a secret ban on Jewish entry in 1937 just as Jews desperately sought refuge from Nazism? And why, just one year later, did more Jews enter Brazil legally than ever before? The answers lie in the Brazilian elite's radically contradictory images of Jews and the profound effect of these images on Brazilian national identity and immigration policy.

Lesser's work reveals the convoluted workings of Brazil's wartime immigration policy as well as the attempts of desperate refugees to twist the prejudices on which it was based to their advantage. His subtle analysis and telling anecdotes shed light on such pressing issues as race, ethnicity, nativism, and nationalism in postcolonial societies at a time when "ethnic cleansing" in Europe is once again driving increasing numbers of refugees from their homelands.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520084131
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/19/1994
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,102,349
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Lesser is Professor of History and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Emory University.

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Welcoming the Undesirables

Brazil and the Jewish Question
By Jeffrey Lesser

University of California Press

Copyright © 1995 Jeffrey Lesser
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520084131

Introduction: Brazil and the Jews

On September 25, 1947, Oswaldo Aranha, the influential former Brazilian foreign minister and an ex-ambassador to the United States, was elected president of the General Assembly of the United Nations; one of his charges was the partitioning of Palestine. Aranha and the Brazilian representative to the United Nations, João Carlos Muniz, former director of Brazil's powerful Immigration and Colonization Council, actively supported the resolution, and two months later the State of Israel was established.1 Jews and Gentiles around the world viewed Israel's creation as a triumph of democracy in international politics. Brazil and Aranha, both crucial to the decision, were considered friends of Israel, Zionism, and all Jews. In Tel Aviv a street was named after Aranha, as was a cultural center in a kibbutz settled by Brazilian Jews.

The honors accorded to Brazil following the United Nations vote might have been tempered if it had been widely known that fourteen years earlier Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas and his policymakers, including Aranha and Muniz, had proposed to prevent the entry of Jewish refugees. Following twoyears of informal restriction, on June 7, 1937, five months before the establishment of the fascist-inspired Estado Novo (New State), Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Relations (known as Itamaraty) issued a secret circular that banned the granting of visas to all persons of "Semitic origin." Jewish relief organizations, many of whose leaders were important U.N. lobbyists in 1947, knew of the secret circular. The British and United States diplomatic corps were also aware of its existence. Yet all of this was diplomatically ignored in thewake of Israel's creation. Even Aranha's reported comment that the creation of Israel meant that the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Copacabana would be returned to the Brazilians passed unnoticed.2

Why did Jews, a small part of a large immigrant stream from Europe and the Middle East, cause such consternation that they were eventually banned from entering Brazil?3 And why, just one year after the ban was in place, did more Jews enter Brazil legally than at any time in the past twenty years? The answer to these two questions involved a change in the way a small but extraordinarily powerful group of intellectuals and politicians looked at Brazilian national identity and the role immigrants, and thus residents and potential citizens, would play in shaping it. They represented a new generation in Brazilian politics whose influence was formalized in 1930 following a Getúlio Vargas-led coup. While the general politics of the group ranged from far right to far left, almost all agreed with the social notion, frequently learned in one of Brazil's law schools, that social Darwinism and scientific racism formed the backbone of an appropriate analysis of Brazilian cultural and economic development.

The foreign ministers, justice ministers, diplomats, journalists, and intellectuals who provide the cast of characters for this book struggled to combine the pseudoscientific social categorizations so prominent among the educated in twentieth-century Europe and the Americas with a new nationalist sentiment. This fused with omnipresent traditional Christian motifs so that attempts to engender devotion to "a patria " (patriotism) put non-Christian groups, and particularly those who had been attacked through the ages, in a precarious position.4 No immigrant group tested the new attitudes more than Jews. Many in the Brazilian intelligentsia and political elite considered Jews culturally undesirable even while believing that they had a special, inherited relationship to financial power and could thus help Brazil to develop industrially. Jewish immigration therefore challenged policymakers who deemed Jews a non-European race but also desired to create a Brazilian society that mirrored the industry of the United States or Germany. By the mid-1930s the Jewish Question or Jewish Problem (both terms were used regularly) was high on the Brazilian political and social agenda.5

The existence of a Jewish Question in Brazil should not lead readers to assume that its formulation or application was similar to that in Argentina or Europe, where popular and official anti-Semitism ran rampant. In these cases, anti-Semitism was based on convoluted images ofreal Jews with whom the Gentile population had regular contact. In Brazil, however, influential individuals attacked images of imaginary Jews who were presumed to be simultaneously communists and capitalists whose degenerate life-styles were formed in putrid and poverty-stricken European ethnic enclaves. The harsh and unrealistic judgments were framed in an unsophisticated reading of European anti-Semitism and Jew hatred applied to an inaccurate image of Jewish life outside of Brazil. The surprise in all this, however, is that real Jews living in Brazil, were they citizens or refugees, faced few daily or structural impediments to achieving either social or economic goals. Thus Brazil's Jewish Question was really a struggle by Brazil's leaders to fit the bigoted images of Jews that filtered in from Europe with the reality that the overwhelming majority of Jewish immigrants were neither very rich nor very poor, were rarely active politically, and rapidly acculturated to Brazilian society. Unlike in thirteenth-century Europe, where Augustinian ambivalence toward images of biblical Jews clashed with Dominican and Franciscan attacks on actual Talmudic Jews, or in twentieth-century Europe, where long-held stereotypes of Jews reinforced an angry scapegoating in times of economic, political, and social crisis, in Brazil the imagined Jew, not the real one, was considered the danger.6

