By John Fitzpatrick
Jews have been coming to Brazil since the country was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1500. One of Pedro Alvares Cabral´s crew was a New Christian, as Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism were known. Fernando de Noronha, who gave his name to the archipelago off the Northeastern coast, was another New Christian and arrived in 1503. These New Christians were subsequently banned from entering the country in 1567 but many continued to enter clandestinely. They were active in the sugar trade in Pernambuco and owned around 200 sugar cane plantations by the end of the 16th century.
The Dutch invasion of the Northeast in the mid 17th century brought hundreds of Jews from Holland. The Dutch were tolerant and allowed the Jews to practice their faiths and the New Christians to return to their old beliefs. The oldest synagogue in the Americas was built in Recife in 1637. Although most of these Jews were originally of Portuguese or Spanish descent they repaid their Dutch hosts by supporting them during the rebellions by the Portuguese and Brazilians against Dutch rule in 1645-54. More than 200 years later, Jews were among the millions who arrived in Brazil during the period of mass immigration at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. Most were Ashkenazi Jews who came mainly from eastern Europe and Russia. Others arrived in the 30s to escape from the growing Nazi threat.
It is difficult to know how many Jews there are in Brazil and estimates range from around 87,000 to 150,000. The higher figure is probably more accurate but, in any case, Jews represent a miniscule fraction of the entire population of over 180 million. Argentina has a larger Jewish population, put at around 250,000. Brazil´s Jews have flourished in a number of areas, including business, finance, the media and the arts. Large Jewish-owned concerns include the Klabin pulp and paper company, the Bloch publishing house and the Safra financial group. Unlike Brazil´s Arabs, they have generally steered clear of politics. Prominent Jews include Silvio Santos, owner of the SBT television channel and other media outlets, Celso Lafer, the former foreign minister in the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government, Roberto Justus, an advertising executive who recently launched a local equivalent of the Donald Trump television show "The Apprentice", actress Deborah Bloch, and the chief rabbi, Henry Sobel.
The Arabs, or Moors as they were known, had occupied much of the Iberian peninsula for hundred of years before being expelled. Although Moors, as such, may not have been among the first visitors, many of the Portuguese arrivals must have been of Moorish descent. Arabs did not begin arriving en masse until the late 19th and early 20th century. They were mainly Christian Lebanese and Syrians fleeing the Moslem Ottoman Empire. Unlike many other immigrants who received subsidies from their home governments, these Arabs paid their own passage. To make things worse, they arrived with passports issued by their hated Turkish overlords and were immediately labelled "Turks" by the Brazilians, who (as any resident foreigner knows) have never been very good at discerning one nationality from another.
While some Arabs traveled around the country as peddlers others formed large communities in places like Rio and São Paulo. They crowded into areas like Rua 22 de Março in downtown São Paulo and were active in the textiles and clothing trade. (Jews, meanwhile, were plying a similar trade in the Bom Retiro district only a few blocks away.) If you visit Rua 22 de Março today you will see that most of the shops and warehouse still bear Arab names. There was a further influx of Lebanese during the civil war which affected the country in the 70s and 80s. Many of these were Moslems. There are also smaller numbers of Palestinians. It has been estimated that around 7% of Brazil´s population is of Arab descent. Personally, I find this hard to believe but there are certainly hundreds of thousands of Brazilians bearing Arab names and millions more with some Arab (and Jewish) blood, whether they know it or not.
The Arabs have done well in a number of areas including trade, agriculture, finance, industry and politics. A look at the names of the members of Brazil´s Congress attests to the Lebanese and Syrian ancestry of a large number of elected representatives. The most famous politician of Arab descent is Paulo Maluf, the former São Paulo mayor and state governor, currently in prison under suspicion of massive fraud during his time as mayor. Despite their political success, Brazil´s Arabs have not matched their counterparts in places like Argentina or Ecuador where presidents of Arab descent have assumed office. Other prominent Brazilians of Arab descent are Adib Jatene, health minister under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Paulo Skaf, president of the São Paulo trade federation FIESP. I cannot think of any footballer of Arab descent but have noticed that a surprisingly large number of directors of the Corinthians football team have Arab names.
The discrimination the Jews suffered is a thing of the past and the community is free to practice its religion and run its own places of worship and schools. The Moslems do likewise and have built the largest mosque in South America in the Foz de Iguaçu region where the frontiers of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. São Paulo has a hospital founded by the Arab community (Sirio-Libanese) and another by the Jewish community (Einstein) although you don´t have to be of either origin to be treated. There are a number of clubs, including Hebraica for the Jews and Monte Libano and Homs for the Arabs. The Jews have their own cemetery in Morumbi. There are dozens of Arab restaurants in the city and snacks like kibes and esfihas are eaten by everyone. The Brazilians have even taken Arab bread and turned it into a sandwich know locally as a beiruti after the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
This ability to take a foreign ingredient and make it Brazilian is one of Brazil´s strengths. In fact, I am being a bit inaccurate in calling these people Arabs because I bet every single "Arab" born here (and even some born abroad) would describe himself or herself as a Brazilian. Few of them speak Arabic, as a visiting Lebanese president learned to his annoyance a few years ago when he tried to give a speech in Arabic and discovered that almost no-one could understand him.