If the combination of nationalism and racism led to the creation of a Jewish Question by those at the very top of Brazil's political and intellectual worlds, the Vargas regime's facile use of nationalist discourse to achieve short-term political goals often led to expressions of nativism from state politicians who represented socially conservative urban middle-class constituencies that included members of the government and military bureaucracy, the clergy, and white-collar workers. Brazilian nativism in the 1930s and 1940s was not all that different from the same phenomenon occurring throughout the Americas. Those judged to have allegiances or concerns outside of some blurrily defined "brasilidade " (Brazilianness—a term regularly used by members of the Vargas regime) were a danger to society and its citizens. As was the case elsewhere, Brazilian nativism was "conscious[ly] or unconscious[ly], intimately connected with nationalism."7 Yet nationalism and nativism, for all their classic components, co-existed with a belief that racism did not exist in Brazil. Even the way the word raa was used in mid-twentieth-century Brazil included both the invidious pseudoscience so popular in Europe at the time and the fifteenth-century notion of a "population . . . of human beings who through inheritance possessed common characteristics."8 Brazilian politicians, often expressing ideas formulated byleading intellectuals, preached a kind of internal equality that allowed virtually any nonblack who resided within Brazil's borders to be "Brazilian," while judging many outside of the territorial boundaries as unwelcome nonwhites. For Jewish immigrants and refugees, the simple act of entering Brazil, whether through legal means or not, usually transformed them from undesirable elements into welcome ones.

Benedict Anderson, in reference to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Latin America, has rightly asked, "Why did . . . colonial provinces, usually containing large, oppressed . . . populations, produce creoles who consciously redefined these populations as fellow-nationals?"9 If we think of the "oppressed populations" as immigrants and the "creoles" as Brazil's federal elites, we are forced to take Anderson's provocation a step further and ask why Brazil's national leaders sought to define Jews who wanted to settle in Brazil as unwelcome even while accepting Jews, be they born in Brazil or naturalized, immigrants or refugees, as equal enough to be chosen for positions ranging from finance minister to the head of the census bureau. The reasons are numerous. From an ideological perspective, the agreement among most federal politicians and intellectuals that a "Brazilian race" existed meant that they considered foreigners as detracting from a homogeneous society that was actually extremely diverse. This allowed the elites on whom this study focuses to speak a language of exclusion that gave them nativist credentials in a time of economic crisis.10 It also implied that anyone in Brazil, regardless of background, could be part of this nation striving for prosperity by following the rules set out by an increasingly authoritarian regime. Simply residing in Brazil and not causing trouble made a person a component of Brazilian "racial" homogeneity. Thus, the language of Brazilian nativism could attack foreigners of all physical types and ethnic and religious backgrounds while still expressing a belief that there was no racism in Brazil.

An important issue that cannot remain untouched surrounds the relation of the Jewish Question to the African one. Put more broadly, how did Brazilian racial ideology relate to groups who seem to have been judged neither white (European) nor black (African)? The answers, as it turns out, are numerous and often contradictory. At the theoretical level, it is clear that looking at blacks and whites leaves gaps in our understanding of Brazilian society, since Brazil's twentieth-century political leaders and intelligentsia used the word European not as a descriptive adjective related to region of birth but as a racial synonym for white . This meant that European groups (like Jews) or Caucasian phenotypes (like Arabs and East Indians) were judged neither "black" nor "white." Second, it is important to make a clear distinction between long-term residents of Brazil, who had to be dealt with in one way, and potential residents (immigrants), over whom elites had a different kind of influence. Since the debates in Brazil over those of African descent always took place with the knowledge that Afro-Brazilian society existed, the ban on African immigration could not have been intended to prevent the existence of Afro-Brazilian society. Rather, the prohibition was a way of guaranteeing that the numbers of Africans would not increase—in the hope that miscegenation would make that community disappear. The African Question, then, always revolved around Brazilian residents and how to deal with them. The Jewish Question, on the other hand, had a number of very different components. Few Jews lived in Brazil before 1920, and thus discussions of Jewish immigration were potentially more absolute because the group could be banned or encouraged to enter. This increased the stakes, because Brazilian leaders now had the responsibility for creating minority communities.

The established paradigm of black/white race relations is not sufficient for dealing with the Jewish Question, since it assumes that all those judged as not black were considered white, and vice versa. Analyzing who was considered "nonblack" or "nonwhite," however, leads to very different conclusions than examining who is "white" or "black." While those involved in Jewish studies are familiar with the analysis of why Jews were categorized as a race from at least the fifteenth century, most of those studying Brazilian race relations have accepted the modern social scientific definitions of the term, thus focusing on whites, blacks, mulattos, and occasionally Asians, but not Jews.11 While many academics have challenged Brazil's "racial democracy" by pointing to the disadvantaged position that most people of color face in Brazil, they have often assumed that all Europeans, including Jews, were considered desirable members of the "acceptable" white category. The presumption that those of European descent were universally privileged has even led some to claim that anti-Jewish sentiment does not exist in modern Brazil.12 Looking at Brazil in terms of "nonwhite" and "nonblack," however, makes explicit the operational connections between ethnic and racial labels. Revising the terms of analysis thus provides the tools for understanding why Jews living in Brazil were accepted as "nonblack," and thus represented a privileged component of the social hierarchy, at the same time that Jews wishing to immigrate were judged "nonwhite" and thus a social danger.

In the same way that the categories of "black" and "white" have led many scholars to ignore the Jewish Question in Brazil, an assumption that anti-Semites despised all Jews all the time has skewed the analysis of the few scholars who have tackled the issue. This misconception has usually manifested itself in an assumption that Brazil's twentieth-century anti-Jewish immigration policies could be linked ideologically to the Portuguese Inquisition and that the existence of significant numbers of Jews and New Christians in colonial Brazil is an indication of an unbroken line between that community and the modern one.13 One scholar categorizes the anti-Jewish immigration policy of the Estado Novo as a "Nova Inquisião," a New Inquisition.14 A rabbi visiting Brazil in 1940 commented that some Jews were "following in the very footsteps of their Marrano brothers of the fifteenth and sixteenth century," sentiments echoed more recently by a Brazilian historian who defines European Jewish refugees who converted to Catholicism during the 1930s in order to escape Nazism as "20th Century New Christians."15

The revival of colonial terminology to explain modern Brazilian ethnic relations implies an unwarranted influence from sixteenth-century Iberia. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi has convincingly argued that although there are "some phenomenological affinities between . . . assimilation and anti-Semitism in the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and in Germany of the nineteenth and twentieth," there was little historical continuity between the two periods.16 As such, the assumption that a continuous theoretical and legislative line between colonial and modern Brazil made Jews unacceptable as immigrants or citizens is not viable. Brazilian anti-Semites in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, however, were extraordinarily derivative. They rarely, if ever, looked any further than nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western Europe to find intellectual justifications for their positions.

Inquisitional anti-Semitism viewed Jews as the enemy within. In twentieth-century Brazil this was not the case. The fluctuating relationship between Iberian and Central European anti-Semitism is important to emphasize. Thus, while a notion of limpeza de sangue (purity of blood) can be found in both models, it was independently developed by Germans and Portuguese. Furthermore, the question of whether thatpurity was immutable was not answered in the same way in Germany and the Iberian Peninsula. Conversion to Catholicism was initially encouraged by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, a policy that was also followed by the Vatican during the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis, the Brazilian government, and many modern Brazilian racists, however, rejected the idea that a Jew could convert. The theories of de Gobineau and Chamberlain, more than Torquemada, informed the bigotry of twentieth-century Brazil.

It is, therefore, useful to define Brazilian society as "ethnic" in addition to "racial." This redefinition leads to a whole series of new questions about the relationships among immigrant groups, immigration policy, and national identity. Certainly future studies of those judged neither black nor white (Arabs, Asians, East Indians) are necessary to complete the complex picture I propose to begin painting. Even so, a study of the Jewish Question helps to illuminate the ideology that elites used to define who was a Brazilian and what role immigrants would play in Brazil. One aspect was intimately related to modifications in how many members of the Vargas regime connected notions of development and ethnicity. For those federal politicians who wished to recast Brazil along industrial lines, industry and culture were related. Yet how this cultural component of economic change would operate was widely debated among large landowners, industrialists, and nativist intellectuals and politicians. All increasingly sought to limit immigration, reflecting their own disappointment that the ambitious state and federal programs to subsidize European immigration launched in the 1870s and 1880s had not created a "tropical Belle Époque" based on Central and Northern European labor.17 The growing working and middle classes, especially in Rio de Janeiro but to some extent in São Paulo and Brazil's other urban centers as well, were just as concerned by immigration. Increasingly frightened by economic difficulties in the decades after World War I, they perceived immigrants primarily as competitors for education, jobs, and social rank.18

Jewish immigration became a focus of attention among Brazilian intellectuals and members of the government in the 1920s and 1930s in part because of what Daphne Patai has termed surplus visibility.19 Not only did immigrants from Eastern Europe swell Brazil's Jewish population from perhaps fifteen thousand in 1920 to about five times that number just two decades later, but many Jewish immigrants and refugees also successfully climbed the economic ladder in Brazilian cities. In the academy, in editorial offices, and in the halls of government, complaints echoed. Jews were both greedy capitalists and evil communists. Jews lived in cities and could never be farmers. Jews were criminals. In addition, Jews were too successful. For Jews (and many other immigrants) Brazil was o país do futuro (the country of the future), but for many powerful Brazilians, Jews were imagined to be one of the least desirable of all immigrant groups.

Jews struggled with the ambiguity of Brazilian minority status more than many other immigrant groups. Africans and Chinese, for example, were unambiguously undesirable, and a constitutional ban on their entry was enacted in the late nineteenth century.20 Japanese immigrants, although never able to hide their racial differences, usually lived and worked in the countryside, somewhat away from the scrutiny of intellectuals and politicians, who used nativism to appeal to a growing urban middle class who aspired to enter the elite and shared many of that group's values.21 Jews, on the other hand, caused a problem since they were judged a separate race that could not easily be distinguished physically. Brazilian elites thus struggled with the tension created by the presence of a minority group that was simultaneously the same and different. One resolution was an intellectual attempt to encourage policies that would separate members of the Jewish "race" from Europeans. Those considered Jewish by their country of origin were defined as Jews, as were all who identified themselves as Jewish. Beginning in 1937, anyone judged by a consular officer or diplomat to have a "Jewish name" was also defined as a Jew, regardless of his or her actual religious or ethnic background. Even some who converted to Catholicism, and who had Vatican baptismal certificates and the weight of the Holy See diplomatic corps behind them, were judged to be Jews.

The ambiguous images did not always have a negative impact on Jews, often opening spaces for refugees to remake their lives after the horrors they had faced in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East. By actively manipulating bigotry and crafting an image that played on prejudice, Jewish leaders convinced Brazilian policymakers that Jewish immigration had economic and political value. More importantly, Jews were able to pry open Brazil's doors, even if for only a few years, at a moment when European Jewry was engaged in a life-and-death struggle. Consequently, between 1933 and 1942 almost twenty-five thousand Jews, primarily Germans and Poles fleeing Nazism, legally entered Brazil, despite the fact that most members of the Vargas regime considered Jewish immigration undesirable. Even while Jews entered in relatively steady numbers between 1922 and 1942, theambiguous position of "nonwhite" European immigrants in Brazil led to a wartime immigration policy that was anti-Jewish.

How anti-Jewish images and stereotypes affected policy, and the attempts to twist these prejudices to the advantage of desperate refugees, is one focus of this book.22 My analysis of why federal policymakers reacted as they did to the idea of Jewish immigration, however, should not suggest that minority groups exist exclusively, or even primarily, in reaction to societal bigotry.23 Indeed, as will be evident throughout, most Jewish residents saw Brazil as a country where social and economic advancement was likely. Furthermore, my discussion of Jewish stereotypes in Brazil should not imply that this work is primarily about anti-Semitism. Neither is it a psychological study of the roots of bigotry among influential Brazilian policymakers, nor does it pretend to analyze the roots of the anti-Semitic ideologies among notable Brazilian racists. Such studies have been attempted elsewhere.24 What I have tried to do is distinguish between Judeophobes (those who hate all Jews) and anti-Semites (those who hold some or many group negative stereotypical notions about Jews). Those who hold group positive stereotypes of Jews I have termed philo-Semites , but, as I argue throughout, both philo- and anti-Semitic notions were often held simultaneously since many Brazilians who described ethnic and racial groups in stereotypical ways often linked both negative and positive notions.