Boy Meets Girl - Nacib and Gabriela
The Arabs have mixed well and are popular. A heartthrob charmer like Omar Sharif is more the Brazilian idea of an Arab than a murdering terrorist like Osama bin Laden. Remember the start of Jorge Amado´s wonderful novel "Gabriela - Clove and Cinnamon": "In that year of 1925, when the idyll of the mulatto girl Gabriela and Nacib the Arab began, the rains continued long beyond the proper and necessary season". Amado gave the novel an alternative title "A Brazilian from the Arabies" and described it as the "Adventures and Misadventures of a Good Brazilian (Born in Syria)". The book describes the goings on in the town of Ilheus in Bahia during the cacao boom when fortunes were won and lost and murder and conspiracy were rampant. Nacib, a fat café owner, hires Gabriela as a cook to cover in an emergency and her cooking proves to be so good that clients start flocking in and his business takes off. He falls in love with her and she treats him like a god, calling him her "beautiful man". She loves when he talks Arabic in bed and gives her an Arabic name. The "idyll" of Nacib and Gabriela is a delightful counterbalance to the conspiracy and calumny of the rest of the book. (Incidentally, this gender reversal is interesting because Portuguese travelers had always admired the beauty of Moorish women and were attracted to them. Even today the word "morena", used to describe a woman with dark hair and eyes, has a more sensual connotation than the dull English equivalent "brunette".)
There is no hostility between the Jewish and Arab communities despite the problems of the Middle East. I know people from both communities and have never heard a disparaging remark from either side about the other. Since most Arabs were Christians, it was easier to integrate with the Catholic Brazilians than it was for orthodox Jews and the more recently arrived Moslem Arabs. This intermarriage over a century has led to many Paulistanos having an ethnic lineage which combines Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Lebanese/Syrian blood. The more liberal Jews have also intermarried with Christians but there are several orthodox communities which dress in traditional style and keep to themselves. On Friday evenings the streets of districts like Higienopolis and Cerqueira Cesar are filled with groups of Jews heading for the synagogues. In fact, I was driven to write this article as I sat in a padaria one Friday evening watching these groups coming and going.
Despite this lack of tension, São Paulo´s Jews are on the alert. They recall the murderous attacks a decade ago on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires which killed over 100 people. The authors of these attacks have never been discovered although suspicion has fallen on Iranian diplomats acting in tandem with members of the Argentinean intelligence forces. Anti-Semitism has never been official policy in modern times although the government of Getulio Vargas secretly issued an instruction in 1937 preventing entry visas being issued for Jews. After the Second World War, thousands of Nazis escaped to Latin America and many of them settled in Argentina and Brazil. When Israeli commandos kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in 1962 and took him to Jerusalem, where he was executed, many Argentinean and Brazilian Jews were afraid that it would lead to reprisals against them. Nowadays, Moslem extremists rather than Nazis are the more likely threat these days. Schools, synagogues, clubs and buildings housing wealthy businessmen are heavily fortified with security guards, concrete barriers and steel doors. One prominent family is reported to be guarded round the clock by former members of the Israeli armed forces.
The Arab community is not under the same threat of attack although there have been some bloody internal spillovers from the Lebanese conflict. The administration of George W. Bush has claimed that terrorists have sought refuge in the Foz de Iguaçu area and accused Arab businessmen there of raising funds for terrorist groups. There may be some truth to this but so far no hard evidence has been presented. Moslem groups in the Foz area say they have raised funds for humanitarian purposes in to help Lebanese and Palestinian refugees. The Jewish community, in turn, makes hefty donations to Israel. For the moment, both communities seem prepared to maintain a low-profile approach and keep the conflict far from Brazil.
Finally, it is worth mentioning another persecuted ethnic group which fled the religious oppression of the Ottomans and has flourished here - the Armenians. The massacres the Christian Armenian people suffered at the hands of the Turks were truly horrific but, thankfully, some of the survivors found safety and a better life in Brazil, a country which always extends a welcome to foreigners.
Note: The main sources for this article were Historia do Brasil by Jorge Caldeira, Historia Concisa do Brasil by Boris Fausto, Brasil 2005 - Almanaque Abril, The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800 by Charles Boxer, Brasil A/Z -Larousse, Nossa Historia - October 2005 issue, Gabriela Clove and Cinnamon. For anyone interested in the story of the Armenians I recommend The Rage of the Vulture, a novel by Barry Unsworth.
© John Fitzpatrick 2005
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Previous articles by John Fitzpatrick on gringoes.com:
Brazil´s Politicians Start Looking Ahead to Next Year
Brazil: Lula Down but Certainly Not Out
Brazils Congress Struggles to Cope with Ongoing Crisis
Brazil: Scandal Threatens Presidential Mandate System
Brazil: If Lula is to Survive He Needs to Change His Tactics
Brazil: Many Parties - Few Ideas
Brazil Through Foreign Eyes
Helping the Helpless in Brazil
Pinheiros - São Paulo´s Best District
Growing Old (Dis)gracefully in Brazil
Canudos, Still With Us 100 Years Later
The Rise of the Brazilian Empire
Brazil and Portugal - The Samba and the Fado
Brazil - Just A State Of Mind
Brazil: For Lula, is Ignorance Bliss?
Brazil: Pay Day - or Pay Dirt?