While Jews began to immigrate to Brazil in large numbers in the mid-1920s, political leaders and intellectuals began to ask the Jewish Question only in the 1930s. One of the reasons for the time lag was the slow realization that Jews were entering Brazil in such large numbers, in part because immigration statistics categorized only Catholics and non-Catholics. More important, however, was the Revolution of 1930, which represented an abrupt political shift that ended the large landowners' hegemony as Brazil's only political power brokers. When Getú-lio Vargas became provisional president, Brazil embarked on a new economic path whose goal was industrialization and urbanization. Following traditional patterns, many in the Vargas regime argued that immigrants should be expected to help the economy by transferring technology, capital, and industrial labor experience to Brazil. These new immigrants were expected, as in the past, to help transform Brazilian culture. Yet it was not the ethnic or racial aspects of Brazilian culture that elites now primarily hoped to change. On the contrary, the cultural role of immigrants had little to do with the whitening of "black" and mixed-race rural society, but rather with bringing an industrial spirit to the urban centers. Significant segments of the middle class, who were sometimes less well trained, sometimes without the pressure to succeed felt by many immigrants, and sometimes without even minimal amounts of capital to invest, saw immigrants as competitors. For this group, which also feared the industrial aspirations of the elites, assimilation became a catchword. The idea that immigrants should assimilate into a Brazilian urban culture primarily formed by mass migration simultaneously represented a glorification of the nineteenth-century ideal of the white European immigrant and a twentieth-century notion of what the literary critic Roberto Schwarz calls "Nationalism by Elimination"—that is, a tendency to define an authentic Brazilian culture by denying the viability of supposedly foreign elements.25 As Vargas himself wrote, "The immigrant must be . . . a force for progress . . . [but] we must guard ourselves against the infiltration of elements that could be transformed into ideological or racial dissenters."26 By designating acceptable immigrants as those who would not modify the European ethnic and racial balance in Brazil's cities, the middle class could speak the language of economic development without favoring a change in the population. Such sentiments dovetailed neatly with the increasing influence of European scientific racialist thought among intellectuals to make nationalism and xenophobia powerful political tools.

Within months of the coup that brought Vargas to power, federal leaders transformed the immigration debate into one that revolved around whether state and federal immigration policies should emphasize cultural "improvement" or economic development. All of the groups involved (except the immigrants) were in general agreement that Brazil's open immigration policy had to be changed, and the discussion of how to do so took place in the halls of Congress, in the press, in the general's quarters, and occasionally even in the streets. The aspect of this tense debate that most galvanized politicians and those they represented was how to deal with immigrants who were considered simultaneously economically desirable and culturally undesirable. Prior to 1920 this was rarely an issue (except in the case of Japanese immigration) because the federal government represented large landowners who generally presumed that all immigrants were white Europeans and either Catholic or Protestant. They favored the "Europeanization" of Brazil, which meant more than just replacing slave labor with wage labor; it meant the literal whitening of what was considered a degenerate "black" and mixed-race culture. While many elites looked at Brazil's population and found both economic and cultural faults, they were extremely optimistic that an influx of European immigrants would provide labor while ethnically and racially changing rural society.

After the 1930s the general agreement on immigration policy that existed among Brazil's power brokers fell apart as the federal government began its attempt to centralize power by invoking new ideologies that supported federal political authoritarianism. This led to a split between those who had previously held power and the new regime. The traditional elites, generally large landowners in states like Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo, continued to favor cheap labor above all and were even occasionally willing to support the entry of culturally undesirable groups like the Japanese.27 Yet the "cheap labor" position was increasingly opposed by a coalition of groups that looked to restrict immigration as much as possible. The military, heavily imbued with racist ideas popular among European authoritarians and fearful that foreign communities would bring communism to Brazil, argued for an almost complete stoppage. Politicians who represented middle-class urban constituencies, most notably in Rio de Janeiro, used antiforeigner rhetoric as a regular part of almost all political discourse and fought for restrictive immigration legislation. Middle-class sentiments were reinforced by nativist groups, especially following the economic crash of 1929. Such organizations, including one that claimed a million members, looked for a return to an immigration policy that placed European Christian culture above all else.

The Brazilian response to Jewish immigrants in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was extraordinarily modern and nationally specific. Yet Jews were merely one group enmeshed in a larger "immigrant question" that had increasingly plagued intellectuals and policymakers at both the federal and state levels since the early nineteenth century. In the waning years of Portugal's colonial rule of Brazil in the early nineteenth century, immigration policy aimed to populate frontier areas with European immigrants who would help build the agricultural economy. Such plans, however, were limited in scope, and the two colonies of Swiss, German, and Austrian citizens that were established in 1812 and 1819 in the states of Espírito Santo and Rio de Janeiro were not successful in encouraging large-scale immigration or colonization.

Brazil ended its colonial relationship with Portugal and established its own empire in 1822. There can be no doubt that religion was an important issue to imperial leaders, who promulgated a constitution "inthe name of the holy Trinity" and made Roman Catholicism the state religion.28 At the same time, fear of Argentine imperialism and Botucudo indigenous populations led the new imperial regime to make immigration and colonization a priority. Political and economic elites (often the same people) set out to populate Brazil's southern frontier by encouraging the immigration of Europeans with the promise of land. Many potential immigrants, however, were Protestants cautious about entering a nation whose official religion was Catholicism and where the public practice of other religions was illegal. Even simple religious life-events, like marriage, could take place only within the confines of the Catholic Church. The existence of an official religion did not mean that the Empire demanded Catholicism as a condition of entry, though, and in 1824 the imperial government began subsidizing the entry of Protestant Central European immigrants, mainly poor farmers and former soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars.29 Although they were forced to worship in private and were denied the right to vote, many Protestant farmers did set up colonies in southern Brazil.30

The discussion of the religious background of immigrants in the imperial era revolved around a simple bipartite distinction between Catholics and non-Catholics. The non-Catholic group, however, never included all those who were not Catholic. Indeed, the idea that Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews would immigrate to Brazil was rarely even considered. To most members of the Brazilian elite, non-Catholics were simply Protestants. Such an idea was reinforced by the reality of immigration patterns to Brazil, where, prior to the 1880s, virtually every non-Catholic immigrant was indeed a white European Protestant.31

In spite of official encouragement, few immigrants actually came to Brazil prior to 1872, because the United States was winning an international competition for immigrants. Brazil's negative image as a disease-infested jungle with little real economic opportunity was accentuated by the racist fears engendered among potential immigrants by the large numbers of slaves. This combined with the fact that large landholders, in spite of the desires of Dom Pedro II, treated immigrant farmers badly, seeing European immigrants simply as white replacements for black slaves. In 1859 Prussia prohibited companies from promoting Brazilian colonization, a ban that in 1871 was extended to all of Germany and that, in this comprehensive form, would continue in effect until 1896.

In the 1870s Brazil's empire began crumbling in the face of a new regional order. As the emperor's power was eclipsed by modernizing landowners, especially in the prosperous and politically powerful coffee-growing state of São Paulo, immigration policy took on new importance.32 Landowners began pressuring the imperial government to create a mass colonization policy that would fill São Paulo with European workers who, it was believed, were better workers than slaves and ex-slaves, would re-create Brazil in Europe's image, and would transform the economy from slave to wage labor.33 In 1888 the abolition of slavery took place, and in 1891 Brazil's first republican constitution, which included a guarantee of religious freedom, was promulgated. The societal changes, and a new system that subsidized transportation to Brazil for immigrants, made the republican model far more attractive than the imperial one. Between 1890 and 1919 more than 2.6 million immigrants entered the nation, the majority of them Southern European Catholics (usually Italians) who stayed permanently.34

At the end of the nineteenth century many elites believed that the question of immigration was nearly resolved. Brazil was in intense competition for immigrants, and politicians did not wonder about the wisdom of an open policy for Europeans.35 In the early twentieth century, however, elites increasingly voiced concerns about a perceived failure of early republican policy to attract workers who would remain on the land. Some began to wonder if European labor was too politicized, too lazy, or too greedy, and emphasized the need to find a compliant work force. The Japanese, perceived as docile yet hard workers, seemed to fit the bill, and a reformulation of racial notions and their relation to immigration took place. When the Japanese were denied entry rights by the United States in 1908, a Japanese-Brazilian agreement led Japanese immigrants to move to Brazil on a large scale.36 The debates over the wisdom of Japanese immigration provided intellectuals and politicians with a new forum with which to express their notions of Brazilian economic and social development. During the 1920s, as a series of economic crises hit Brazil, immigrants began to find themselves the targets of growing nativist movements. Brought to Brazil to produce wealth, immigrants, white and nonwhite, seemed to have failed.

Because immigrants were at least partially blamed for many of Brazil's ills, those entering the country in significant numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, especially after the depression, became especially vulnerable. Thus, while few Jews had immigrated to Brazil in the nineteenth century, after 1920 their growing numbers, perhaps as much as 50 percent of a rapidly growing Eastern European stream, made them targets for nativists. Although Japanese immigrants were often attacked for their racial and ethnic differences, large landowners who desired ruralworkers continued to support them. Jews, on the other hand, challenged the long-held assumptions that all European immigrants were Christian and that all immigrants should work on the land.

Most Brazilians knew little about Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most Jews knew just as little about Brazil. If any images existed among either group, these were not the result of human contact: there had been no major Jewish migration to Brazil since the Inquisition, when Jews had fled the Iberian Peninsula.37 These Jews, variously called Judaizantes, Marranos, Conversos, and Cristãos Novos (New Christians), came in small numbers to escape the economic, social, and religious persecution of the church and crown. Their presence, however, never encouraged large-scale Jewish immigration to colonial Brazil, even though New Christians may have made up as much as 20 percent of the white population of the colonial capital of Salvador, Bahia.38

Independence, achieved in 1822, ended official persecution of Jews, even though the Catholic Church remained established and non-Catholics were not permitted public exercise of their faith. Limitations of religious freedom were relaxed in the later years of the Empire to encourage Protestant immigration. Although the census of 1872 recorded no Jewish inhabitants in Brazil, perhaps two thousand Jews did enter during the imperial era, and made significant social and economic progress in the capital of Rio de Janeiro.39 They formed some communal institutions, but their small numbers did not compare with the masses arriving in other American nations.40 Dom Pedro II, Brazil's emperor from 1841 to 1889, although a friend and admirer of Gobineau, has been described by some as a philo-Semite, but the Hebrew liturgical poems he translated into French are not fully convincing evidence.41 Even with few Jews, however, some instances of anti-Semitism remained. In 1852 Robert Schenck, Millard Fillmore's minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary to Brazil, reported that the use of Judas effigies on Good Friday was an "occasion of insulting poor Jews."42

Brazil had a negative image among Europeans, including Jews, in the mid to late nineteenth century. Indeed, the first proposal for planned Jewish colonization in Brazil, in 1881, was never even completed.43 A decade later, more serious thought was given to mass settlement when Czar Nicholas II expelled all Jews from Moscow as part of his "Russification" plan, an important component of which was the compulsory practice of the Russian Orthodox religion.44 In Germany, Jewish communal leaders, fearful that the Russian Jews might resettle among them and interfere with the process of acculturation begun so auspiciously under Napoléon's emancipation decree, set out to find some alternate places of residence for the refugees. They quickly set up an agency, the Deutsches Zentral Komitee far die Russischen Juden (German Central Committee for Russian Jews), and sent Oswald Boxer, a Viennese journalist and friend of the Zionist leader Theodore Herzl, to Brazil to investigate possibilities for the resettlement of Russian Jewry as farmers.45 Notions of return to the land, then popular among European Jewish intellectuals, led many in the Deutsches Zentral Komitee to ignore the fact that most Muscovite Jews were urban tradespeople and not farmers. Regardless of this difficulty, Boxer reported enthusiastically to the committee after visiting São Paulo and Rio in May 1891.46 The high hopes were dashed when a series of political changes, including the "revolution" that transformed Brazil into a republic and the subsequent coup that removed General Deodoro da Fonseca from the ruling junta, discouraged the Deutsches Zentral Komitee from sending any immigrants to Brazil. The secular nature of the new Brazilian Republic, and the end of all legal distinction of religious affiliation, did not soothe other fears that were confirmed in 1892 when Oswald Boxer died of yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro.47

At the end of the nineteenth century Brazil's Jewish population was small, officially consisting of only three hundred people.48 It is more likely, however, that the number was somewhat closer to three thousand.49 Some were the descendants of Haquitia and Ladino-speaking Sephardic North Africans who had migrated to the Amazon to participate in the emerging rubber economy of the mid to late nineteenth century.50 Others were single men from rural Bessarabia who "came with the idea of making money and returning home."51 Jews from England, Alsace-Lorraine, Germany, and the United States made up part of an immigrant middle class of tradespeople, skilled workers, and professionals who dominated commerce and manufacturing in Rio de Janeiro.52 Members of neither the urban class nor the rural laboring class, most had settled in Brazil for professional reasons.

In the early twentieth century, few European Jews went to Brazil, since more desirable locations, such as the United States and Canada, constructed no barriers to Jewish entry. As the numbers of Jews leaving Europe increased after 1900, however, Baron Maurice de Hirsch de Gereuth (Moritz Baron Hirsch), a Bavarian-born Jewish philanthropist living in Brussels, decided "to stake my wealth and intellectual powers. . . to give a portion of my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, primarily as farmers and also as artisans, in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence. . . ."53 Finding that money was available from a number of European sources, the baron founded the Jewish Colonization Association, or ICA (in Yiddish, the Yidishe Kolonizatsye Gezelshaft), in 1891 with the specific purpose of aiding poverty-stricken Eastern European and Balkan Jewry by establishing Jewish farming colonies in the Americas.54 In 1893 the ICA set up its first colony in Moisesville, Argentina, to provide for Russian Jews already in the area.55 Consequently boatloads of ICA-sponsored Jews arrived in the country.56 In 1896 Hirsch died, bequeathing the funds needed to expand the organization's scope of activity. In early 1901 the ICA began to investigate expansion into Brazil, and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, because of its proximity to the Argentine colonies and the state government's desire for new colonists, was thought to be a good home for Russian Jews.57 It was also attractive because the Positivist-influenced Rio Grande do Sul Republican Party (PRR) was tolerant in matters of religion, an important factor for immigrants being persecuted for religious reasons in the Russian Empire.58 PRR leader Júlio de Castilhos believed that guaranteed freedom of religion fostered spontaneous immigration and was required in a scientifically based state in which religion had no political or important social role to play.59

Between 1904 and 1924 the ICA formed two Jewish agricultural colonies on the frontier of Rio Grande do Sul.60 The Eastern European Jewish colonists who settled in Brazil never amounted to more than a few thousand people, yet they played two critical roles. First, the mere existence of the agricultural colonies challenged images of Jews as exclusively and insidiously oriented toward finance and capital in urban areas. Furthermore, residents of the colonies committed themselves to life in Brazil. This challenged notions that Jews were a closed group, uninterested in becoming citizens of countries where they resided. The two farming colonies were the first step in the regular and organized migration of Jews to Brazil. As the victims of czarist "Russification" policy, these Jews fled daily persecution and accepted farming, with which they had little or no experience, only as a condition of their escape. Jews never shared the dream of returning wealthy—the dream of fazer a América . Immigration to Brazil was the start of a new life that could never include a return home.

The ICA brought Jewish immigration to the official attention of Brazilian leaders for the first time since the Inquisition. This occurred for a number of reasons. First, the association enjoyed the diplomatic support of a British government committed to ensuring that emigrating Russian Jewry would resettle outside of the United Kingdom. Thus in times of crisis, the Rio Grande do Sul government would often find the Jewish colonies represented by extremely powerful English diplomats. Furthermore, some of the ICA's most powerful directors were also heavy investors in the Brazilian economy. Thus the ICA provided legitimate refugee relief even while representing foreign interests in Brazil. As a result, a particularly strong relationship developed between the ICA, committed to Jewish resettlement, and the Rio Grande do Sul government, interested in subsidizing and sponsoring agricultural colonization and encouraging foreign investment.61

There is no doubt that the Jewish colonies held special meaning for gaúcho (the term for residents of Rio Grande do Sul) leaders. When the Rio Grande do Sul government decided to promote colonization at the St. Louis International Exhibition of 1904, the official English-language Descriptive Memorial of the State of Rio Grande do Sul singled out the Jewish colonies, and no others, as examples of the positive results of colonization in the area.62 This initial interest in Jewish immigration was important since many members of the Rio Grande do Sul government in the first few decades of the twentieth century would become federal leaders when Getúlio Vargas (himself a politician from Rio Grande do Sul) led the coup that made him president of Brazil in 1930. Indeed, these politicians had positive images of Jewish immigration that were unrelated to ethnic or religious factors. Simply by chance, the ICA began setting up its colonies during a period when immigration to Brazil fell significantly, a situation generated in large part because of a crisis in the coffee industry generated by overproduction. Furthermore, a general recuperation of the Italian economy decreased the entry of Italians, a group that provided almost 60 percent of all immigrants to Brazil between 1880 and 1900.63

Since few people knew much about Jews in early twentieth-century Brazil, politicians and large landowners were happy to support any group that would work the land in frontier regions. The positive attitude, however, was to change as more Jews entered Brazil in the next three decades. Those opposed to Brazil's changing economic order claimed that Jews were unacceptable in Brazilian society because many had left the colonies for the city, a seeming confirmation of a number of anti-Semitic accusations. Nativists pointed to the regular migrationof Jews from the Rio Grande do Sul colonies to urban areas as evidence that Jews could not fit into Brazil's agricultural orientation. Some on the left pointed to the European-based ICA as an example of an alleged international Jewish capitalist conspiracy. For those on the right, the ICA's international and domestic connections gave the impression of an insular, powerful, and not easily identifiable group. Surprisingly, in 1942, when Brazil entered the war on the Allied side, the Jewish colonies (with only tiny Jewish populations at the time) were again pointed to, this time as positive examples of how well immigrant groups had integrated into Brazilian society. Jewish colonization, then, set the initial parameters for the discussion of Jewish immigration during the first decades of the twentieth century.

The pattern of immigration to Brazil, both general and Jewish, changed when the violence and dislocation of World War I was unleashed upon the world. Although not militarily involved, Brazil suffered inflation, shortages, and capital market shifts that scarred its already troubled social and economic face. Yet a quieter, more subtle change also occurred with the coming of global war. Throughout the Americas the streams of immigrants that had poured from Europe to new, promised lands were shut off. In Europe, World War I temporarily strengthened local economies, demanded men to fill its armies, and commandeered shipping and passenger space for military purposes. With the end of the war, immigration restriction became the rule, and as nativist movements arose throughout the Western Hemisphere, immigration decreased.

Such was almost the case in Brazil. The number of migrants entering Brazil's ports fell by over 50 percent between 1913 and 1914 and by another 60 percent the year after. In 1918 fewer than twenty thousand immigrants entered Brazil, a low that would not again be approached until 1936.64 But with the end of World War I, large numbers of people renewed their migration, in part because Brazil did not respond to its local nationalist movements with immigration quotas. Between 1918 and 1919 the number of arrivals to Brazil's ports almost doubled, and in 1920 almost doubled again, reaching sixty-nine thousand.65 These postwar immigrants differed in many ways from the prewar group, both in national origin and in their view of success and opportunity. Although Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and German immigrants continued to predominate, two new groups now entered in growing numbers: Japanese and Eastern Europeans.66 Population pressure on Japan's islands, and the growing unrest it caused among Japanese rural folk, ledthe Meiji regime and its Taisho successors to encourage emigration.67 These "push" factors combined with growing legislative and popular anti-Asian movements throughout the Americas. When Japanese entry into the U.S. was banned in 1908, Brazil became the center of an ever-growing Japanese diaspora.68 In the two decades following World War I, more than one hundred fifty thousand Japanese immigrants entered Brazil.69

East Europeans also began entering Brazil in large numbers after the war. The upheavals created by the establishment of the new state of Poland encouraged this emigration, as did restrictive quotas in the United States.70 Argentina and Canada also increasingly closed their doors to foreigners, and between 1924 and 1934 Eastern European immigration to Brazil increased almost ten times as more than ninety-three thousand entered.71 The frequently destitute Eastern European immigrants to Brazil rarely enjoyed the support of their often powerless governments. As late as 1927, a contract between the Polish government and Brazil's secretary of agriculture for the transportation of two thousand Polish families was based on a notion that the mixing of Eastern Europeans with other immigrants would "go a long way to obviate any labor trouble that might otherwise occur."72 Whatever positive attributes the Eastern Europeans might have presented to Brazilian elites in terms of "dividing and conquering," the Lithuanian government complained that the condition of its twenty thousand immigrants was "so pitiable . . . that [we] might be forced to repatriate them."73

Jews made up about 45 to 50 percent of those immigrants arriving in Brazil from Eastern Europe.74 Like all Eastern Europeans, Jews re-evaluated Brazil's potential as a country of resettlement as the economy seemed increasingly prosperous in the face of a shift toward industrial development after World War I. Jews, however, were not simply pulled toward Brazil; their increasingly precarious position in Eastern Europe provided encouragement to leave. By the mid-1920s more than 10 percent of the Jews emigrating from Europe chose Brazil as their destination, and by the early 1930s the Jewish population of Brazil approached sixty thousand.

The Eastern European Jews who arrived in Brazil after World War I and the Russian Revolution settled primarily in the states of São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, and Rio de Janeiro and achieved a level of economic success matched by only a few other immigrant groups in Brazil. This occurred because Jewish immigrants usually settled in or near urban centers, although they were no more city-based than any other immigrant group prior to migration. Jews, unlike other immigrant groups, did rely on international relief organizations, whose main offices were uniformly in port cities, to provide them with passage out of Europe and a start in their new homes. Thus, new Jewish arrivals settled where aid was most available, and soon family members, friends, and former neighbors who had previously migrated added a series of relief and communal institutions for newcomers.75 This urban placement was fortuitous since the cities provided, in the 1920s and 1930s, economic opportunities that may never have been available in rural areas. The ability to quickly earn an income combined with the communal and ethnic-based nature of the immigration process to lead Jewish immigrants into establishing burial societies, youth groups, schools, and synagogues. With the establishment of Jewish institutions, Jewish families were more likely to invest their time and capital in a Brazilian future and less likely to leave. By the mid-1920s, Brazil was an attractive nation of relocation for Jews.

Jewish immigrants to Brazil rarely saw their move as an attempt to get rich overseas and return home. Economic opportunity, however, was an important component of the migratory process. Many Jews had lived in towns prior to migration and thus had some experience in small business and trade. An ever-increasing match between Eastern European economic skills and the demands of the Brazilian economy for commercial and industrial activity helped Jews rise to positions of economic security. Jews found that peddling and textiles, not farming, gave them access to economic success. By the end of the 1920s European Jews saw that Brazil provided positive options for both secular and religious life. As other American republics restricted immigration through legislation, Brazil, with its huge expanses of underpopulated land, growing urban centers, relatively open immigration laws, and seeming lack of anti-Semitism, did indeed seem o país do futuro .

Between 1920 and 1930 about thirty thousand Jews immigrated to Brazil, making it the third most important receiving country in the Americas after the United States and Argentina. In one five-year period almost 13 percent of all Jews leaving their countries of origin went to Brazil. The sharp increase in Jewish migration to Brazil did not go unnoticed, and some relief workers believed that "the European Jew has adopted a new slogan: 'Go South, young man, go South!' "76 These immigrants, for the most part, actively maintained many aspects of their premigration culture and were an extremely visible "other" in the mé-lange of immigrants who inhabited Brazil.

The combination of economic success and cultural difference made Jews particular targets of nativists after the Depression. Immigrants had been expected to save Brazil's agricultural economy and Europeanize the culture at the same time. Jews seemed to do neither. By 1934 immigration quotas had been established via a new constitution, and criticism of Jewish immigration was becoming a regular component of political discourse. It is this clash between the elite's expectations of immigrants and the Jews' nonconformity to these expectations that provides the background for the longest part of this study. As popular and political nationalism grew, Jews found themselves singled out for negative treatment by the Brazilian government.77 Yet unlike the Japanese, whose diplomats took a very active role in the lives of their nationals, Jews had no official diplomatic representation and were thus an easy target.78

The growing Jewish immigrant population, a worsening economy, and rising nativism made the Jewish Question an important topic among intellectuals, state politicians from urban areas, and federal leaders. This was reinforced when the rise of National Socialism in Germany and Fascism in Italy simultaneously provided a model for anti-Semitism and forced even more Jews to look to Brazil and other American republics for refuge. Beginning in 1935, Brazil began to deny visas to Jews. The existence of Nazi ideology made anti-Semitism respectable, and this surely played a role in how Brazilian policymakers reacted when confronted with growing pressure to accept Jewish immigrants and refugees. Modern European racial theories encouraged the view of Jews as an undesirable race. My research, however, has not produced any evidence that suggests that restrictions on Jewish immigration were related to conscious attempts to curry favor with the Hitler regime.79 In one case, a group of Jews given special certificates of moral conduct by the Nazis in order to facilitate their entry into Brazil was even prohibited from entering.

Anti-Semitism was rampant among Brazilian intellectuals and federal policymakers in the 1930s. Yet only 11 percent more Jews, representing about three thousand people, entered Brazil between 1920 and 1930 than did between 1930 and 1940. (See appendixes 2 and 5.) In other words, the growing public discourse opposing Jewish entry, and the resulting prohibition on Jewish entrances, neither stopped Jewish entry nor particularly changed its pattern. There are a number of reasons for this. Complaints to senators, members of parliament, and congressmen by Jewish tourists and businesspeople from the United States,Canada, Britain, and South Africa led those governments to put pressure on Brazil to modify its restrictions. Furthermore, the appointment of former ambassador to the United States Oswaldo Aranha as foreign minister helped a philo-Semitic vision of "the Jew" to gain credence within the government. From this perspective German, Italian, and Austrian Jewish refugees were increasingly seen as bringing skills and capital to Brazil. International pressure to accept refugees was matched by a change in perception among some of Brazil's most important immigration policymakers.80 By 1938 new rules regarding Jewish immigration reopened Brazil's gates to such an extent that more Jews were to enter than in any of the ten years previously.

Jews, in spite of their perceived undesirability, were often welcomed in Brazil. Fluid perceptions of Jews held by Brazilian political leaders and intellectuals, and the manipulation of these notions in order to save the lives of refugees, explain why restrictive laws were enacted in the 1930s in spite of a desire for immigrants and why Jewish immigration continued in spite of restrictions to the contrary. The story, however, begins in the 1920s, when a change in Brazil's image and increasingly restrictive immigration laws in the United States, Canada, and Argentina led large numbers of Eastern European Jews to choose Brazil as a new home.


Excerpted from Welcoming the Undesirables by Jeffrey Lesser Copyright © 1995 by Jeffrey Lesser. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables
A Note on Spelling
Abbreviations Used in the Text and Notes
Introduction: Brazil and the Jews 1
1 The "Other" Arrives 23
2 Nationalism, Nativism, and Restriction 46
3 Brazil Responds to the "Jewish Question" 83
4 Anti-Semitism and Philo-Semitism? 118
5 The Pope, the Dictator, and the Refugees Who Never Came 146
6 Epilogue: Brazilian Jews, Jewish Brazilians 169
App. 1. The Jewish Population of Brazil 179
App. 2. Jewish and General Immigration to Brazil, 1881-1942 180
App. 3. Port of Jewish Arrivals in Brazil, 1925-1930 181
App. 4. Jewish Immigration to Brazil, 1925-1935 182
App. 5. Jewish and General Immigration to Brazil, 1925-1947 183
App. 6. Jewish Immigration to Brazil, by Country of Origin, 1933-1942 184
App. 7. Jewish Emigration from Germany and Jewish Immigration to Brazil, 1933-1941 185
App. 8. Jewish Immigrants as a Percentage of All Immigrants to Brazil and Other Countries, 1933-1947 186
Notes 187
Bibliography 241
Index 271
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2001

    A good start

    'Welcoming the Undesirables' sets out with an important project: to problemitize the image of Brazilian society as a white/black story. He does this by engaging the official discourse surrounding Jewish immigration into Brazil during the early twentieth century. By looking at such discussion, Lesser asserts that Brazilian Jews occupied a racial space that was both nonwhite and nonblack. Lesser's use of intellectual and legal conversations convinces the reader that official discourse indeed created an alternative racial space. Yet he fails to address to what extent this official existence existed in the minds of the general population, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Furthermore, Lesser improperly uses the term 'community,' assuming an essential Jewish identity that simply may not have existed. Over all, this is a worthwhile discussion of ethnicity in Brazil and an important beginning in establishing a more complex conversation on race and ethnicity both in Brazil and elsewhere.

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